seeking refuge in music

Michael Jackson’s songs seem to tell of a different world sometimes, of the 1990s postmodern party, a time that seems somehow long ago, that now seems peaceful, where people didn’t get shot all the time…michael-jackson-32

Jackson’s 1997 “Blood on the Dance Floor” received mixed reviews. The vague, gloomy story of a crazed woman killer out to stab the narrator in a dance club seems to have confused some listeners:

Susie got your number
And Susie ain’t your friend
Look who took you under
With seven inches in
Blood is on the dance floor
Blood is on the knife
Susie got your number
You know Susie says its right

Maybe that the King of Pop was living out a strange daydream, but the threat of the oddly phallic seven inches is not just a suppressed homosexual desire. My apologies to fans of this musical genius, but when a “seduced” woman appears in Michael Jackson’s lyrics, I can’t help but fear that consent was of little interest to the male narrator. The revenge of stabbing someone while dancing up close in a club condenses an entire history of misogynistic figures, from Lady Macbeth to the treacherous noir femme fatale. In the video, Jackson himself sprawls out like a red leather pool of blood, erotically cut down.


The central individual confrontation aside, though, Susie seems to stand for more than just one avenging angel. Jackson’s dancers are threatened in a far more nebulous, global way:

Every night stance is like takin’ a chance
It’s not about love and romance
And now you’re gonna get it

Every hot man is out takin’ a chance
It’s not about love and romance
And now you do regret it

To escape the world I’ve got to enjoy that simple dance
And it seemed that everything was on my side
(Blood on my side)

Susie is a collection of threats that are part of the club scene, of the night life where “love and romance” turn into something both sinister and necessary, something that physically threatens survival, but that also offers the hope of “that simple dance” to enjoy the escape from the world. This hope is still with many club goers, who see dance palaces as a place of refuge, of community, of freedom, of peace and love, if ever so conflicted. The red in the famous rainbow flag was, after all, meant to stand for life, according to the artist Gilbert Baker, who is often credited with the symbol’s inception.


Gilbert Baker

Red is for life, but in the 1990s, red also reminded us of a deadly threat in the blood. In 1997, an obvious association for what that threat could constitute would have been HIV, the killer virus stalking clubs everywhere, that cut its victims down in the prime of their life, all because they were looking for a good time, some escape, perhaps even love and romance, a life.

love makes community

In 1991, John Poma succumbed to the virus, and his sister Barbara and a friend opened a dance club in Orlando, Florida that was to carry on his spirit: Pulse Club. This place of refuge was a kind of community center for many LGBTQ persons and a meeting place for white and non-white lovers of life.


Almost two decades after Jackson’s imagined dance floor blood, however, we cry at the sight of literal blood on the dance floor at Pulse.* On June 12, 2016, an armed man shot so many people dead that the numbers begin to be utterly meaningless, though the victims will not be forgotten. The moving testament to John’s pulse, the beating of his heart, and for his sister’s love for him seemed to have been turned into a symbol of terror by a violent homophobic terrorist. But following the blood of that day helped me see a defiant humanity, that the love that constantly encounters hate–and that almost saw another tragedy by another attacker on the same day–rises above hate and even above institutional limits that come with blood.

giving to the hemonation

When hundreds, perhaps thousands of persons lined up this week to donate blood for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando’s Pulse Club, many of them probably stood there not out of rational accounting of possible blood products stored at Orlando hospitals and blood banks, but to be a part of the pulsating community of human care and love, of what I call the hemonation. Simultaneously geographically-bounded by the logistics of blood product transport, extraction, and storage and independent of nation states; at once invisible and material in the most fundamental way; in one moment consisting of a random assortment of strangers and the most intimate kind of partners, bloodbrothers; the hemonation follows what Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell describe as “the complex imbrication of giving blood with ideas and feelings about nation, citizenship and community, and the place of the body and its capacities within this constellation of concepts” (Tissue Economies 2). The persons standing in line to give to the survivors, the injured, and in many ways to society itself were not only giving blood, but expressing their insistence on affective solidarity. Their material hearts gave a bodily fluid into plastic bags to give what their metaphorical hearts wanted to give: a sign of connectedness and care in a moment of crisis. Restaurants offered donors food and shelter from the sun, giving to the strangers who give their bodies to strangers.

