T.J. Tallie

Can queer blood be less American than straight blood?  In the United States, blood donations are automatically refused if the donor is a man who has had sex with another man at any point since 1977.  Los Angeles-based filmmaker and activist Ryan James Yezak began the National Gay Blood Drive, a nation-wide campaign that protested the categorical ban against queer men in blood donations by hosting blood drives in over sixty cities throughout the United States on July 11, 2014.  The event’s theme, “Not A Second Class Citizen,” spread to social media in an attempt to raise awareness of the ban’s discriminatory nature.

Image from the SecondClassCitizens campaign on Instagram

The images and discourses surrounding the blood ban demonstrate that sexuality, as well as earlier and still extant histories of race, mediate claims to American citizenship. The struggle to incorporate an excluded sexual group, literally and figuratively, into the body politic invokes racialized scripts of national belonging. The campaign is presumably colorblind, but as even a quick glance at the social media campaigns for the project can attest, The Gay Blood Drive campaign predominantly presents able-bodied, largely white and cisgendered male bodies, bedecked with American flags, to claim that they are rightfully ‘fit’ for citizenship and wrongfully excluded from an inheritance that should be theirs. While it is always fraught to identify race solely through visual markers, it is important to note that although the #SecondClassCitizens social media pages do contain non-white and non-cis gendered members, they are in the minority and never foregrounded in the campaign. The simultaneous erasure of racial and bodied difference in pursuit of inclusive queer citizenship is indicative of what theorist David Eng has termed ‘queer liberalism.’ Queer liberal projects do not attempt to challenge structures that are oppressive, but rather to be included within them. While the #SecondClassCitizens images argue that queer men deserve to give blood as fellow Americans, the types of images selected obscure how other historic and social factors contribute to diminished citizenship within the United States.

#SecondClassCitizens invokes a longstanding gay activist tradition of deploying patriotic imagery in order to gain social acceptance. While queer movements in the twentieth century have often critiqued American gender and sexual norms, they have also frequently challenged detractors by claiming to be fundamentally patriotic, as historian Simon Hall has argued.  In his study of patriotic appeals in queer activism, Hall has uncovered decades of queer activist claims of ‘Americanness,’ particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when gays and lesbians were seen as risks to the country’s moral fabric during the culture wars. Most prominently, Hall traces the way in which queer activists challenged popular Florida singer Anita Bryant’s invocation of American patriotic songs and claims of defending the nation in her anti-gay Save Our Children campaign by choosing their own patriotic songs to sing, particularly “America the Beautiful.”

In the pre-Stonewall era, homophile movements marched annually on the Fourth of July as part of a ‘Annual Reminder’ for the need to include gays and lesbians in the promise of American freedoms as full citizens. These patriotic calls were shaped by histories of racial exclusion and yet simultaneously informed by contemporary black civil rights movements, as historian Kevin Mumford has noted. To make public claims of inclusion within the American fabric required queer activists to present as ‘normal,’ an assertion frequently made through whiteness. Allan Bérubé has asserted, whiteness has allowed gay men and women the ability to fight for inclusion while not actively considering ways in which their skin color gives them access to cultural power in American society. Yet events like the Annual Reminder were undoubtedly shaped by black civil rights organizing. The 1963 March on Washington claimed inclusion through a wider assumption of ‘Americanness,’ a trope that the subsequent Annual Reminders borrowed from black civil rights leaders.

The images in the #SecondClassCitizens campaign are particularly powerful in that they attempt to elicit a sense of belonging, a common Americanness that can then be used to connect to a straight observer or to reaffirm a sense that queer people are also part of the country’s fabric. The act of giving blood—and the ban for a distinct portion of the population wishing to do so—resonates strongly with the idea of American citizenship. Blood donation is a common practice that connects people through a broad sense of collective belonging. As a consequence, the blood ban effectively tells queer men that they are not capable of participating in the collective, patriotic act of blood donation, as Jeffrey Bennett has argued.  Similarly, Yezak told the Los Angeles Times “I felt like a different species” when informed his blood was ineligible. The Gay Blood Drive, then, provides a way for queer men to challenge the ban’s claims on their citizenship. Queer male donors bring a non-rejectable “ally” (either a man who has not had sex with a man since 1977, or a woman who has not had sex with a rejected man since 1977). These allies then present a sticker that says they are donating blood ‘for’ someone else (who is named on the sticker), which is then attached to the blood they donate. In so doing, queer men can recuperate a sense of displaced citizenship through offering ‘proxy’ blood in the donation.

Atlanta was one of the many cities in which the Gay Blood Drive took place on July 11. Dutifully, local gay news websites like the GA Voice reported on the event and urged gay men to participate. Yet the images selected by the site to accompany the announcement were racially uniform; conventionally attractive white men implored the viewer to recognize that they were #SecondClassCitizens. The choice of these images for an event in Atlanta reveals much about intersections of race, sexuality, and history. Atlanta is a major center for gay black men in the United States (indeed, the largest center), and consequently also a significant space for the discussion of HIV transmission in black queer communities. Black men, despite no significant differences in practices or risks, are six times more likely to contract HIV than white men, according to recent studies. These risks are amplified by long-standing inequities in access to health care and disease protection, as well as historically mediated structures of race and segregation that have created separate enclaves of queer experience in the city.

Indeed, the GA Voice’s story on the Gay Blood Drive offers an example of the historical contours of a ‘postracial’ era, and the weight of the past in constructing an activist present that attempts to include queer men as rightful citizens. Chandan Reddy has argued that contemporary organizational claims around sexuality have the distinct potential to ignore (or, even worse, incorporate) twentieth-century histories of violence that produced unequal dynamics of race, gender, and capital.  While the Gay Blood Drive represents a significant form of protest and claims to citizenship, it is also comes enmeshed in other lengthy histories of exclusion. The sole focus on the issue of blood donation simultaneously challenges institutional discrimination while leaving earlier histories of racial segregation and medical claims to racial impurity (such as in the notorious Tuskegee experiments) as unchallenged givens. It also leaves fundamentally unexamined the ways in which other people might simultaneously be constructed as second-class citizens, potentially by race, gender identity, or able-bodiedness. Like the earlier activists who protested by singing “America the Beautiful,” such a move actually signals a desire to be included in an exclusionary state rather than challenging the fundamental inequalities that structure such a state. A campaign that acknowledged and addressed the impact historic discrimination on race as well as sexuality might offer a more meaningful and intersectional challenge to the exclusions of citizenship.

T.J. Tallie is an Assistant Professor of African History at Washington and Lee University.  His work focuses on race, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa and other settler societies.  He also tweets from @Halfrican_One

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  1. I found your essay very interesting and thought provoking. The concept of acceptable gayness is broadly about white gayness, it would seem — not just in the US but elsewhere too, such as in the UK where I live myself. As queer folk we need to be more conscious of the intersection of racial and queer rights, along with other rights too. I guess being part of one particular discriminated group doesn’t mean that we automatically empathize with those from another, though some people, of course, bear the burden of multiple prejudices. A very fine article.

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