Blood Out of Bounds – OmiSoore H. Dryden

It is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and to our detriment.

            – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

Rex Matheson: Blood again
Gwen Cooper: It’s always about blood, why is that…

           – Torchwood, Miracle Day, 2011


As a person living with Crohn’s Ileo-Colitis (Crohn’s disease) I, like others, am impacted and regulated by the bio-medical and biocentric narratives of blood. Blood transfusions are a significant aspect in management of this disease, where it is often argued that the mechanized transfusion of blood is simply good medicine.


However, and as others have articulated,[2] it is important to note that the knowledge surrounding and constructing the facts about blood and its uses are also shaped through social and political commodities. Blood leaks, breaching the parameters and tenuous boundaries of the body. As such I feel that encounters with blood are simultaneously intriguing and necessary (Bennett 2009; Bobel 2012; Byrd 2011). Far from being neat and tidy, the materiality of blood is fluid and scattered, therefore its encounters are messy, unruly, and complicated.

The definitional power of science results in a reliance on science to both discover and tell the truth about our bodies (and therefore our lives). In fact our reliance on science for these definitional truths (some of which have been phenomenal) means that if not trained in this field, one cannot question or challenge its findings. However, the discourse of science is born of racist biological narratives that require a continued questioning of how science impacts our day-to-day lives, including how we come to understand our selfs (identities, health, illness, disease, normalcy, disability, sex, race, reproduction, kinship…).

Blood narratives breach the public/private divide,[3] bringing together constructions of sex, sexuality, race, kinships, societies, and nations; these narratives are associated with a number of mystical, social, and scientific justifications. The material of blood has been used to define and categorize bodies and construct identities. In turn, bodies have impacted and informed how blood animates these very categorizations. And science is not immune to these interconnected influences. In other words, blood, bodies, and identities collectively rely on these conjunctural moments for articulation. Blood knowledge is a complex system that is learned and utilized in varying degrees to communicate information – a text that requires continued analysis (Browning 1998, Lawrence 2004, Miles 2006, Bobel 2010).[4] Both inside and outside of blood donation, the management of the body is imperative and points to appropriate ways in which individuals are encouraged and expected to conduct their day-to-day lives (things to do and not to do).

As a practice, narratives of blood have been used to detail the terms and conditions of community and national belonging. With the language of purity informing national identity, citizenship, and the ideal body politic. Nation-based blood narratives (blood protection, blood quantum, one-drop and miscegenation) play a constitutive role in legalizing norms of behaviour; these norms, which attempt to govern and regulate both the private and public social spheres, serve to construct and implement racial hierarchies.

Blood safety is thus used to facilitate the nationalist boundaries formed through the imagination of a political community. These historical and contemporary blood beliefs and practices depend upon a manufactured physical legibility of identity and surveillance to ensure that othered bodies – those considered impure, “bad,” foreign, and dangerous (gay and black/African) – remain readily identifiable. Narratives of blood support the continuation of marking certain people as perpetually out-of-place in both the (homo)nation and the national blood supply.

Blood narratives facilitate the connections made between appropriate sexual relations, racial degeneracy, morality, the spreading of contagion and national security. For example, the panic regarding HIV/AIDS is conflated with the panic regarding homosexuality and the continuing colonial panic of miscegenation, as is evident in Canada’s tainted blood scandal. The intervention of a standardized blood donor questionnaire is a significant, scientifically supported tool used to convey a sense of greater blood protections to donor recipients, while also attempting to assuage the concerns of the “general” population.

The signification of HIV/AIDS (Treichler, 2004) involves the stickiness (Ahmed, 2004) of the systems and operation of homophobia, racism, and unknown blood-borne disease. This stickiness, “a form of relationality” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 91), remains evident in a number of questions within the Canadian Blood Services’ donor questionnaire.[5] Part of this intricate tapestry of exceptions is Question 30 which reads, in part, “Where you born in or have you lived in Africa since 1977? Have you had sexual contact with anyone who was born in or lived in Africa since 1977?” Question 30 locates the “problem” of HIV/AIDS inside specific bodies, and these questions take up a sexual practice considered to be troubling, not simply to the blood supply, but also within the nation.

Blood is a technology that shapes behaviours. And blood donation uses this technology to convey how we are to regulate our thoughts, our conduct, our interactions, our bodies and the decisions we make about how and with whom we have sexual contact. The donor questionnaire (and the HIV/AIDS related questions found within) facilitates the identification and surveillance of people (and their blood) and results in a contemporary practice of a neo-liberal codification of bodies. Question 30 identifies a practice considered undesirable and frightening, as well as the measure of a diminished quality of life. As such, I posit that this question (along with the other HIV/AIDS related questions on the questionnaire) signal a type of dystopia. The people captured within these practices become the sites of potential disaster and danger to the fabric of the nation. People captured by this question are queered (identified as odd, unusual and questionable – a significant process of racialization), and it is this process of othering that is necessary for the thematics of blood safety (and in the construction of hetero/homo-normative citizenship).

