Christopher Karas, a Canadian human rights activist in his early 20s, has set his sights on a target that's been frustrating gay men for decades: restrictions on blood donation. Here's how Karas hopes to change that.
I want to donate blood and I'm not able to. That's why I've taken on the Canadian government with a federal lawsuit at the Canadian Human Rights Commission to challenge the MSM—men who have sex with men—deferral period at Canadian Blood Services. We're asking Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services to change the policy, eliminate it, or apply it to everyone. If you're going to have this policy, the only fair way of actually having it is to apply it to everyone. Of course, they don't want to do that, because fewer people would be able to donate. We actually want people to donate. We think it's important, and I think most Canadians would think that too.
I really felt a need to challenge the ban, so I went out on my own and retained counsel to do this. I actually created a fundraiser a while ago, and it wasn't successful; we didn't raise any funds. So I've been relying on my own money to pay for this. I've been working ever since I was 12, so I did have some money to spend towards this, but I don't think everyone has that opportunity. I don't think we should expect people to have to legally challenge things for things to change. The Canadian government, the Liberals, promised to change this, and they didn't do anything about it except make a petition.
It used to be a lifetime ban. And then it actually moved down to a five-year deferral, and from there it moved down to a one-year. But there isn't really any public evidence, or scientific evidence, to show that a ban should exist. I was actually speaking to a scientist the other day and she was telling me that anal intercourse is the same for women and men. So, heterosexuals are partaking in the same risk behavior as MSM people, yet MSM are treated differently.
I've noticed for some time now that there was a lot of push from the community to change the policy, but the advocacy that's been done in Canada hasn't actually made much progress, other than shifting the ban to a deferral. But that deferral is still what I consider a lifetime ban, because there are very few cases where people are celibate for a year.
I haven't donated blood despite the ban. But there was a case, the Kyle Freeman case, in 2012, where Kyle Freeman actually donated despite the ban and he was sued for $100,000. He counterclaimed for $100,000 and said he didn't have an infection. It turns out he was infected with syphilis and therefore he lost. That case somewhat inspired this case. I now know that it's possible to challenge the policy: I am able to say that I don't have any STIs, and therefore I should be able to donate, but I'm not able to. Why is that?
One of the big points that is forgotten or missed on this is that the people who need blood are not getting it. There are many people in our community who have rare blood types and aren't able to donate. Some of those people are in what would be considered low-risk relationships who use condoms, have one partner, and partake in safer sex practices. The Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, actually has discretion to change the policy. She doesn't even need to request the change of Canadian Blood Services; she can just do it herself.
The first thing I'm asked every time this topic comes up is: "But don't they test the blood?" That's always the question. It hasn't really changed. Everyone seems to ask that question. From what I know, they do test the blood. So, what is the real problem?
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When there was the blood crisis of the 1980s, it wasn't so much because of the LGBQT community, which has often been blamed. It's actually because the Canadian Red Cross, which was the first institution that was arranging our blood, bought blood from an Arkansas prison. They used this blood, and knew that it was infected. They were sued for millions of dollars and are no longer allowed to operate our blood system—that's Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec now.
There are also paid plasma clinics. After the crisis of the 1980s, we had an inquiry by the Conservatives, the Krever Inquiry, which found that voluntary blood was the only safe blood, and in only rare cases should we use paid blood. But Health Canada keeps offering licenses to paid plasma clinics. Often these paid plasma clinics are situated in low income areas where the risk is actually higher because the individuals who are donating are doing so for the purposes of receiving money, and not so much for the benefit of the blood system.
I'm also considering a lawsuit on organs, because organ regulations also don't allow MSM to donate. And I intend to help those who want to challenge the trans ban (Canada has also banned trans people, trans women especially, from donating, and it's time for that to change)—there's a lot more work that needs to be done than I even expected. I hope that we can all be a part in that change, that we can all do something that will contribute to a better world.