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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A one-year gay blood ban still isn’t fair or effective

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It has been exactly a year since Carleton first instituted proxy donation as a main fixture in the blood drives it hosts each term. Serving as a creative method to address an unjust policy, proxy donation asks eligible blood donors to donate in place of men who have sex with men (MSM), who have been restricted from donating blood because of a policy established by the Food and Drug Administration in 1983. This policy, conceived at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, was largely designed to limit the amount of blood transfusions that contain HIV by barring gay, bisexual, and queer-identified men from donating blood for life, as these groups were largely stigmatized as being the source of the epidemic and blanket-stereotyped as engaging in risky sexual behavior. Even as societal perceptions and scientific innovation have progressed to the point where HIV/AIDS is a more livable condition and knowledge of the disease is more widespread, the policy, colloquially known as the “gay blood ban,” has persisted in the United States without change—until recently.

In December, the FDA began to make recommendations to change its 30-year policy by shortening the life- time ban to a one-year ban, a change that is not scheduled to take place until later in 2015. The reasoning behind this compromise is that it would prevent HIV from being transmitted into the blood supply by covering the latency period that HIV can be detected while simultaneously not being construed as “excessive” because it gives MSMs a clear window of opportunity to donate blood if they make the appropriate sacrifices.

Yet, this is not and should not be the win-win situation that it’s been made out to be. While significantly rolling back the amount of time MSMs are barred from blood donation, the FDA has failed to remove the problematic framework that serves as the rallying point for proxy donation. This updated policy continues to reinforce the premise that all gay, bisexual, and queer men engage in risky sexual behavior. Furthermore, requiring that queer men be celibate in order to donate blood (regardless of whether they are in a monogamous relationship or practice safer sex practices, like wearing a condom) while straight men do not, creates a discrepancy that should not exist. It also raises a disturbing question: how much do gay, bisexual, and queer men have to modify their behavior in order to be seen as equal in our society, in our communities?

The one-year ban has no scientific basis whatsoever. While it means to cover the window period of when HIV is present in the body before it is detectable, that window period has in reality been considerably shortened to days, not months, with blood testing procedures such as nucleic acid test- ing (NAT). In addition, all blood units from organizations like the American Red Cross are heavily screened for diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV/ AIDS, anyway. These screening processes are so effective that the risk of contracting HIV from a blood trans- fusion has been reduced to nearly 1 in 2 million according to the FDA it- self. Yet, the FDA continues to claim that allowing men who have sex with men to donate blood would be too risky and would endanger recipients of donated blood. This stance allows us to ask: what is an acceptable level of risk for the FDA? And why are all men who have sex with men automatically placed within this category of risk without considering their actual sexual behavior?

One of the most present counter arguments that arise in this debate is that HIV rates are still high among gay, bisexual, and queer men; thus, the ban is still justifiable. This is worthy of acknowledgement. This is a community that continues to struggle with HIV and AIDS and it is a problem that deserves continued attention and advocacy. However, this counterargument fails to recognize the diversity of sexual experiences that gay, bisexual, and queer men are capable of fulfilling. “Gay sex” is not entirely different from “straight sex.” They both can occur within the contexts of monogamous relationships and they can both occur while utilizing safer sex procedures like wearing a condom. Likewise, the riskier sexual behaviors, such as having multiple partners and not wearing a condom, can occur in any type of relationship no matter the gender or sexual identities of the partners involved. It is about time we stop stigmatizing the sex lives of gay, bisexual, and queer men and start acknowledging the contributions these people can bring to our communities.

Proxy donation, then, continues to be an important cause. It is a call to action that mobilizes communities that want to reduce stigma and ensure a large, sustainable blood supply—because we should not have to choose one or the other. While not yet in effect, the change in policy will not deter Carleton from continuing to advocate for fairness in donor screening processes.

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