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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Gay Blood Ban Hurts Community

<s so excited the first time that I gave blood. The sting of the needle, the squishy red ball, the sugary snacks at the canteen – all encapsulated my blood donor experience along with the satisfaction that I am helping someone in need. I liked it so much that I kept donating throughout my high school years; I even helped run my school’s blood drive twice.

But my experience was always tainted by one of the pre-screening questions: are you a male who has had sexual contact with another male even once, since 1977? This question has always perplexed me. Why since 1977? What do they mean by “sexual contact”? I asked these questions to myself, aware that my burgeoning sexual identity would eventually force me to answer yes to this question. I searched the Red Cross website, which led me to the FDA website, as they were responsible for setting up the donation restrictions and regulations. I found that answering yes to this question would result in a lifetime ban from donating blood. Eventually, I broke the FDA’s rule, knowing that confirming my active sexual identity would now make me an unwelcome person at blood drives for the rest of my life.

The FDA originally put this policy, colloquially referred to as the “Gay Blood Ban”, into place in 1983. It was a panicked response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was devastating this country. It created an entire category called MSM (men who have sex with men) and justified their high levels of HIV/AIDS as reason to restrict a large portion of the population from donating blood. An overall decline in HIV rates in the United States has been observed due to overwhelming technological advancements as well as educational efforts. However, the FDA continues to defend the ban, stating, “Scientific evidence has not yet demonstrated that blood donated by MSM or a subgroup of these potential donors does not have a substantially increased rate of HIV infection compared to currently accepted blood donors.” Yet, in the past year, the AMA came out opposing the ban, saying that the FDA’s policy is “discriminatory and not based on sound science.” In addition, the policy is highly unnecessary because donated units of blood are currently scanned for HIV before they are stored and then distributed to local hospitals. Why must healthy donors be perpetually denied the opportunity to serve their community when their blood will be tested anyway? One of the most infuriating arguments that the FDA articulates is that its “deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”  According to the FDA, the policy is not discriminatory against gay and bisexual men because it does not explicitly mention the words “sexual orientation.” Sexual orientation and sexual activity may be two entirely different things, but sexual activity is such a defining moment in one’s claiming of sexual orientation!

The policy is saying, “you can be gay, just don’t act on it.” How can this policy not be discriminatory if gay and bisexual men are expected to abstain from sex, but straight men (who have not had sex with men) are not expected to do the same? The policy enshrines an institutional rejection of male-to-male sex, stigmatizing it as bad, unhealthy, dangerous, and repugnant. It projects these negative associations onto the donor himself, as an inconsiderate hedonist with dirty blood not suited even for people who may desperately need it. For this reason, the blood drives that take place at Carleton every term serve as a constant reminder of how society views MSM as unworthy for having blood that is apparently “too risky” for the general population. It creates an atmosphere of helplessness among MSM who want to donate blood in the wake of shortages, natural disasters, or violent tragedies. This helplessness results in a disengagement from the community itself, which fractures the much needed ties that a community needs to survive. As a Boston man wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren after being rejected from donating blood following the Boston Bombings, “when lives are on the line, we all want to help.”

One question that might come to mind is, “Why don’t you just lie if you know your blood is clean?” I am against lying at the pre-screening question of “are you a male who has had sexual contact with another male even once, since 1977?” because it goes against the very struggle I have undertaken in publicly coming out with my gay sexual identity. Am I supposed to be out everywhere but the blood donation room? I should not have to lie about who I am in order to donate blood, which is why I decided to take action against this discriminatory policy. With the aid of the program directors of the blood drive at Carleton, as well as activist groups like Sexuality and Activism at Carleton and Carleton’s Organized Radicals and Leftists, I have started a Proxy Donation Campaign to raise awareness about the FDA policy as well as encourage more people to donate blood. Here’s how it works: an ineligible donor would be matched with an eligible donor, or proxy. The proxy then would wear a button of recognition stating that they are donating in honor of  someone who cannot and the ineligible donor would wear a button that says, “I donated by proxy.” This would let us protest the ban in a perfectly legal manner, as we would not be misrepresenting anything in the paperwork that donors fill out, as well as promote a community effort that saves lives.

This joint collaboration between activists and advocates of the community demonstrates a key point in seeking social justice: only by acting together can we turn an idea into direct change against laws or regulations that we view as unjust.  The Gay Blood Ban exhibits these very unjust qualities, as it strips away a person’s identity and turns them into an enemy of the community: unable to serve, unable to engage, and unable to feel responsible for the people that surround them.

For more information about the proxy donation system, or to sign up, come to an informational luncheon on Thursday, February 6th during Common Time.

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