Yesterday’s horrific mass murder in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, prompted much comment in social media, which I noted, as Denver has been a much-loved, long-time base for me. Much of the discussion was about gun control, of course (I’m still not getting the part about “the right to bear semi-automatics”), but I also found some interesting discussion on Facebook about blood donations.
Not surprising, as the casualties were rushed to hospitals, the public call went out for blood donations, and conscientious Coloradans responded. What some (mostly younger) gay men discovered, however, was that their blood was not wanted. They were turned away, and they were shocked.
It was their first encounter with the regulation, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1985, that bans gay men from donating blood. Wait. It’s more than that. The specific question in the pre-screening asks, “Have you had sex with another man since 1978?” Just one. Just once. No subtleties, no nuance. No “but.”
Of course, some of us understand the origins of the rule. It was the early years of the AIDS epidemic. There wasn’t much scientific understanding yet, but there was much fear and panic. Especially toward gay men. In 1981, when the disease was first identified, lest we forget, it was called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The name AIDS came later.
In fact, there were four affected groups identified early on: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians, and intravenous drug users. Nobody understood there was a virus involved but, aside from the then-inexplicable Haitians (who turned out to be a harbinger for what would eventually explode in Africa), it wasn’t too much of a stretch for thoughtful people to imagine something was involved in bodily fluids.
I had donated blood routinely through the 1970s, but once I understood the implications, I stopped—like many other conscientious gay men. Soon after, around 1982, my father needed surgery, and the doctor approached family members for pre-surgical blood donations “because of the risks in the blood supply.” Hell, I wasn’t even out to my family yet, but I knew I had to say, “I can’t.” What went unsaid was: “I could be that risk.” It hurt. It was humiliating. (Once the crisis passed, my coming-out followed.)
Only later came the discovery of the virus, and then the HIV test. Since I was already part of a longitudinal, psychological study of gay men in New York, I was among the first to experience that strange ritual: the cautious drawing of blood, labeled only by number, then cross-referenced by other numbers to ensure privacy, followed (too much later) by a face-to-face meeting with a counselor to learn whether a mass-murderer lurked in my veins.
It did not. And I don’t like to talk about it, except in the most intimate circumstances. I am lucky. One out of three men in that longitudinal study tested positive. One-third of my cohort. The study was disbanded during the worst years. But we know what played out.
Fast-forward more than three decades: my HIV status has not changed, but neither has the HHS policy toward blood donation. I am banned for life, regardless.
This has led to some interesting situations in community-based or company blood drives, especially when they encouraged peer pressure to achieve donation goals. The experience can be humiliating. I got into trouble once (in Denver, I should say) when, facing a company poster that cheerfully encouraged participation in a blood drive, I added a sticker that said, “Gay Men Need Not Apply.” This upset a younger gay man, who apparently was first seeing evidence of discrimination. I was called to the carpet, but shrugged and pointed out this was the fact. So I was sternly told never again to deface company communications. And there were no more company blood drives.
What disturbs me most, from the beginning, about the HHS policy is that it only discriminates against honest gay men. For those of us with long memories, lack of candor has been one of the great perpetrators in the spread of AIDS. Gay men have learned to protect themselves, no matter what a partner may say. One hopes the guardians of the nation’s blood supply do the same.
And, with all the technologies available for screening donated blood, why continue a rule that only serves to humiliate gay men, to tell us our blood is no good, and prohibit us from making a useful contribution to society?
Why indeed? In 2010, HHS formed a committee to review the policy; the committee voted to retain the ban on gay men. The review wasn’t widely reported, but I was intrigued by an article in the conservative Washington Times that stated, “In a statement released after the vote, the conservative Family Research Council praised the decision.”
Makes you wonder what really went one here. Why would the allegedly Christian and notoriously anti-gay FRC be so prepared? What part did they play in the process? Is this yet another example where bigotry trumps science? Where dogma prevails over fact? Maybe it’s time to ask your member of Congress.
I can offer my prayers for the victims of the Aurora shooting. I’m sure the FRC will do the same (and issue a press release). But I expect them to load a lot of blood donors on to buses and send them north from Colorado Springs, to make up for all the Denver-area gay men who can’t donate blood.
And tell me—with a straight face—that the blood is clean.