A few days ago, as I walked to class through the Diag, a sprightly girl in red asked me if I would like to save a life. I didn’t have much time to talk to her, but with a plug like that, she wasn’t easy to ignore. She said she was a representative from Blood Battle, the blood drive competition between Michigan and Ohio State, and asked me if I would like to sign up to donate blood. I would certainly love to give, as I did in high school, but I chose not to register because I knew I would ultimately be turned away.
By now, it’s been well publicized that the American Red Cross does not allow openly gay men to donate blood. During the preliminary questioning before giving, potential male donors are asked if they’ve had sex even just one time with another man since 1977. And if the answer is yes, that potential donor is forbidden from donating that day and forever thereafter. Over the past few years in particular, gay advocacy groups have criticized the Red Cross for this policy.
But in truth, the Red Cross isn’t really to blame for this blatant prejudice. In 2006, the Red Cross and two other blood organizations deemed the policy of banning gay blood both unscientific and discriminatory, and encouraged the Food and Drug Administration to review the case. But the following year, the FDA reiterated its stance that the threat of transmitting HIV from gay men was too risky. Keep in mind that as a federal agency, the FDA was answering to the Bush Administration in 2007, when it issued its last statement regarding gay blood donation. Perhaps it’s time for the FDA to readdress the issue in our current era of greater scientific freedom.
It’s clear that the existing policy inequitably isolates gays. Just because gay men are slightly more likely than other demographics to be HIV positive does not mean they should be barred from giving blood altogether. African-Americans are almost ten times more likely to be HIV positive than Caucasians, but they are still encouraged to donate. And, of course, all of that is superseded by the fact that each unit of blood is tested for seven different antibodies within the blood, including HIV. If it’s healthy, it’s used — if it’s tainted, it’s not. Why can’t the same method be applied for the blood of homosexual men?
New scientific advances have made it possible to detect HIV within in a year of infection. Taking that into consideration, if it’s necessary at all to address the threat of HIV expressly from gay men, the policy should only reject potential donors who have engaged in risky male-to-male sexual conduct during the previous year.
Then again, the policy ought to reject any potential donor who has engaged in a risky sexual act during the previous year, regardless of orientation. Why should a gay man who maintains healthy sex habits be rejected when promiscuous straight men are permitted to give? Possible heterosexual risky situations abound, particularly in a college setting, and yet they hold no water when compared to sex between two men.
Until the policy of discrimination changes, gay men must choose how they want to react to the policy. Organizing a joint straight-gay boycott wouldn’t be good publicity when a blood shortage already plagues the health care system. And simply lying during the donor pre-screening might increase the units of blood collected, but only at the expense of the fight for equality.
Instead, gay men ought to go donate with their gay friends and resign themselves to being turned down and blacklisted, one by one. Doing so, particularly en masse, would symbolize the amount of potential blood lost and would send a signal to the establishment in favor of policy change.
Or, dear gay brethren, if you’re feeling bold, start out by saying you’re straight. Have your blood drawn, and then tell them once your blood is in the bag that you just remembered fooling around with another guy 10 years ago. That way, they’ll have to pour out your perfectly useful donation, or, though it’s less likely, they’ll pass your blood along in their own private act of defiance. In either case, the triviality of the policy will be dramatized in an effective form of protest.
At the end of the day, in the face of blood shortages across the country, accepting gay blood donations could save more lives — making what could have been tragedies just that much more sanguine.
Matthew Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.