I was happy to discover that this week’s GlobeMed bone marrow donor registration drive actually accepted cheek swabs from queer men in the Amherst community. I say this because gay and bisexual American males, along with any other “men who have sex with men” are still banned from donating blood by the FDA. Many, including myself, recognize this policy as unbalanced and unnecessarily discriminatory. The lifetime deferral for queer* male blood donors seems like a relic of the early AIDS crisis, a period of LGBTQIA history that saw a panic over infection that developed into a fear of queer bodies as somehow fundamentally compromised by disease. Today, when a gay man on this campus is blocked from donating blood, he is effectively being told that, independent of his personal history, sex practices, and safety standards, he simply cannot be trusted not to have HIV. Donating blood itself may seem like a small thing to some, but the insinuation that “gay” and “diseased” are synonymous is seriously damaging on personal, social, and political levels.
There are a number of reasons why this ban needs to be adjusted. Most immediately, there simply isn’t the same discrimination against the blood of other quantitatively identified “at risk” groups for HIV/AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control suggest, in addition to queer males, that members of specific races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes have an increased risk for infection, but the idea of disqualifying someone based on any of these identities is rightfully upsetting. As we all know, the risk for having any sexually transmitted disease or infection lies in individual history, which can and should be examined only on a case-by-case basis. The risk factors that are associated with being a man who has slept with a man should simply be incorporated holistically into the pre-donation screening process. The truth is, the risk of being infected is greatest after having unprotected sex with a man. So if a potential donor has had unprotected sex with a man within the window period of development of HIV antibodies (the period during which HIV goes undetected), then they should receive a deferral. If a gay man hasn’t engaged in risky sexual behavior in the window period for HIV infection, then he shouldn’t be turned away. If he somehow contracted HIV from previous risky behavior from before the most recent window period, it would appear in the routine tests administered to donated blood before it’s used. The lifetime deferral is no longer necessary.
But here’s the kicker: everyone important already agrees with me. The American Association of Blood Banks, The American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers, and the American Medical Association have all already come out in support of lifting the lifetime ban. Really, all we need now is for the FDA to finally respond to pressure and change its policy.
With this in mind, it’s clear that queer campus groups should think carefully about protesting or attempting to block blood drives and related events on campus. The FDA is not running these events. Groups like the American Red Cross, who are already calling for policy change, are the ones collecting blood. Discouraging or outright blocking blood donation only serves to punish people who are often in desperate medical need. Pragmatically, attempting to force blood banks into crisis is far more likely to sour potential allies to our cause than rally support. Morally, this isn’t a sound vehicle for establishing equality. The change needs to happen at the level of federal policy, and I understand that deliberately jamming a discriminatory system has its merits. In this case, however, the people who will feel the repercussions first and most severely will be the ill and the dying, not the policymakers. We shouldn’t try to forward equality by holding sick people hostage.
What we should do is use the opportunity presented by events like blood and bone marrow drives to raise awareness and education. We should gather interested queer male donors to physically illustrate how much extra blood the drive could be collecting. This is where groups like GlobeMed should come in too. GlobeMed’s mission is “to increase global health equity.” With that in mind, GlobeMed and other campus groups interested in promoting equality should do the necessary research into the issues of health inequality surrounding their own events and seek to incorporate that into their programming. As a perfect example, they would do well in the future to reach out to Pride Alliance or the Queer Resource Center to collaborate on educational materials that draw attention to the current discriminatory FDA policy. Generating inclusive educational programming would at once spread information about an important issue in public health policy while simultaneously helping to dispel a seriously damaging stereotype of our community.
*I use the term “queer” here as an umbrella term.