Victims of national crises, accident victims, and people
living with hemophilia are at the mercy of the nation’s blood supply, which
seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. According to the American Red
Cross, more than 41,000 blood donations are needed daily in the United States, but less than one-tenth of the 38 percent of Americans deemed eligible actually donate blood,
leaving us continually undersupplied.
Current restrictions on giving blood prohibit donations from
males who have had sex with another male anytime since 1977. This restriction is a
discriminatory practice that limits the number of Americans deemed eligible to donate blood and thereby prevents many from receiving the blood they need
to live. But blood is more than a biological material our bodies need to
survive—it operates also as a metaphor for life, and draws distinctions between
insiders and outsiders, particularly with regard to citizenship. As such, this
policy not only represents queer bodies as unhealthy, but also prevents those
affected by the ban from participating in an act of civic duty that represents
the giving of life to one’s fellow citizens.
In 1983, at the height of the AIDS scare, the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), in conjunction with the Public Health Service (PHS),
first imposed donor exclusion policies prohibiting donations from any male who
had engaged in sexual activity with another male since 1977, which was believed to
be the year the AIDS epidemic began in the United States. At the time,
government and blood agencies lacked information on HIV/AIDS and effective
methods of preventing it. Evidence that AIDS could be transmitted through blood
transfusions caused panic, leading to the imprudent ban.
But since then, scientific advancements have increased
knowledge of AIDS. Testing methods have improved, and we can now ensure that all donated
blood is safe for transfusion. Among these advancements was the switch from
the use of enzyme immunoassays to nucleic acid testing. The latter tests for the presence
of the actual virus rather than for antibodies; this switch improved accuracy
by reducing the “false negative” period during which antibodies are not yet
present and thus undetectable through the immunoassay method. On the political
front, legislators, the American Medical Association, the American Red Cross,
the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers have all voiced
their opposition to the FDA’s policy, and have addressed the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services on this issue. But despite improvements in
blood-screening technology and voiced criticism of the ban, the criteria for
determining who should and should not donate blood have not changed.
The main flaw in the ban is that, despite what its language
might suggest, it targets people of a certain sexual orientation rather than
sexual behavior. The scientists and bureaucrats who helped develop the
restriction were careful not to use a term such as “gay.” The terminology “men
who have sex with other men” (MSM) theoretically focuses on acts rather than on
identities. The blanket nature of the ban and the questions that possible
donors encounter on screening surveys reveal unease and apprehension when
discussing non-heterosexual activity, which becomes conflated with
non-heterosexual identity. Even without delving into specifics, a person’s
identification as a male who has had sex with another male results in an
immediate and interminable ban. At the same time, a heterosexual male who has
had sex with a female with HIV can give blood after a year. The surveys should
screen for high-risk behavior—the practice of unprotected sex, for example—among all populations.
Approximately 22,000 people donate blood to the
American Red Cross each day. That means that every day, 22,000 people encounter the question: Are you a “male who has had sexual contact with
another male, even once, since 1977?” Females are asked if they have had sexual
contact with a male who has had sexual contact with another male, which is
regarded as high-risk behavior and imposes on those who answer affirmatively a deferral period rather than a
lifetime ban. While not all people may react to that question the same way, the
question draws a connection between queer males and AIDS, and denies the
possibility that queer males can be informed citizens.
By framing MSM sexualities as inherently high-risk, the FDA
robs queer males and their sex partners of the experience of giving blood. Giving blood, particularly during national
crises, has come to be a ritualistic civic duty. Giving blood is often marketed
to potential donors as an altruistic act that supports the nation’s health. The
moral worth associated with giving blood to a national community thus becomes a
performative act through which people declare their citizenship.
But such declarations of citizenship can also feed
marginalization, establishing those who belong and those who do not. In this
case, sexual identity determines one group of people, among many others, who
are restricted from feeling closer to a larger social body.
Certainly, protecting the recipients of blood donations is a
priority, and we can only laud the Red Cross, including the club that
represents them at the Claremont Colleges, for their service to those in need.
Also, “normalizing” the blood of queer citizens is not necessarily a solution
for those targeted by the policies; it merely addresses one form of structural
exclusion. However, there are ways we can support the move toward safer
practices in handling blood and better, less discriminatory policies toward donors.
We’re All Somebody’s Type, a demonstration organized by a
small group of 5C students, will be held outside of the Smith Campus Center (SCC) near Smiley Residence Hall on April 22, when the Red Cross Club will be
hosting a blood drive. We encourage everybody to participate in free HIV
testing in SCC 218 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then to attend the blood drive, where
those deemed ineligible will be rejected from giving blood. Through letter-writing, a photography project, and more, all set up at a table outside of the
SCC that afternoon, we hope to convey to the FDA that there is a supportive
community who would like to donate blood but, as of now, cannot do so. We aim
to support blood donations for those in need and safe sexual practices for
everyone, and at the same time, push for the removal of a policy that
perpetuates misguided ideas about queer bodies.
Benjamin Kersten PO ’15 is majoring in art history with a minor in anthropology. As an intern at the Pomona College Museum of Art, he is planning an exhibition around Sue Coe’s AIDS Portfolio.