The apparent unawareness about the existence of Question 30 on the donor questionnaire can be expected, since as a nation, Canada has difficulty understanding the place, space, and locations of blackness within its midst. The black body remains a site of spectacle (and illness) within the Canadian nation. It is a body constituted through a variety of images and narratives that attempt to cement black people within a location and time of “over there” (not in Canada) and “back then” (not quite now/not fully now). This spectacle of blackness is framed through colonial and Eurocentric narratives of black bodies (both in Canadian nation-making and in gay neoliberal social, political and legal activism), narratives that animate dystopic “truths” about black people and black lives. As Sexton (2011) states, “Blackness has been associated with a certain sense of decay” (p. 13). And it is this decay, the donor questionnaire argues, that must be prevented from tainting the blood system.

Reading for blackness in Canada is a disruptive practice, which is important in a liberatory and decolonial strategy. However, to discuss Question 30 as an articulation of blackness is to remember that shared “black idiom is not necessarily synonymous with a shared black identity” (Wright, 2004, p. 5). Yet, to think of blackness in Canada is to understand its positionality of the strange, queered and fraught dis/connections with hyper(hetero)sexuality. Sara Ahmed (2000) posits that those felt to belong and not to belong contribute to an important way of shaping social space. Katherine McKittrick (2006) argues, “the active production of black spaces in Canada is necessarily bound up with a contradiction: black Canada is simultaneously invisible and visibly non-Canadian” (p. 99). Reading for blackness in Canada is an active and ongoing scholarship,[6] and a necessary intervention in the debates of blood donation and the blood system.

Here and in other spaces, I seek to think critically about how new and different narratives of blood can account for black queer and trans people who live diasporic, liberatory, and decolonial lives in Canada. Participating in the neoliberal political actions for inclusion (like gay-blood respectability politics) ultimately requires giving up on the possibilities for radical transformation. Our reliance on the “truth” of science means that Question 30 is rarely questioned, taken up, or interrogated. The genealogic roots and routes of blood narratives construct images upon which we have become dependent for understanding our individual, group, and Canadian national identity (Mohanram 1999). Blood falls, flows and floods into, onto, and out of bodies, communities, and nations. These unruly sprays of blood require an artful, art-filled, creative, and layered interrogation. Blood is unrepresentable.

And so I wonder, does Question 30 seriously mean that we are supposed to think of ourselves as naturally dangerous, perpetually ill, and bringers of death? Because, really, fuck that!

Black queer and trans diasporic thought and the processes of decolonization insist upon engaging numerous subjugated and occluded moments, that set aside a fight for inclusion and instead challenges the colonial project of the (homo)nation and seek something different. A transgressive, queer and trans, diasporic and decolonial practice that compels us to reject the desires to claim some form of blood purity and instead to recognize that such a state cannot and does not exist. And that’s ok.

I propose that narratives of blood, as a creatively productive scientific discourse of knowledge, can also put together diverse decolonial narratives in order to “undo” what is assumed to be known and facilitate what else can be imagined. I argue that, in this “un-doing” (othered-doing) a transgressive political and scientific practice can occur – exceeding limits and restrictions, contesting the “truth” and logic of bodies, and acting as a practice of un/learning. This shift in understanding can facilitate the imagining of different and new ways of (identities, health, illness, disease, normalcy, disability, sex, race, reproduction, kinship…) grouping together, (re)surging against colonial nation making and homo-(colonial)-normative sexual citizenship.

My intervention into these narratives of blood engages in a form of “epistemic disobedience” that is necessary in order to disrupt and think differently about the hetero/homo-nationalist framing of blood (Mignolo 2011: 122-123). The way in which we come to understand our “biological lives” occurs alongside and through how we articulate, create and conceive of the world we live in (McKittrick 2010). As Katherine McKittrick (2010) argues,

This is an interdisciplinary and collaborative task, one that allows us to think about how the creative narrative can and does contribute to what are otherwise understood as “the laws of nature,” thus creating an intellectual space to explore the worlds of those communities that are otherwise considered unscientific, scientifically inferior, or, as Audre Lorde says, “too alien to comprehend”(117) (p. 122).

Indeed, blood narratives are neither simple nor coherent. It is important to engage the messy complicated narratives folded into the matter of blood and blood donation. Narratives of blood, blood donation, and blood safety can be imagined not only as an articulation of individual character, but also as an articulation of nationalism and of the nation’s character. In other words, narratives of blood and its constitutive language produce the boundaries and the limits of “the” national community (Balibar, 1991). Blood donation, much like blood itself, brings bodies, kinship, race, nations, and time into confluence. It is a process that is overflowing with contradictory messy genealogies.

The blood vessels of the human body are intricate, complicated, contained, and unruly.


This fascinating image has repeatedly come across my Twitter timeline (most recently on May 26, 2015). I am interested in the blood vessels that seem to escape their confinement, that look like unruly strands of hair; for these boundaries can be breached, even when it doesn’t seem possible. It is how these vessels are narrated that requires continued and further interrogation.

