It was announced today that gay men can donate blood now in the UK. Well, technically. Men who have sex with men are still deferred for a year after they have last had sex with a man. I can’t imagine that the blood banks of the British Isles are going to be flooded with the blood of celibate gay men, but,
The gay rights group Stonewall said the move was a “step in the right direction”.
And it’s still much, much better than our policies here, where men who have sex with men are “permanently deferred.” Yes, that’s correct: if you’ve EVER had gay sex, you can never, ever give blood. This seems ridiculous. Not just because blood banks need all the blood they can get—even Mayor Bloomberg gives blood, and you would think that his blood would have been replaced by some kind of special rich people superblood long ago.
No, it’s ridiculous because even though men who have sex with men are infected with HIV at a higher rate, straight people are being infected with HIV at a not-insignificant rate. According to that CDC chart, in 2009 17,005 people were estimated to have been infected with HIV through homosexual sex, as compared to 10,393 people through heterosexual sex.
Of course it is crucially important to have a clean blood supply, and minimizing risk makes total sense. But if we’re trying to minimize risk, why not ACTUALLY minimize risk? Taking a looksee (careful! pdf!) at this FDA donor screening questionnaire, it seems like people are being asked about their medical history, their travel history (having lived in the UK can actually get you a permanent deferment, because of the risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), whether they’ve used needle drugs, whether they’ve been incarcerated recently, whether they’ve ever exchanged sex for money, whether they take certain medications, and whether they’ve had sex with men (if they’re male) or had sex with men who have sex with men (if they’re female).
At no point are straight people asked if they’ve had unprotected sex with someone of the opposite sex. Does that strike anyone else as odd? As far as I understand it, that is a major way to, you know, get HIV. I’m not sure what science can defend that, and even the UK’s new, slightly more relaxed rules have the same problem. As Stonewall CEO Ben Summerskill points out:
“A gay man in a monogamous relationship who has only had oral sex will still automatically be unable to give blood but a heterosexual man who has had multiple partners and not worn a condom will not be questioned about his behaviour, or even then, excluded.”
Listen, this matters. Like I said before, I am completely behind being extra super careful with the blood supply, but if you’re going to be extra super careful, it needs to extend to everyone. We live in a world where gay men are executed for being themselves. It’s hard for me to see this policy as anything other than a holdover from the days of science-free AIDS panic, and it sends the message that gay men are somehow inherently “tainted” or yucky. Not cool, FDA. Time to seriously re-think those deferment policies.