I am a gay man. I have not been exposed to HIV: I get tested annually to make extra sure, though I have been in a committed relationship for several years now, and I always practiced safe sex before that. So I am really quite confident that I am not carrying any nasty diseases in my blood.
I used to give blood regularly, but I can't now because the Red Cross always asks "Have you had sex with another man, even once, since 1978?" and my answer is "YES, thank God!" That's the Wrong Answer. This is especially galling to me because (a) they test all the blood anyway, and the tests for HIV antibodies are pretty good these days; and (b) they'll take blood from any undergrad who can't remember the names of the last 8 people he's had sex with, as long as he's straight. In 1984, their policy was a rational response to a mysterious disease; at this point, it's homophobia.
I know that what they really mean is, "have you been exposed to HIV?" and I feel quite confident in answering that question "no," but that's not the question they ask. So I face a dilemma: on the one hand, I could answer their question falsely, and thereby donate life-giving, O - blood; or I could answer honestly, and withhold my blood. I have erred on the side of honesty for many years now, but maybe I should start erring on the side of life. What do you think?
Dear Bleeding Heart,
Your desire to give blood is beautiful—an echo of Jesus Christ's own sacrifice, and a holy calling for all Christians. Because aren't we the Body of Christ?
I don’t believe this is an either/or situation. The success of the American Red Cross is rooted in the integrity of those who offer to give blood, like you. It's because of such integrity and honesty that lives are saved every day. Believe it or not, you and the American Red Cross share the same bleeding heart, with the desire to revise biased policies.
Like you, the American Red Cross says its top priority is to save lives and to insure the safety of volunteer blood donors and the recipients of blood. Red Cross is critically aware of the value of volunteer donors and they want to increase donor participation. However, the organization must abide by the policies set by the American Association of Blood Banks which receives its guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration. It is the FDA that imposes the lifetime deferral eligibility requirements for Men Who Have Had Sex with Men (MSM), which the Red Cross legally must follow.
Check out the Red Cross's formal statement to increase the number of people who are eligible to donate and its challenge of the FDA's policies on its official website. There the Red Cross "presses for donor deferral policies that are fair and consistent and based on scientific evidence, while still protecting patients from potential harm." The Red Cross agrees with you and so do I, Bleeding.
The advancement in the research on HIV/AIDS has made the volunteer donation of blood and the receipt of blood safer. And because of this, the Red Cross is boldly questioning its own governance. The policy to be safe, fair and consistent is still unquestionably relevant today. That should never change. What should change is a biased and discriminatory standard that is often contradictory and presents a double standard (persons who report engaging in other high-risk sexual behavior like having sex with an HIV-positive person have their volunteer donations deferred by 12 months and not indefinitely). You can help bring about that change by remaining honest and by continuing to choose life.
Maybe it is time for you to take your vigilance to the next level. Each time you go to donate blood and you are denied the opportunity to give, you are challenging these inconsistent policies. Take your message to the streets (because I bet you are not the only bleeding heart), armed with facts to educate the public and raise awareness.
Consider going directly to the folks who are still stuck in the past and making these inconsistent policies in the first place—The American Association of Blood Banks and the Food and Drug Administration. If the Red Cross can take a stand for change and challenge its own policies, certainly you can, too. It turns out; the Red Cross needs your voice just as critically as they need your blood donation.
Bless you, and may you be a blessing,
Learn About Red Cross Eligibility Requirements
"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds - one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.
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