By RJ Arkhipov

The very word “stigma” has its origin in blood. Derived from Greek, and appearing as early as the 15th century, the word referred originally to a puncture wound or scar caused by a pointed instrument or hot iron. It was not until the early 17th century that the word acquired its current meaning of “mark of disgrace” or “cause for dis- approval”. Today, most are wholly unaware of the bloody etymology of the word; it is only when we hear its plural form, “stigmata”, that thoughts of blood and wounds are revived in our minds. While it took several centuries for the notions of “blood” and “disgrace” to be united in the word “stigma”, the two have long been entwined under another concept: purity.

In the wake of the Reconquista of Medieval Spain, Old Christians were dis- tinguished from the Muslim and Jewish converts—or New Christians—by their “limpieza de sangre”, or “purity of blood”. Synonymous with contamination, misce- genation (the “interbreeding” of different races) was discouraged, giving impetus to a society of class divisions predicated on blood, wherein those whose bloodlines were deemed tainted by Moorish or Jewish heritage were considered impure, and granted fewer rights and privileges. Blood as a certificate of status continues, even today, in the upper levels of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, where hereditary title peers in the House of Lords count for around an eighth of the total members, accorded rights and privileges purely on the basis of their blood.

Even beyond the boundaries of Europe, the stain of blood purity on our legis- latures reaches as far as the Americas. In the United States of America during the 18th century, blood quantum laws were established in Virginia, limiting the rights of Native Americans, who were categorised by their blood quantum, or percentage of tribal ancestry. Today, many Native American tribes retain these colonial notions of blood quantum when deciding tribal membership.

Similarly, among the slave societies in the Americas, terms such as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, and hexadecaroon were used to classify a person by their per- centage of African blood. These designations came with more stringent restrictions, fewer rights, and sparser legal protections than American citizens with less African ancestry. Even after the Civil War, one’s personhood was legally bound to one’s quota of European blood. In the eyes of the judiciary of the United States, the more African ancestry you possessed, the less of a person you were.

Despite the formal abolition of slavery in 1865, hypodescent continued well into the 20th century. A social and legal principle known as the “one-drop rule” stipulated that a person with the slightest amount of African ancestry—even a single drop of African blood—was considered “of Negroid heritage” and became a second-class cit- izen. Although never codified into federal law, many states passed statutes declaring anyone with a single drop of African blood in their ancestry to be legally consid- ered as black. These states included Tennessee and Louisiana (in 1910), Texas and Arkansas (in 1911), Mississippi (in 1917), North Carolina (in 1923), Virginia (in 1924), Alabama and Georgia (in 1927), and Oklahoma (in 1931). By the mid-twen- ties, practically every state had incorporated the one-drop rule in one form or another into their legislature.

White supremacist and physician Walter Plecker drafted the State of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which institutionalised the one-drop rule. Lobbying for the eugenic law, and publicly opposed to the intermingling of races, Plecker was quoted as saying, “Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher.” The Racial Integrity Act required every person born in the State of Virginia to be racially categorised at birth as either “White” or “Colored”. It provided a legal basis for preventing miscegenation, and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court of the United States repealed Virginia’s profoundly discrimina- tory legislation.

Segregation in law, as in life, remained a constant in the United States until the African-American civil rights movement gained impetus in the 1950s. While the word “segregation” conjures images of buses, schools, and restaurants, the sep- aration of black from white existed too on the battlefield during the Second World War. Black soldiers were kept separate from white soldiers, and were often poorly trained and badly equipped. Even the segregation of black blood from white in blood donation centres was common practice, despite the fact that there was no medical evidence to support the segregation of blood beyond ABO and rhesus grouping. As part of the war effort on the home front in the United States, many black citizens turned out to donate blood, only to be refused. If they were allowed to donate, the blood would be categorised by its ABO blood group, its rhesus factor, and also the donor’s race.

As a gay man, I know all too well how blood discrimination has affected my own community. Policies on blood donation in the United Kingdom, the United States, and much of Europe openly discriminate against men who have sex with men. They do not screen donors by their potential risk, but by their sexual orientation. At the time of print, the United Kingdom Department of Health deems a man who has had sex with a man in the past three months to be ineligible to donate blood, requiring a season of celibacy in order to be deemed fit to do so. The policy does not attempt to ascertain risk. It gives no weight to either safe sex practices that may be in place, or to monogamy. The deferrals are quite simply predicated on stereotypical hangovers from the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late 20th century. 

Excerpt of Visceral by RJ Arkhipov, republished with permission of the author and Zuleika.

About the Author

RJ Arkhipov was born in Wales. Reborn in Paris. He moved to the French capital at the age of eighteen to study French literature, cinema, and art history at the University of London Institute in Paris. RJ gained international acclaim when he penned a series of poems using his own blood as ink to protest the gay blood donor ban in the United Kingdom, United States, and much of Europe. Today living in Edinburgh, Scotland, Arkhipov’s first collection of poetry—Visceral: The Poetry of Blood—explores the male body and the contemporary gay experience, with a particular focus on stigma and sensuality.