July 5, 2011
UI professor studies how gay men resist blood-donation ban, 30 years after discovery of AIDS
A friend of Jeff Bennett's slid into her seat in a classroom during graduate school. She had just passed by a campus blood drive, where fellow students were rolling up their sleeves to save lives.
"There's a blood drive today," she remarked. Then, sarcastically: "You should donate."
"Oh right, with my fear of needles?" Bennett said, laughing.
"No … didn't you know that you can't give blood?" she said. "Because you're gay."
It was 2001, and like many gay men, Bennett was unaware of a federal policy established during the AIDS scare two decades earlier that prohibits him, for life, from giving blood. Now a scholar at the University of Iowa, he studies how the rule remains in place today – despite major advances in screening procedures for HIV – and the ways in which gay men resist it.
"The ban was created in 1983, and I think, at the time, they made the right call," said Bennett, the author of "Banning Queer Blood" (University of Alabama Press, 2009) and assistant professor of communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "They didn't know what HIV was, how it spread, or how to detect it. People were dying, it was a worldwide crisis, and this was a move to protect the blood supply.
"But the policy hasn't changed one word since then, and at this point, it's ridiculous not to revise it. An entire population is excluded from helping to save lives, regardless of the longevity and monogamy of their relationships, their safe-sex practices, or their HIV status. It doesn't make sense."
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS. In recent years, the American Red Cross, along with major blood organizations AABB and America's Blood Centers, advocated replacing the lifetime ban with a one-year deferral following male-to-male sexual contact. They say the lifetime ban is unnecessary, with new tests that rapidly detect HIV-positive donors.
The Food and Drug Administration continues to require men, before giving blood, to disclose whether they've had sex with another man since 1977. If they have, even once, they're forever forbidden from donating. The FDA has said those men are at increased risk of infection by HIV, which can be transmitted to others by blood transfusion.
More than 38,000 blood donations are needed every day in the United States, according to the Red Cross. A 2010 report by the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law estimated that lifting the ban would add 219,000 pints each year to the nation's blood supply, an increase of 1.4 percent.
Bennett conducted 21 in-depth interviews with gay men about how they challenge the ban. Some ignore the policy, pretend to be straight, and check "no" when they come across the question on the blood-donation paperwork. Others simply relinquish the opportunity to "give the gift of life," in some cases confronting staff or volunteers at the donation site about the fairness of the policy.
"In transcripts of government deliberations of the policy, they were always talking about the fear of gay men who would donate out of spite, lying about their sexuality to shock the system or to make a political statement," Bennett said. "I didn't find that, at all. All of the men I talked to lied because they wanted to give blood for altruistic reasons. They viewed blood donation as a civic responsibility."
Some had been on the receiving end of a transfusion at one point in their life, or remembered their parents giving blood regularly. Several of them cited the 'one pint saves three lives' statistic.
Seven of the men refused to hide their sexual orientation at blood drives, insisting that they practiced safe sex, had been tested for HIV, and had a right to be treated as their heterosexual counterparts.
One of them attempts to donate regularly to make a point, knowing he'll be turned away. He reports blood drives to anti-discrimination authorities on his campus, and notes that he has had the same partner for eight years, while some of his straight friends had several partners in a couple weeks.
"The policy would make more sense if it treated like risks alike," Bennett said. "A straight man could have unprotected sex with 10 women in two months, and they'd say, 'OK, wait a year and come back.' They don't do that for gay people. There's this idea that if you're of one population and you wait a year, you're magically reborn; if you're of another population, you're perpetually contaminated."
Bennett is also troubled by the ambiguity of the policy, which does not define what constitutes sex, and he argues that the stats used in policy deliberations are problematic. He contends that some of the data were collected from gay nightclubs, "various street locations" and even STD clinics.
"One of the more shocking findings is that there was no privileging of gay people as blood donors," Bennett said. "They're typically situated as sexually promiscuous deviants who might hurt the blood supply. If your data is from an STD clinic, where people seek testing and treatment when they think they have a problem, I don't think that's a very representative sample of the population that is likely to give blood. Blood donors, as a whole, tend to be civically active, health-conscious individuals."
Bennett is optimistic the policy will be revised, but doesn't expect it to happen soon. He anticipates there will eventually be a one-year deferral policy for men who have had sex with other men.
"Government inaction led to the deaths of thousands of people in the early 1980s, and the fear of additional harm haunts these agencies," he said. "For that reason, this policy will evolve slowly. The one-year deferral would be a step in the right direction, but still suboptimal in that it would preclude gay men in monogamous relationships, those who practice safe sex, and those who are health-conscious, from donating."
In the meantime, Bennett expects to see additional protests on the issue on campuses nationwide.
In addition to authoring "Banning Queer Blood," Bennett has published several research papers on the deferral policy. He travels nationally to share his expertise in panel discussions on the topic.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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