Peter Tatchell argues that the blanket ban on gay men giving blood fuels the myth that Gay=AIDS=Death.
Yet again the Blood Transfusion Service is appealing for donors, as extra demand causes a downturn in blood stocks. These appeals are, it seems, almost as common as late trains and lousy weather. A while back there was a similar request: 'Anyone with a heart can give blood'. The moral blackmail was barefaced -- if you don't donate blood, you're heartless.
Well, most gay men have got a heart. They'd love to perform their civic duty and help replenish the nation's blood supply. But they're forbidden to, because they're queer.
This policy of the Blood Transfusion Service is endorsed by most AIDS organisations, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, (THT). It agrees that no gay man, whatever his sexual history or HIV status, should donate blood. Safer sex is not, according to the Blood Transfusion Service and the THT, safe enough to protect the blood supply from contamination by gay men.
This begs the question: if safer sex is not adequate to safeguard the blood supply, why have AIDS organisations been saying that safer sex is adequate to protect the lives of gay men? Either safer sex works or it doesn't.
HIV prevention campaigns have always advised gay men that some forms of sex are high risk and others are low risk. Safer sex, we were told, can prevent HIV.
Now, it seems, we have been misled. The Blood Transfusion Service and THT say that every gay man is at risk of HIV, irrespective of his sexual behaviour, and that gay men must never give blood under any circumstances.
This attitude panders to the prejudice that there is a direct and necessary connection between homosexuality and HIV. It undermines the importance and effectiveness of safer sex advice.
The THT's AIDS awareness work is much valued. Its recommendations are usually right. On the issue of a blanket ban on gay blood donors, however, the THT and the majority of HIV groups are wrong.
AIDS organisations have correctly claimed for over a decade that sucking and wanking are extremely unlikely ways of transmitting HIV. They told us that the risks from these sexual activities were minuscule.
Their current position, however, is that even if gay men always stick to these very low risk forms of sex, their blood donations are still a danger to the blood supply.
When the lives of gay men are threatened by a lethal virus, campaigners against AIDS urge gay men to practice safer sex; yet when it comes to the protection of the blood supply, they dismiss safer sex as insufficient. Their stance on the efficacy of safer sex is breathtakingly inconsistent.
What is also offensive about the blanket ban on gay blood donations is that it is based on crass generalisations about the whole gay male community. It colludes with homophobic stereotypes, lumping all gay men together without differentiation, as if we are all the same. We're not! There's a huge diversity of gay sexual behaviours and lifestyles, which the Blood Transfusion Service and most AIDS organisations fail to acknowledge. Some gay men are at risk from HIV and others aren't.
The stereotyping of all gay men as the modern-day, HIV equivalent of "Typhoid Marys" shows appalling insensitivity. That the THT, a gay-initiated organisation, can ally itself with this branding of all gay men as a diseased, homogeneous mass, THE GAYS, is a big let-down.
If the Blood Transfusion Service and the THT were to apply a similar sweeping judgement on the Black or Jewish communities, there would, quite rightly, be uproar. Why are our friends and allies in AIDS organisations going along with the Blood Transfusion Service's inability to recognise the complexity and plurality of gay male lives and experiences?
The fact is that many gay men stick rigorously to safer sex. Others have been in a monogamous relationship since long before the AIDS epidemic began. There are even some gay men who are celibate! If men in these categories test HIV negative, after abstaining from risk behaviour for at least six months, their blood donations cannot be regarded as a threat. There is, therefore, no reason why their offer of blood should be rejected.
Despite this, the THT and nearly all other AIDS organisations support the policy of the Blood Transfusion Service which 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 lifetime ban prevents a man from donating blood even if he has had gay sex only once in his life forty years ago -- more than two decades before the start of the AIDS crisis.
Amazingly, the THT endorses the Blood Transfusion Service's policy of accepting blood donations from heterosexual men and women who have lots of unprotected sex with many different partners.
It should be obvious that a straight businessman who regularly travels abroad and has unsafe sex with large numbers of women in a city like New York (where there is a major AIDS epidemic) is at high risk of contracting HIV. In contrast, a gay man on the Isle of Skye who has only had a few homosexual encounters in his life, all limited to very low-risk mutual masturbation, is extremely unlikely to be HIV positive.
Paradoxically, under the current policy of the Blood Transfusion Service, supported by the THT, the high-risk straight businessman can donate blood, but the low-risk gay man cannot.
It is a fact that the vast majority of gay and bisexual men do not have, and will never have, HIV. Those who have long and rigorously practised safe sex, and who have since tested HIV negative, can safely give blood and there is no justification to ban them from doing so.
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