This article previously published in the Michigan Daily on February 19th.
Adam. I was walking through the Diag recently, something that I have done much less frequently since all of my classes are now in the School of Public Health. Per the usual, I was able to sneak by the two gatekeepers with flyers at the corner I was walking through. Near the M, I heard “DONATE TO MOTT!!” and a change jar jingling, and I turned and recognized one of my former advisees. We said hi and I kept walking toward the exit of the Diag toward the UMMA. I saw two people there. I was the only one walking toward them.
“Shit,” I thought, “I’m not getting out of this one.” I didn’t even have earbuds to pretend like I couldn’t hear them.
“Will you donate blood?” asked one of the girls.
Now I’ve been asked this question dozens of times, and usually I just smile, say sorry, and move on with my life. But something was different this day. For some reason, I was angsty, and my frustration with this issue finally manifested itself verbally. I stopped in my tracks, made a 90-degree turn, looked this girl right in the eyes, and calmly (but with my high level of sass) said “I’ll donate blood when all gay people can donate blood.”
I don’t know why I said “gay” rather than “men who have sex with men,” as I myself am bisexual, but that was what came out of my mouth in the heat of the moment.
The look on her face was priceless and completely startled. It was unclear if she had no idea what I was talking about, or if I scared her. She was clearly uncomfortable, and I don’t blame her. All she could squeak out was “okay…” as I walked away.
In reality this girl had nothing to do with the Food and Drug Administration policy that bans blood from men who have sex with men, but at that place and time she had everything to do with it.
This policy to turn away blood donations from any man who’s had sex with men started in the heyday of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when HIV was not being detected in donated blood. Due to this lack of testing capabilities, HIV was subsequently transfused into other patients, causing them to become infected with the (at that time) fatal virus.
Since then, many things have changed. Bigotry and stereotyping, however, still run rampant.
It is no secret that Americans still think of HIV/AIDS as the “gay disease,” only fueling the homophobic fire. Do you know that straight men and women can get HIV/AIDS as well? They constitute over a third of the diagnoses, yet we’re not concerned enough about their blood to enact bans.
Although men who have sex with men are more likely to acquire HIV than those who engage in heterosexual contact, (because of behavior factors such as condomless anal sex, combined with the community’s viral load) this cannot be an excuse to discriminate against all of them. Instead of stereotyping everyone in this category, why can’t we switch to a screening system in which people are turned away from donating because of participation in evidence-based risk behaviors? Screening for unprotected sex with someone whose HIV status is unknown or positive would be a more effective tactic. This screening should be the same for all genders, as condomless anal sex is risky for heterosexual interactions as well. Why are men who have sex with men and transgender women the only groups who are discriminated against? In addition to stereotyping men who have sex with men, the fact that transgender women are turned away shows that our society still conflates gender identity with sexual behavior in a problematic way.
Fun fact: since Australia started screening all donated blood for HIV, only one donation came back positive. It was from a female who was exposed through sexual contact with a male.
Today, three decades later, we have advanced screening tests that can detect HIV within weeks, sometimes days, of the time of infection. But the United States chooses to use outdated tests that pool multiple samples of blood together, as this methodology can be cheaper and easier.
This means that if one donation had HIV in it, the others could possibly dilute it so it would appear virus-free on the test. Not only does the U.S. have an outdated policy, but also an outdated test.
While I don’t know when testing procedures will change, the lifetime ban on “gay blood” did change a couple of months ago, but it’s still problematic.
The FDA policy was recently changed from a lifetime ban for men who have sex with men to a one-year abstinence period. This means that if I don’t have sex with another male for one year, I can donate my blood. Unfortunately, my boyfriend and I don’t plan on staying off of each other for that long just to give blood to a system that thinks we are hazardous. I think that sentiment holds true for many other gay, bi and queer men.
The one year ban might as well be a lifetime ban.
I don’t even know my blood type, because I have never been allowed to get to that stage in the donation process.
My blood is not dirty, not diseased, and no better or worse than anyone else’s.
I could have already donated about 36 times, and as the Red Cross would say, I could have saved 108 lives.
I’ve saved zero lives because of an outdated policy based on homophobia and bigotry.