With America’s rich history of sexism, racism and homophobia, it’s perhaps not surprising that we’ve become a little sensitive about such accusations, but the fact is not every decision that a minority disapproves of is driven by discrimination. For example, you can oppose the concept of affirmative action without being racist. You can disapprove of abortion without being sexist. And though people fail to differentiate between Israel the nation and Israel the religion, you can even argue that Israel should stay the fuck out of Gaza without necessarily being anti-Semitic.
Likewise, you can make the argument that Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) shouldn’t donate blood without being homophobic.
But that’s not an argument that goes down well with many in the gay community. In a recent About.com article about the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) continued ban on donations of blood from MSM, critics responded with comments like:
“Denying responsible people the right to save lives because of their sexual orientation is discrimination. This policy is STUPID!”
“This is discrimination in its purest form. It disgusts me.”
“I am personally offended by Big Brother telling me that because of who I am and who I have slept with I am dirty and in danger of infecting the population with a disease that I don’t have.”
But the fact is, these outraged responses aren’t fair, and the policy behind why MSM can’t donate blood isn’t discrimination, or even stupid – and I should know. Because for once, I’m not writing this article as a detached white, heterosexual, cisgender male looking in at an issue of alleged discrimination from a position of blissful ignorance.
This time, I’m a ‘victim’ too.
Like MSM, I’m also forbidden from donating blood by the FDA’s regulations, and that makes me qualified to talk about why we’re banned from donating blood and why it’s not discrimination.
In my case, it’s because I’m British.
If you remember the “Mad Cow Disease” scandal that rocked the world back in the 1980s, you’ll remember the case of the three people (ever, in recorded history) who were infected with new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease as a result of a blood transfusion.
And as a result, and because of the hypothetical risk anyone who has lived in England for 6 months or more poses to the American blood supply, people like me are forbidden from donating blood.
And that’s the logic behind banning MSM from donating blood too.
It’s not homophobia. It’s not a condemnation of the gay lifestyle, or an indictment of homosexuality. It’s statistics.
While HIV and AIDS has certainly moved past being known as “the gay disease” or “gay cancer” it is still an infection that disproportionately impacts the gay community. Over 70% of new HIV infections occur in Men Who Have Sex With Men, with intravenous drug users (similarly banned from donating blood) making up the vast majority of the remainder.
So from the FDA’s perspective, by banning MSM from donating blood, you actually prevent the largest risk of HIV infection entering the blood donation pool.
Critics of this policy might argue that blood donations get screened anyway, since blood can contain a great many more infections than just HIV. They might suggest that this screening process is sufficient protection to make banning MSM from giving blood unnecessary.
But they’re wrong – and if you don’t believe me, just research the number of tick-borne illnesses infecting our blood supply.
HIV can actually get missed during routine blood screenings, and it does on an alarmingly frequent basis. This is especially true during the earliest stages of infection, long before a potential donor might be aware that they’re infected.
Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website admits that excluding donors of higher risk (such as MSM) is their primary protection against introducing infected blood to the donation pool – and it’s a protection that doesn’t always work. (Read about a 2008 case of a man being infected with HIV from tainted blood here.)
The fact is, MSM pose a tangible, documented risk of introducing HIV to the pool of donated blood; and that’s why they’re banned from donating blood – not because of some homophobic conspiracy.
It’s a similar reason for why British people can’t donate blood; because there is a hypothetical risk of them transmitting nCJD via a blood transfusion, not some form of discrimination against the British. And ultimately, that’s statistics in play – an objective form of risk management intended to protect those who rely on transfusions of donated blood.
But while it’s fair to argue that the CDC and FDA policies aren’t homophobic, I think it’s also fair to question just how far you can take the “statistical” forms of risk management to protect America’s blood supply. Because in a comment left on the article I linked to earlier, one point emerged that was ethically troubling no matter what statistics supported it:
“If gays are going to be discluded from donating blood for being high-risk, then the same logic must be followed with black men - who represent a high risk group themselves.”
And that’s true. Alarmingly, scarily true.
While heterosexuals make up a fraction of new HIV infections per year, of that fraction African Americans are disproportionately represented – often over 60% of new infection...and that’s despite making up less than 20% of the population of America.
So by the same justification that the British and MSM are banned from donating blood, you can make a very convincing argument that African Americans should be similarly excluded. But they’re not.
And why’s that? Possibly because accusations of homophobia are easy for the CDC and FDA to brush off, but excluding an entire race (especially one with a legacy of discrimination older than America itself) from donating blood is a bridge too far even for the objective statisticians.
And realizing that throws the issue of excluding MSM from donating blood back into question. Because if it’s wrong to exclude African Americans from donating blood, even if they pose an applicable risk, why is it okay to exclude homosexual and bisexual men?