Jackson’s Susie and the horror of the Pulse Club merge in this love, this desire to care for others, to extend yourself and project your being into a larger community–and in the moment when this desire bumps into institutions and cool accounting. Unlike the crisis of 9/11 that Waldby and Mitchell describe, however, this moment was also a bitter reminder for many and perhaps a puzzling experience for some willing donors, who were turned away for being sexually active homosexual persons. This U.S. Federal Department of Health policy is a remnant of the institutional and human crisis of the 1980s and 1990s aptly described in a collection of case studies as “the blood feuds”–a period when blood products carrying the HI Virus and other pathogens were used in treatments and hospitals in the United States, places in its sphere of influence, and many other countries around the globe, more on that in a moment. Until January 2016, the FDA banned all men who ever had sex with any other man from ever donating blood, but in what was touted as a policy break-through now changed the policy to a ban on all but those who have been sexually abstinent for at least one year.

Of course many other donors are rejected too, or at least have to undergo additional intense scrutiny after checking the wrong box on the blood collection facility’s questionnaire. (Roughly summed up they are: persons who are pregnant, persons with active infections or other diseases, who are on antibiotics and certain medications (prescribed and unprescribed), who have been in contact with needles (hypodermic, tattoo, piercing, really any kind), who had tissue transplants, grafts, who had sexual contact with specific persons (sex workers, persons infected with hepatitis, syphilis, gonorrhea, malaria, chagas, babesiosis, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), who were in detention, lockup, jail, or prison for more than 72 hours in a row, who left the US or Canada in the past three years, who spend over three months in the UK or were US military between 1980 and 1996, who spent more than five years in Europe in the past 36 years, who received a blood transfusion in the UK or France, persons who had cancer.) Also, even though trans persons do not appear on the questionnaires, they are frequently turned away. Also, the American Association of Blood Banks’ Donor History Task Force produces other questions that may be of regional importance and can be included by blood collection facilities at their discretion, as for example in the case of the Zika virus.

gay blood donations and community response

While some may consider HIV+ blood a threat to the blood product supply, I would hasten to point out that the discrimination of persons is very different from the discrimination of donations. After donation, every single unit of blood is always tested for , among other things, Hepatitis B and C viruses,  Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Types 1 and 2,  Human T-Lymphotropic Virus, Types I and II, and Treponema pallidum  (Syphilis). Anyone who ever worked in an office knows that to bet your life on everyone filling out a questionnaire being entirely correct and aware of their health status would be a big gamble indeed. A different approach would drop the categories and instead assess the risk for each donor: what have you done since your last HIV test? After all, donors who are intravenous drug users and those with less access to health care are also at risk regardless of whom they have sex with, and are possibly at greater risk than a monogamous homosexual relation of two men who are not living with HIV. As the Red Cross points out, the risks under the current testing regime is low:

Blood donation screening is done using a qualitative third-generation, chemiluminescent immunoassay (ChLIA) in human serum and plasma samples for the detection of antibodies to both HIV-1 and HIV-2, the causative agents of AIDS. HIV-1 and HIV- 2 confirmation is performed using one or a combination of tests including an HIV-1 indirect immunofluorescence assay (IFA) and an HIV-2 enzyme immunoassay (EIA); a rapid diagnostic test is used for HIV-1 and HIV-2 antibody differentiation. HIV-1 antibody detection includes the major HIV groups and variants including HIV-1 Groups M, N and O. HIV RNA detection by NAT, using TMA in minipools of 16 (as described for HBV and HCV testing), closes the window period between infection and the detection of antibody by about 4-7 days. The current risk of transfusion-transmission of HIV is approximately 1 in 1,467,000.

