American Red Cross deferral policy towards queer men outdated, offensive

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GRAPHIC BY KAYLA PAYNE / THE FLAT HAT

The American Red Cross came to the College of William and Mary for a day-long blood drive Wednesday, March 28. For several hours in Trinkle Hall, countless members of the Tribe showed up to contribute their blood, and after hearing about the event, I immediately was interested in donating. Donating blood is an unquestionably good deed, and since the blood drive was a mere three-minute walk from my dormitory, it seemed like a simple, accessible and worthwhile endeavor.

I hastily texted two friends who were relaxing, and I organized a joint appointment for the three of us later that afternoon. Within half an hour, we were walking eagerly to Campus Center, our ebullient smiles indicating that we were thrilled with the prospect of potentially saving lives with our donations. However, once we walked into Trinkle, my grin dissipated as seizing pangs of guilt washed across my face.

I am an openly gay man. Since I came out at 14, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a myriad of achievements for the LGBTQ community, from the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the sweeping enactment of marriage equality from coast to coast. But thanks to the homophobic paranoia of the Reagan administration, a fiercely discriminatory policy against gay and bisexual men haunts me to this day.

As a queer man, I am legally prohibited from donating blood and can only do so if I abstain from sexual contact for 12 months. I knew before signing up for the College’s blood drive that I was not technically permitted to donate, so I should have anticipated feeling uncomfortable and guilty at the blood drive. In the moment that I scheduled my appointment, though, it was remarkably easy to rationalize donating. I regularly get tested for sexually transmitted infections, I practice safe sex, and I am physically in good shape.

Most importantly, my community’s inability to donate blood originates in the 1980s from the inaccurate assumption that all gay and bisexual men have HIV and that permitting any queer man to donate will inevitably lead to widespread contraction of the disease. Why should I feel morally obligated to adhere to such an outdated and offensive policy?

But as I sat in Trinkle filling out paperwork and reading over the Red Cross’s donation forms, I could not contain my shame. I was clearly prohibited from donating, and I feared that doing so would result in legal retribution.

I am an unabashed rule follower and felt guilt enveloping me as I considered the consequences that might ensue if I donated. I turned to my friends, tore off my donation sticker and trudged sadly to the exit as tears trickled down my face. I did not donate blood that day, and for the first time at the College, I felt as if my sexual orientation was unwelcome. Obviously, this policy is not the College’s fault, and I’m pleased that so many members of the Tribe came out to donate blood.

It speaks to the caliber of our institution that serving our community is an innate desire that so many students at the College possess. So while I don’t question our College’s commitment to LGBTQ advocacy, I do question our nation’s commitment to LGBTQ rights when we refuse to accept the blood of queer men as valid.

For centuries, queer sexuality has been maligned and repressed, and queer men are continually portrayed as hedonistic deviants undeserving or incapable of love. The United States’s current policy towards queer blood donation legitimizes these perspectives by claiming that consensual sex between two men is something that must be shunned and ignored. in the eyes of the federal government, the vessels of our bloodstream are only worthy of donation if they are untainted by the deviancy of our romantic desires. We are treated equally only by detaching ourselves from our identity.

I love the College partly because I never felt freer to be a gay man than when I stepped onto campus last August. Going to our campus’s recent blood drive was a piercing reminder that our College is a bubble in a world that is still homophobic. There is much work to be done, and until I can donate my blood just as any heterosexual man can, I, alongside other members of our College’s community, will strive to fight against homophobic injustices whenever and wherever we face them.

Email Ethan Brown at [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Ethan, I came across and read your thoughtful article and wanted to take a moment to comment as a long-time Red Cross supporter (contributing my own blood, money and time including as a part-time worker) and advocate for the LGBT community (with family as well as friends–including Red Crossers–who fall into each of the LGBT categories). I wish that didn’t sound like the tired old cliche “some of my best friends are…” although it is true, and these are all my own opinions.

    First of all, thank you so much for your kind and generous spirit–not only seeking to donate but encouraging others to join you. Second, as a writer myself, I appreciate your thoughtful and well-written article. Third, you absolutely should not feel any shame for who you are and who you love. The Red Cross Movement and the American Red Cross are inclusive and endeavors always to demonstrate respect and compassion to all impartially and without judgment.

    From my own experience with the Red Cross I can affirm and again share that their deferral policy (explained here: https://www.redcrossblood.org/donating-blood/lgbtq-donors) must adhere to FDA regulations (detailed here: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/Guidances/Blood/UCM446580.pdf).

    None of this is meant to suggest you shouldn’t voice your concern about the FDA guidelines for the deferral policy. I just wanted to offer you and your readers additional background and tell you that all the Red Crossers I personally know only ever express respect and pride towards members of the LGBT community who wish to give and are disappointed if/when they cannot. The Red Cross is always grateful for the helpers and givers who make their work possible and support their mission “to alleviate suffering.” I hope this comment reads and can be received in the kind way in which it is intended. Thank you!

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