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by Mackenzie Worrall
“I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.”
-Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
Since 1985, men who have sex with men (MSM) have been banned from giving blood.
Unlike DADT and DOMA, this doesn’t have a cool acronym, and most people don’t even know that there is a ban. In organizing Brothers In Blood (more on that later), I’ve been astounded by both how many people give me a vacant look as I talk at them about the ban, and how many people immediately ask how they can help.
Any male donor who has had sex with another man since 1977 is permanently deferred. More and more often, cities and states and politicians (noticeably Senator Kerry) call on the FDA to re-evaluate the ban and redefine its criteria for accepting blood from MSM. Some plans still include a one-year deferment since last sexual contact with a male, but I believe we can do better than that.
The ban was a swift, knee-jerk reaction to HIV/AIDS and misconceptions of it. However, other high-risk groups are not banned. If the FDA wrote into law a ban on black women giving blood, who are the second highest risk group, there would be a national uproar about the racist, mal-informed policy. So why haven’t we been up in arms about this?
Estimates vary as to how many new HIV infections would result from blood donations if the ban were lifted. I’ve heard everything from ‘1 new infection every 33 years’ to ‘no number is too low to justify the risk.’ The fact of the matter is that each donation can save up to 3 lives. They can talk about tiny risks, but the big picture is clear. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of new donations each year. Each of those saving up to three lives. Will it end the blood shortage? Of course not. Will our healthcare system be a lot better off for it? Emphatically, yes.
What’s kept the ban in place for so long is scare tactics and big numbers. The FDA has published huge, scary numbers that manipulate the facts. From their website, explaining why there is a ban: “Men who have had sex with men since 1977 have an HIV prevalence […] 60 times higher than the general population, 800 times higher than first time blood donors, and 8000 times higher than repeat blood donors” (http://www.fda.gov/biologicsbloodvaccines/bloodbloodproducts/questionsaboutblood/ucm108186.htm). They present only the numbers from studies that are mostly likely to persuade public in favor of a ban. Because comparing an entire sample of MSM against a sample of repeat donors known to be HIV/AIDS negative beforehand is completely fair. What about repeat MSM donors against repeat donors overall? That would be a fair comparison to present.
Lucky for us, we’ve got friends in high places. The Red Cross has asked on numerous occasions that the ban be re-evaluated, and our Ohio-grown Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, announced earlier this summer that concrete steps were being taken to evaluate the FDA’s policy and possibly change the permanent deferral.
This is the same Kathleen Sebelius who, as governor of Kansas, refused to support an amendment that would make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. She walked a good political walk and the voters passed it into law anyway, it takes a lotta chutzpah to stand for what’s right as governor in spite of your state.
Columbus has another hometown hero in Gloria McCauley, now the Executive Director of BRAVO. In the early 1980s, she and her partner Chris responded immediately to the initial blood bans. “Chris and I, oh gosh, 30 years ago – when we had more energy,” she says with vigor, “we called our women friends, lesbian friends and organized these events. Blood drives.” For several years they put together parties at the YWCA where the price of admission was a pint of blood.
Remember, this was back when HIV/AIDS had first been identified, but no one really knew what it was. They only knew that it killed. When the first groups announced bans on gay men giving blood, Gloria and Chris saw three immediate needs in the community. The bans caused an instantaneous decrease in the blood supply, a very shallow research pool for identifying what HIV/AIDS was and there was a lack of dialogue in the community about the issue. Their events helped to address all three. Along with an added benefit that Columbus is still secretly known for today.
“One of the best things to come out of those was gays and lesbians working together in Columbus,” Gloria says. “That’s when we made the change toward a more unified community. We are reaping the benefits of that continued joint effort.”
This month, Outlook Media and the Red Cross present the spiritual descendant of Gloria and Chris’s efforts. Brothers in Blood is happening from 2p to 8p on Thursday October 13th at The King Arts Complex, 867 Mt. Vernon Ave. You can schedule a donation by going to www.redcrossblood.org, and enter the sponsor code ‘bib’ when searching for a blood drive near you. We’ll get you in and out on your schedule. Walk-ins are welcome, too.
This is music. This is some of Columbus’s best food. This is sharing something you care about with your friends on Facebook. It’s not just a cookie and juice box and you’re on your way. I will be there sharing a dialogue about the ban. And if you are a MSM, or otherwise can’t donate blood, please sign-up to volunteer and continue the dialogue yourself. Contact BrothersInBlood.Columbus@gmail.com for more information.
And then, after everyone-who-can-donate-for-us-until-we-can donates, we are going to stand up in the media and say, “This is how many donations we had, but what if we had doubled that?”
Needless to say, we are very excited. It’s been a fantastic ride to see how much support we have within and outside of the gay community. With companies like Sugardaddy’s on board for donations (and more surprises to come), it’s hard to imagine that the FDA’s ban can last much longer. We have so much support.
In the past few months, I’ve had a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice stuck in my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” It was written as a sympathetic portrayal of Jews in a time when it was not very popular to like people different from yourself. My, how much we’ve grown.
Shylock’s speech is particularly pertinent here, because it is apt on a metaphorical and a physical level. At the very core of this ban is the idea that we are different down to our very blood. And we have been pricked quite a bit lately. Let’s put that blood to good use.
Mackenzie Worrall is a Columbus small business enabler, Brothers in Blood coordinator, and sometime outlook ginger coffee boy. One day, these bios will list awards and honors, but right now he’ll settle for awesomeness. Contact BrothersInBlood.Columbus@gmail.com for more info.