So only two reasons remain for the existing categorical Blood donation hasn’t been a neutral topic of discussion in LGBTQ communities for decades; often the question of blood products was directly entwined with the nation state’s institutions, policing efforts, activities targeting the community, and violence. Evoking echoes of US blood segregation between black and white donations during and after the Second World War, the formation of something considered gay blood and all other blood continues to fly in the face of reason and facts. Of course claiming to ease restrictions on homosexual donors while policing their sexual activity did not go over well with the community. The implied association between queer persons and disease not only fails to account for a history of violence that these same persons have suffered because of such non-factual claims, it also keeps up the constant conjunction between homosexual men and the crisis of the nation’s health. Of course today it is clear that this crisis was also cause by political anti-queer positions that only began to acknowledge the deaths once they extended to children like Ryan White, a son of the white, heterosexual middle class.

But beyond the ongoing struggle between institutions that represent the nation state and LGBTQ patient and donor groups, many groups like Ryan James Yezak’s National Gay Blood Drive stress the irrational choice to exclude hundreds of thousands of donors from the pool when blood banks constantly ask for more donations. Blood artist Jordan Eagles (tiny fragments of whose gorgeous art also grace this blog) continues his Blood Equality campaign with an immense blood projection onto the Manhattan West Side’s High Line park. The #MyBloodIsGood campaign likewise protests the label of “unsafe blood” and posts pictures of queer persons smeared in make-up blood on social media.

After the massacre in Orlando, there was great excitement once a rumor erupted that blood banks suspended the ban on queer blood, and a great deal of disappointment, anger, and frustration once these rumors were proven wrong. The community that formed around the dance floor considered itself part of hemonation and attempted to give itself to heal the wounds. Many of them could not do that. It is at that moment when the loving power of hemonation came to the fore, demonstrating that care can overcome categorization. Another group especially targeted by the FDA/AABB’s questionnaire is that of travelers and foreigners. In the US, a great deal of political and social energy is invested by hate groups into targeting supposed others within the nation, racial minorities, American Indians, and recently especially religious groups, and foremost Muslims.

care the CAIR way

The answer to the conundrum of the excluded, affected, and marginalized in this horrific moment to me came from the group most directly made out to be aliens these days, the Muslim community. Even though the hemonation is not coincidental with the nation state, its imagined boundaries quickly shrivel back to just about the same arbitrary lines drawn by bloodshed and political deals. In a moment when the response to a person who killed specifically LGBT individuals and affiliated himself with radical Islamist ideals, the nation state’s military involvements abroad and the lives of its citizens seemed to be equally bloody. One wonderful gesture restored the life-affirming gesture of the hemonation in the symbolic contribution of the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, a large anti-Islamophobia organization. CAIR simultaneously condemned the shooting and asked Muslims to stand in for the bodies of the LGBT community by donating blood in stead of the rejected queer donors. Refusing the attacker’s self-identification and offering restorative affect and materiality, the Muslim community also sent a beautiful signal how the hemonation overcomes even the most restrictive and dispiriting attempts at regulating its force, countering racist attacks and homophobia at once.

The confluence of public mourning and bodily investment in the nation’s health manifests to the power of hemonation, the idea that the most fundamental material aspects of human physiology can unite us beyond animosity, anonymity, and antipathy, bridging cultures and divides. The flowing as one of affective and material bond may give life, perhaps with love, and perhaps offers a deeper connection, a way to escape a world where one horror seems to follow in the last one’s bloody footprints. In the blood on the dance floor we may see some insane love gone horribly wrong, but we also see the hope that flows from one donor to the next, the faith in a possible life, in recuperation, in survival and love. Red is for life, and when we see the blood, we also see the love on the dance floor.

*(I am vaguely aware that there happens to be an Orlando electro dance act named Blood on the Dance Floor, but must plead ignorance as an excuse as to why they will make no appearance in this piece.)

One thought on “Blood on the Dance Floor: Hemonation and the Pulse Club

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