Gay Blood Ban is Homophobic
The ban on gay blood donors is based on homophobic myths that stereotype and demonise gay men.
The blood transfusion service wants my blood. It sent me a leaflet, requesting that I become a donor. Why not? As the leaflet says: "your gift could save someone's life".
My first reaction was that I'd love to give blood and fulfil my civic duty. But reading the leaflet reminded me that I am not allowed to be a donor. I'm queer!
The advice leaflet for blood donors states: "You should NEVER give blood if: you are a man who has had sex with another man, even 'safe sex' using a condom".
This means a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who've had gay sex. It is based on the assumption that all homosexual and bisexual men are 'high risk' for HIV. The transfusion service says the life ban is necessary to protect the blood supply from contamination.
The absurdity of this policy is obvious. Even a man who has had gay sex only once in his life, perhaps more than 40 years ago, is prohibited from donating blood. Men whose homosexual experience is limited to a few mutual wanks behind the school bike sheds are likewise banned as blood donors, even if their youthful escapades took place in the 1960s (more than a decade before the start of the AIDS crisis!).
Well, I'm no doctor. But this policy seems to reflect homophobic prejudices, not medical facts. I'm amazed that more people aren't kicking up a fuss about this insulting, unjustified mass exclusion of all gay donors, regardless of their individual sexual histories.
The fact that the transfusion service also has an across-the-board policy of rejecting blood from people who "have ever" worked as a prostitute or injected drugs, is no excuse or consolation. These policies are also indefensible. People who ceased being sex workers and injecting drug users many years prior to the start of the AIDS era pose no risk to the blood supply. Those who have more recently given up prostitution and injecting drug use for more than a year, and now test negative for HIV and hepatitis B and C, are also no danger.
As with the ban on ex-sex workers and ex-injecting drug users, the policy of excluding every gay donor is based on crass generalisations. It lumps together all gay men, without differentiation, as if we are all the same. We're not. There is a wide diversity of gay sexual behaviours and lifestyles. Some of us are at risk of HIV, and some of us are not.
Many gay men stick rigorously to safer sex, such as jerking off and body rubbing, which involves virtually no chance of HIV infection. Others have been in monogamous relationships since long before the AIDS epidemic began. Some queers are even celibate! If men in these categories test HIV-negative, after abstaining from risky behaviour for at least six months, their blood is safe.
I realise this is a more complex policy than the simple, straightforward life ban on gay donors. But surely gay men can be trusted to understand and follow these marginally more sophisticated guidelines?
What makes me really angry is the way the blanket ban on gay blood donations stereotypes all queers as the modern-day equivalent of 'Typhoid Marys'. It brands us all as one homogenous, diseased mass. If the transfusion service made similar sweeping judgements about the black or Jewish communities, there would be an outcry. Why are we allowing the promotion of the homophobic myth that all queers are the bearers of contagion and death?
Although quick to reject blood from risk-free gay men, the transfusion service happily accepts donations from promiscuous heterosexuals who have lots of unprotected sex with many different partners.
A straight businessman who regularly travels abroad, and who has unsafe sex with large numbers of women in a city like New York (where there is a massive AIDS epidemic), is highly vulnerable to HIV. In contrast, a gay man on the isolated Shetland Islands who has had only a few homosexual encounters in his life - all limited to very low-risk mutual masturbation - has almost no chance of getting HIV. Under the policy of the transfusion service, the high-risk straight businessman can donate blood, but the low-risk gay man cannot.
Most bizarrely of all, the transfusion service insists that even those who always practice safer sex are banned from giving blood. This begs the question: if safer sex cannot safeguard the blood supply, why have AIDS organisations been telling us that safer sex can stop the spread of HIV and save the lives of gay men? Either safer sex works or it doesn't.
Amazingly, the ban on gay donors and the disparagement of safer sex is endorsed by otherwise homo-friendly AIDS organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust. For over a decade, these organisations have claimed correctly that the risk from sucking and wanking is miniscule. Now, however, they argue that even if gay men always stick to these low-risk activities, their blood donations are still a danger to the blood supply.
Call me stupid, but I detect more than a hint of inconsistency. When the lives of queers are threatened by a deadly virus, AIDS organisations urge gay men to practise safer sex. Yet when it comes to the protection of the blood supply, they endorse the transfusion service argument that safer sex is inadequate.
Not every country has a knee-jerk life ban on queer blood donors. According to a survey by John Hunt of OutRage!, Belgium and parts of Spain don't discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Australia only bans donations from people who have had gay sex in the last year. The Dutch are reviewing their blanket exclusion of gay men, and the Swiss government has already recommended that blood donor policy should be based on differentiating between risky and non-risky behaviour, regardless of sexual orientation.
Sooner or later, Britain's transfusion service will have to review its policy, since heterosexual transmission already accounts for 32 percent of HIV infections in the UK, and the proportion of straight infections is growing all the time.
The fact is that the vast majority of gay and bisexual men in Britain do not have HIV and will never have HIV. There is no medical or ethical reason why those of us who have long and rigorously practised safe sex, and who have since tested HIV-negative, should be banned automatically from giving blood.
* Peter Tatchell is the author of "Safer Sexy - The Guide To Gay Sex Safely" (Freedom Editions).
Edited versions of this article have been published under the titles:
"Bloody Homophobia", Positive Nation, March 1996
"Manifesto", Time Out, 11-18 September, 1996
"We don't Want Your Blood", Axiom News, 20 November, 1997
"Drop the ban on gay blood donors", Agenda No 17, November 1998
© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1996. All rights reserved.
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