A few weeks back, as I was contemplating how to supplement my income by means other than waiting tables, a potentially lucrative option dawned on me: plasma donation. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered it earlier. Plenty of my friends had already shared anecdotes of their pilgrimages to the Octapharma Plasma Donation Center directly off of I-94 in Ypsilanti, a company whose name elicits body-harvesting scenes from “The Matrix.” Plasma donation was plugged as a good cause that resulted in easy cash flow without any strings or taxes attached, and I was sold on the idea.
It became screamingly obvious upon entering the center on a Saturday afternoon that I wasn’t the only person in the greater Ann Arbor area with these considerations about plasma donation. The line was formidable and slow moving, stacked full with people who had decided that moonlighting at Octapharma would be more profitable than an average shift at their day job. It also became obvious upon prolonged observation that most of the people with whom I was sharing my afternoon very clearly did not share my lifestyle. Most faces were weathered from hardship, leathered from extended sun exposure or cracked from days of prolonged worry. More than a few had yellowed fingers and eyes from years of nicotine use; more than a few twitched and had scars from trying to itch away withdrawal. Considering that the Red Cross is about 40,000 units of blood behind daily quotas, it became apparent that all veins were being tapped, regardless of what had previously been flowing through them.
I was right in assuming that my lifestyle was different from all other would-be donors. Despite all other indicators of health, one aspect of my lifestyle earned me something theirs didn’t: a lifetime ban from donating. Apparently, having fag running through your veins is where they draw the line.
Admittedly, the FDA’s 1983 implementation of the ban barring men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood was at the time a logical, albeit harsh step in attempting to control the spread of the HIV virus. Screening practices at the time were inefficient and inaccurate due to the dormant nature of the virus, and gay and bisexual men are infected in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers in comparison to other high-risk groups, such as intravenous drug users. Even today, after decades of campaigns promoting contraception and other safe-sex practices in the community, MSM account for an estimated 63 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States, a number that increased by 12 percent amongst gay and bisexual men between 2008 and 2010. If infected blood were to be transfused into an uninfected host, the results could be physically and psychologically devastating. Fear of this worst-case scenario drove the FDA to do what they believed was necessary to protect the majority, which effectually type-casted an already subjugated and discriminated minority as already infected.
Amidst new technological advances in HIV and other STI and infectious disease screenings, however, the reasoning behind the ban on MSM who have engaged in sexual activity since 1977 has become moot. All donated blood, regardless of the status of its donor, is mandatorily tested for any bloodborne pathogens. Some current testing methods can detect antibodies in response to the HIV virus from nine to 11 days after infection, and the chances that HIV-infected blood is inadvertently used in a viable transfusion is one in 6.5 million. The Red Cross openly disdains the ban, saying that although it will continue to implement the FDA’s policies, they will “support the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities.”
If administrators of the ban imply that the current practices against MSM are unfair and inconsistent, why then is this discriminatory and scientifically debunked policy still being implemented? The only logical reason I can think of is fear. Not that a healthy host will become infected, but rather the FDA — now presented with current statistics — is smarter than that. I believe it’s a public fear of gays themselves that’s influencing the FDA’s policy.
I can’t really blame people for this; some darkroom aspects of gay culture frighten me as well. Generalizing a result of unsafe gay promiscuity to the whole community, however, would be similar to me claiming that all members of a fraternity are date-rapists, or that all Republicans are Christian zealots. Stereotyping a group based on a fear of its darkest and most disagreeable qualities only serves to promote ignorance and a further fission of ideologies, consequently leading to discriminatory practices. In the case of MSM blood donation, until the public eliminates the filter with which they view gay society — and learns to judge the gay community as an assembly of individuals sharing a common, overarching trait — we’ll continue to be banned.
Austin Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.