Why the Red Cross’s Refusal to Take Gay Blood Hurts

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I used to give blood every two months. It was a fun thing I’d do with my mates on afternoons after uni – we’d egg on the more needle-phobic members of the group and enjoy those bangin’ milkshakes they give you afterwards together.

But then I got a boyfriend. For a few weeks, I was utterly occupied by embarrassingly overzealous make-out sessions and long phone calls with Grandma, trying to explain that the person I was dating was named Alexander, not Alexandra. When I stopped acting like an obsessive 12-year-old with a hormone imbalance, I started remembering all the other things I used to do that didn’t involve locking lips with newly-acquired bae, like giving blood. But I found out that I couldn’t anymore. The risk of my blood being infected with HIV was too high.

I sent an email to the Australian Red Cross explaining that my boyfriend and I were both virgins before we met each other, and we’d both had our blood tested anyway – there was no possibility either of us had HIV.

“The Red Cross turning me away felt like the first real discrimination I’d encountered as a gay person.”

Apparently that didn’t matter. All men who have had anal or oral sex with other men (regardless of whether condoms were used) are prohibited from donating blood for 12 months. Even though I was in a monogamous, STI-free relationship, I was told that I was still 100 times more likely to have HIV than my heterosexual counterparts.

That hurt. It hurt because I’d always tried to shake the misconception that gay guys are inherently sexually reckless and STI-ridden. It hurt because up until then, I’d encountered nothing but support from everyone – including Grandma once she turned her hearing aids up – about my relationship (I’d come out to my family a few months before by dragging my boyfriend home and saying ‘Look what I found!’). The Red Cross turning me away felt like the first real discrimination I’d encountered as a gay person.

It hurt again a few weeks ago when the worst LGBTQI+ hate crime in recent history occurred in Orlando and scores of gay men were turned away from blood donation centres afterwards, forbidden from aiding their wounded friends.

So when I received an email recently from the Red Cross with the subject, ‘Have you seen Angus?’ on a really bad morning, I sent this back and posted a screenshot of the email on Facebook.

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It was a very unsophisticated manifestation of frustration, I’ll admit. But the Facebook post was shared over 300 times; mostly by people I don’t know, who had no idea that the policy existed.

The Red Cross insists that it’s not a discriminatory stance – although it rings eerily close to the ‘contemporary’ Catholic Church’s position: It’s fine if you’re attracted to other men! Just never, ever act on it, and we won’t have a problem.

There’s a crucial difference though: the Red Cross’s position is based on science and statistics. According to the Kirby Institute, 70% of new HIV diagnoses in 2014 were given to men who have sex with men. And while the AIDS epidemic has just been declared over in Australia due to advanced pharmaceuticals that prevent HIV developing into AIDS, the rate of HIV transmission remains high.

But don’t they test the blood? The official Male to Male Sex Fact Sheet distributed by the Red Cross states that despite the fact that all donations are tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C, HTLV and syphilis, there’s a ‘window period’ in which recently acquired HIV infections can’t be detected. Given the fact that you have to be abstinent from male-to-male sex for a year before donating blood, I assumed that this ‘window period’ would be around 12 months.

It’s not. I got onto Dr. Laila Khawar, a project manager at the Kirby Institute for infection and immunity in society, and she told me:

‘The addition of nucleic acid tests (NAT) to existing serological assays for HIV in June 2000 substantially reduced the WP [window period] from approximately 22 days to approximately 9 days for HIV-1.’

From what I can gather from this rather technical answer, the window period is around nine days. Why is the deferral period a whole year?

The Red Cross, with the support of the Kirby Institute’s research, actually appealed to the government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2014 to have the deferral period lowered to six months. The appeal was rejected on the grounds that lowering the deferral period could potentially increase the risk of a HIV transmission while not significantly boosting donor numbers. But, if the deferral period was reduced to nine days – or even a month – donor numbers could significantly increase.

“How dare they reinforce the stereotype that gay men can’t have the same strong, faithful, monogamous relationships as heterosexual people?”

Most infuriatingly, the thousands of monogamous, HIV-negative gay couples in Australia are treated as if we were rooting a new person each night. (Good on you if you are rooting a new person each night – just wrap it before you tap it, yeah?) There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to the responses I get whenever I argue that monogamy should allow me to give blood: the possibility that my partner might be cheating on me. That’s literally the only reason my blood is deemed ‘unsafe’. Because my word, and my partner’s word, is not trusted.

Some people would say that it’s naïve of me to trust that my partner would never have sex with someone else. I would tell them to get fucked, and don’t judge a relationship you know nothing about. How dare they reinforce the stereotype that gay men can’t have the same strong, faithful, monogamous relationships as heterosexual people?

I do genuinely believe the Red Cross isn’t discriminatory. But the blanket-ban on men who have sex with men giving blood isn’t logical or ideal, given that as I’m writing, Tasmania is reporting a worrying dwindle in their blood supply. Just last week, it was widely reported that the increasing amount of people getting tattoos is also affecting donor numbers.

I could just wait quietly for HIV to disappear or for policies to slowly update. But as Andy Warhol said:

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Words || Angus Dalton