Contrary to the dystopian suggestion that Africa, black people, and black blood are always already diseased and dying; Africa, black people, and black blood are about life with attending futures. This othered reading is not conducted to embrace the current “faulty premise of black [queered] pathology” (Sexton, 2011), but, instead, to see what future awaits us through (rather than in spite of) our queer and trans diasporic blackness.

* Author’s note: As of July 2015, Canadian Blood Services has modified the donor questionnaire, and has removed Question #29 (sex with someone whose sexual background you do not know), and amended Question #30 to now read, “Togo or Cameron.”


[2] See Treichler (1999) and Patton (1990)

[3] See Blood Work: Magdalena Olszanowski interview by Marlaina Read in the previous issue, Trashed.

[4] In addition, see these texts for further conversations on blood, blood purity, blood knowledge and blood axioms, including Susan Sontag (1989), AIDS and its Metaphors; James J. Jones (1993), Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment; Ann Laura Stoler (1995), Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and The Colonial Order of Things; Siobhan Somerville (2000), Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture; Harriet A. Washington (2008) Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

[5] See Dryden, 2015 for a more in-depth conversation. Specifically, I find the following questions are an outcome of the HIV/AIDS stickiness.

Question 4d:   In the last six months, have you had a tattoo, ear or skin piercing, acupuncture or electrolysis?

Question 4e:    In the last six months have you had an injury from a needle or come in contact with someone else’s blood?

Question 12:   Have you ever had an AIDS (HIV) test other than for donating blood?

Question 18:   At any time since 1977, have you taken money or drugs for sex?

Question 22:   Female donors: In the last 12 months, have you had sex with a man who had sex even one time since 1977 with another man?

Question 24:   At any time in the last 12 months, have you paid money or drugs for sex?

Question 25:   At any time in the last 12 months, have you had sex with anyone who has taken money or drugs for sex?

Question 29:   In the past 6 months, have you had sex with someone whose sexual background you don’t know?

[6] For example, Katherine McKittrick (2006), Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle; Dionne Brand (2012), A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging; Afua Cooper (2006), The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal; George Elliot Clarke, Rinaldo Walcott (2009), Black Like Who: Writing Black Canada

[7] “Blood Vessels in the Human Body” Community Blood Center (@blooddonor) Accessed May 26, 2015


Reference List

Ahmed, S. (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. New York: Routledge.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity In Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. A. (2009). Banning Queer Blood: Rhetorics of Citizenship, Contagion and Resistance. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

“Blood Vessels in the Human Body” Community Blood Centre. (@blooddonor). Accessed May 26, 2015.

Bobel, C. (2010). New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. New Jersey: Rutgers.

Browning, B. (1998). Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture

Byrd, J. A. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cohen, C. (1997). “Punks Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Volume 3 (Number 4). 437-465.

Dryden, O.H. (2015). “A Queer Too Far”: Blackness, Gay Blood and Transgressive Possibilities.” Eds. OmiSoore H. Dryden and Suzanne Lenon. Disrupting Queer

Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Fanon, F. (1963). Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.

Lawrence, B. (2004). “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. University of Nebraska Press.

McKittrick, K. (2010). “Science Quarrels Sculpture: The Politics of Reading Sarah Baartman.” Mosaic 43/2 (June). p.113-130

Mignolo, W. (2011). The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press.

Miles, T. (2006). Ties That Bind: The Story of An Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. Berkeley: University of California Press

Miles, T. and S. P. Holland. (2006). Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country. Durham: Duke University Press.

Patton, C. (1993). From Nation to Family: Containing African AIDS. In H. Abelove, M.A.

Barale, and D..M. Halperin, (Eds.) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge. 127-138.

Patton. C. (1990). Inventing AIDS. New York: Routledge

Sexton, J. (2008). Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Treichler. P. (1999). How to Have Theory in An Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press

Walcott, R. (2007). Somewhere Out There: The New Black Queer Theory. In M. Wright and A. Schuhmann (Eds.), Blackness and Sexualities. Berlin: Lit Verlag. 29-40.

Walcott, R. (2007). Homopoetics: Queer Space and the Black Queer Diaspora. In K. McKittrick and C. A. Woods (Eds), Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Toronto: Between the Lines. 233-246.

Wald, P. 2008. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.

OmiSoore Dryden is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at Thorneloe University (at Laurentian). OmiSoore is an interdisciplinary scholar and her areas of specialization encompass blackness, sexuality, queer studies, blood, blood donation, with black queer diasporic analytics, critical race theory and diaspora studies. Specifically, OmiSoore engages with the critical study of contemporary Canadian lesbian and gay social and political movements, namely the interventions made in regards to “gay blood,” “African blood,” #EndTheBloodBan, MSM and African blood bans, and (Cdn) blood donation.

OmiSoore has a forthcoming edited collection (with Dr. Suzanne Lenon), titled, Disrupting Queer Inclusions: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging (UBC Press, Fall 2015), which includes a self-authored chapter. This edited collection seeks to apply, extend and think through homonationtionalism in a Canadian context as it articulates through racialization, settler colonialism and neoliberalism.

Prior to becoming an academic, OmiSoore held senior administrative position as the Sexual and Gender Diversity Advisor/Race and Ethnic Relations Advisor at York University.

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