QUEERTY IN-DEPTH — Last July, the the Senate and Congress both agreed to lift a ban on foreigners entering our border if they were HIV-positive. It was one giant step toward recognizing those with HIV should not be considered a “threat” by just walking around our great nation. But there is one realm where HIV-positive blood is a threat: blood donations. Organizations like the American Red Cross maintain our nation’s blood supply and work to keep it free from tainted blood, whether that’s HIV or any number of other blood-based viruses and cancers. Part of the Food and Drug Administration’s safeguard process, as many of you might know, is to issue an umbrella ban on donations from gay men — sorry, men who’ve had sex with other men, even once, since 1977. Because HIV transmission between gay men through anal intercourse ranks as a high risk activity — right up there with sharing needles, right? — the U.S. instituted the ban as an extra effort to keep infected blood out of circulation. But here we are in January, National Blood Month, and it’s time to take a damn hard look at this policy.
Like jury duty, donating blood is something I consider my civic duty. Unless you’ve got a valid medical reason precluding you, everyone should feel responsible for donating blood — not because of some law, but because you’re a human being with an innate debt to society.
And because I’m committed to donating blood, I regularly lie to the Red Cross about my sexuality.
That is, I do not mark the questionnaire box that asks whether I “have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV,” which includes any “male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.” (Those are FDA-mandated qualifiers to collect blood, instituted in 1983, the year I was born, when everyone was scared shitless about AIDS.)
It certainly helps that I don’t have HIV nor AIDS. I’ve been getting HIV tests (and all the other fun STD tests … I’m talking to you, Chlamydia!) since I’ve been sexually active. And, to get real personal here: My first trip to the doctor came about two weeks after I lost my virginity. (Hi, mom!) And I’ve never used drugs, especially the intravenous type. Which means the only time I’ve officially been prohibited from donating blood was after a trip to the Amazon River in Brazil, where the Red Cross’ fears of malaria possibly in my blood kept me from donating for about six months since the trip — and that was, I think, valid.
But somehow, being a normal adult who just happens to be sexually attracted to other men, I’m banned from performing my civic duty. And it stinks.
I’m certainly not the first one to raise this point, nor even the most recent. As Ronnie Polaneczky’s excellent Philly Daily News column reminds us, back in 2006, the FDA was attacked by “blood industry” brass to abandon the prohibition on gay men’s blood, because blood testing had become so robust — exposure to HIV can now be detected within 10 to 21 days — screening for the virus could be done in the lab. But the FDA refused, and kept the ban on the books.
My frustration with the “no gay men” policy is not even one of equal rights.
I make this case not because I’m being treated as a different class of citizen (which I am) or because I want the same ability to save others’ lives as anybody else (which I do). Rather, it’s because this policy is outdated, makes less and less sense as each day passes, and continues to stigmatize gay men as walking AIDS incubators. Every blood donation from every person is screened with the exact same testing method, which means once you’re in the lab, in makes no difference if the donor is male or female, black or white, gay or straight. If the blood is tainted, the tests will reveal it, and the donor will be added to a prohibited list. (Yes, if your blood is found to be HIV-positive, your name and social security number are added to an industry-wide ban list. Which makes sense, so long as federal privacy rules are followed.)
So let’s end this policy — not only because it’s homophobic, but because it’s eliminating 10 percent of the population who can donate clean, healthy blood that others need.
QUEERTY ASKS, YOU ANSWER: Are you aware of the policy that bans gay blood donations? If not, would you lie just to donate like I have? Or are you of the mindset, “If they don’t want my blood, they won’t get it”? Am I putting others at risk by refusing the mark the “had sex with men” box?