The answer is still a resounding no, unfortunately.
Many times throughout the year, the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) makes a call to the public stating that they simply aren’t going to have enough donations to meet the demand of hospitals. After years of enduring homophobic policies, if the CBS was to remove its ban on men who have sex with men (MSM), their blood banks would be filled across Canada by the end of the day by the very people they have turned away for far too many years.
“It’s in you to give” shouldn’t have fine print.
A genuine desire to help fellow Canadians is why gay and trans men want to donate blood. And our blood is as safe as every other demographic because it is tested, just like every other donation.
In 1972, after the Krever inquiry, when so little was known about HIV, banning gay men from donating blood could be argued to make sense. Thousands of Canadians were affected by the Canadian Red Cross’ failure to implement appropriate measures to prevent contamination within the blood system; and because so little was known about the disease, the LGBTQ community carried on as usual with little regard for condom use, and until more information about the disease was made available, the community was decimated.
Now we know better. And we have known better for a long time.
Public policy has to be evidence-based, period. When technology improves, as it has in methods of HIV detection in blood product donations, there has to be a change in policy when it becomes outdated by these developments. Nucleic acid testing, the method now employed by the CBS, has reduced the window period – or the period at which modern testing cannot detect the viral load in a blood sample — to only nine days.
Have you had sex in the past nine days?
That should be the question. The CBS should not, in 2018, be asking a pointedly homophobic question. If the CBS was to adopt this suggestion, it would signify a fundamental shift in screening practices, placing a higher importance on an individual’s behaviour — not basing practice on outdated and discriminatory stereotypes of a community.
It should also be noted that the CBS has lowered the lifetime ban for MSM to one year. That is simply illogical: if the deferral period is anything outside of the window period of HIV test screening, then the deferral period is too long. Their request that in order for gay and trans men to donate blood, they must refrain from an essential part of simply being human, I would ask the CEO, Dr. Graham Sher of CBS to also refrain from sexual intimacy for a year — if he does it, I’ll do the same and we can donate together at the same time.
Unlike the CBS, HIV doesn’t discriminate. If you are sexually active or participate in the use of intravenous drugs, there is an increased risk of HIV transmission. And because of that, we should be more reliant on the technology that we have and assess risk based on 2018 information and technology, not that of 1972.
There are many demographics that have a disproportionate rate of HIV infection, as per the same reports that outline MSM as disproportionately at risk; Indigenous, First Nations and Inuit, as well as the Black, African and Caribbean communities are demographics cited by the CBS and Health Canada as being at higher risk for HIV in Canada — imagine if the CBS discriminated against members of these communities in the same way that they continue to discriminate against gay and trans men. There would be rioting in the streets. And blood supply would be even shorter.
Notwithstanding the many, many years that the CBS has continued to propagate a stigma about the associations of gay and trans men with HIV, the LGBTQ community stands ready to roll up our sleeves and lend a helping vein where it’s needed. Our friends and family might need blood, too.
And Canadian Blood Services, don’t forget: It’s in everyone to give.
Director of external affairs
St. John’s Pride Inc.