Dirty Blood?

By Guest Contributor

Last Wednesday, Atwater Commons hosted its annual American Red Cross blood drive in McCullough Social Space. While waiting to donate, I encountered a friend who was indefinitely deferred from donating blood — not because of anemia or traveling abroad — but because of his sexual behavior. His deferral is based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s clause that excludes homosexual men who have had sexual contact with another homosexual male since the year 1977 from donating blood. The deferral sheet he received attributed the grounds for deferral to “high-risk sexual behavior.”

The FDA’s clause aimed to control the HIV/AIDS breakout, which occurred largely among gay men in the 1980’s. Prior to the 1990’s, the FDA did not screen blood donors, causing many patients who received blood transfusions to become infected with hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. To cover its own legal and medical bases, the FDA continues to use this policy.

Today, this clause is scientifically irrelevant, outdated and unfair. It implies that homosexual intercourse is somehow more risky than heterosexual intercourse, assuming that a gay man in a monogamous relationship engages in “riskier behavior” than a heterosexual woman having unprotected sex with multiple partners. This notion cannot be tolerated.

As a homosexual male who has had sexual contact with another man since 1977, I still choose to donate blood. I recognize that the clause against gay men is antiquated and inappropriate, but I still believe blood donation is important. Of the 37 percent of the population eligible to donate blood, only 10 percent chooses to do so. In addition, 4.5 million people need donated blood each year, one in seven hospital patients require blood transfusions, and each donated pint can save up to three lives, according to America’s Blood Center. Last summer was the Red Cross’s record low of blood donation, further highlighting their need to include groups such as healthy homosexual men.

While donating, I felt a little morally … jumbled. On one hand, I knew I was doing something necessary and right, but on the other, I felt uneasy about lying, the exclusion of my friend and donating to an organization that views my blood as unclean. I spoke with one of the American Red Cross employees, whom I had met last year, about the gay male clause and what happened to my friend. He was very sympathetic, and said that he too is frustrated by it; he has written letters to the FDA encouraging them to remove the clause and mentioned that some of the employees at the drive were homosexual. The most backward part, he said, was that if you are a woman who has had sexual contact with a gay male since 1977, you are only deferred from donating for one year, rather than indefinitely. “It’s the federal government, you know?” he told me. “If you want any change to happen, whether it be concerning the environment, or gender and sexuality issues, it’s going to take years before anything happens.” He further pointed out that the screening surveys are hetero-normative, providing options on sexual-preference questions such as “I am female” or “I am male,” to skip a question, effectively ignoring LGBTQ, gender-variant and transsexual people.

It is unfair for the FDA to exclude healthy and eligible donors on the basis of sexual orientation and expression. There are many avenues of action and response. I choose to lie and donate, knowing my blood will go to someone in need. Some choose to go into drives and get officially deferred, some self-defer and others, like a friend from home, shout while walking past Red Cross tables “Sorry I can’t donate … I just had really hot sex with my boyfriend this morning!” We must respect any of these avenues, but must not ignore the need to take action. I have written letters to the FDA and the Red Cross promoting homosexual eligibility to donate blood.

I must also recognize the important activism of Jay Saper ’13 and Melian Radu ’13, who staged a “Blood Dump” in which they asked students to dump fake blood deemed unfit for donation. Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13, in solidarity with Saper and Radu, donated blood dressed in drag. These three students met with President of the College Ronald D. Leibowitz, presented the “Blood Dump” visual and encouraged him to write a letter to the FDA Commissioner expressing his disapproval for such a clause and stressing the importance of its removal. I encourage President Leibowitz to follow through with this letter in order to promote the advancement of practices that are relevant to current societal context.

As members of an institution with a policy of nondiscrimination based on “sex, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression,” we must be aware of this paradox. By labeling certain bodies as “impure”, a different group is simultaneously labeled as “pure.” This binary is dangerous — it reinforces stereotypes that are the basis for homophobia, hate-crimes and societal intolerance. The Middlebury community is known to be extremely informed, intelligent and globally minded. We must use our voices to express the need for change when an organization comes onto our campus but does not reflect the values of our community. If we seek to achieve social justice and equality in our community and beyond, we cannot be blind to this shameful injustice.

Written by DAVID YEDID ’15, from Port Washington, N.Y.