This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Age 13, as a perennially conscientious little homo, I knew if I wanted to come out of the closet any time soon, I'd better do my homework. For the next two years or so, I devoted my life to reading everything and anything the internet had to say about being G-A-Y.
I learned about everything from the history of homosexuality's classification as a mental illness to collating a list of rumored gay celebrities going as far back as Ted Heath. By the time I burst out the closet, there were few who could claim to have had as many pink-points already in their handbag.
Against that backdrop I was being slowly convincedthat being gay wasn't going to be as hard as I'd imagined. After all, this was the 2000s: Section 28 (a law that forbid any local government in the UK from promoting homosexuality) had been repealed; it was generally agreed that the gay-panic defense wasn't really a legitimate defense; and house music—a genre that owed its genesis to a gay club in Chicago—was having a resurgence.
So it came as a bit of a slap to learn about the MSM blood ban—a law banning men who have had sex with men from donating blood in the UK.
The rationale is fairly straightforward: sexually active gay men are at a significantly higher risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV, and although all blood is carefully screened before it is cleared for use, there is a three-week window where HIV may be undetectable. As a result, until as recently as 2011, all men who have ever had sex with a man were banned from donating blood for life. The new law has reduced that time to 12 months, but a blanket ban is still retained, refusing to take account of criteria such as whether the man is in a long-term monogamous relationship, whether he uses protection, or if he's recently been tested and cleared.
To give blood as a monogamous gay man you have to resist from engaging in protected or unprotected sex with your partner for a year. The Stonewall activist organization thinks this is a step in the right direction, but it isn't, really. It's just a more cleverly disguised form of homophobia.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating making the process riskier. If even one supply of infected blood got through the screening, it would be an absolute tragedy. But a blanket ban on men who have had sex with men makes no sense. Rather than protecting us from HIV-transmission, it's simply demonizing gay sex.
As a society of medical service users, we are being protected from a gay straw man—some clichéd sexual deviant who has a handlebar mustache and spends every Saturday at gangbangs in Lidl car parks. I love that man, but he is a stereotype, not a representative of the entire gay population. It's an archaic implication, more in line with the homophobia of the earliest days of the HIV scare (when screening technology was unavailable) than 2015.
Maybe it seems minor; maybe I'm being over-dramatic. Gay men make up, what, less than 5 percent of the population of the UK? Surely it's just sensible to cover our backs and ban them all—after all, that quantity of blood is too negligible to make a real difference anyway, right?
No doubt this is the justification used by plenty of officials. But after centuries of institutionalized persecution, marginalizing homosexuals for simplicity's sake doesn't really cut it.
Consider for a moment the symbolism of this ban. That this is all phrased through the semantics of "pollution" and "blood" and then verified by science is not insignificant. Blood is a powerful metaphor, one that is embedded in our culture to mean affinity, love, attachment. Blood is the life-force, it is the substance of being, it is what connects us to our loved ones, it is what constitutes a family.
Ideas of "pollution" and "cleanliness" have been used to the effect of marginalizing individuals in almost all known societies. During menstruation, women in some cultures are still banished to marginal territories in order to prevent infecting the rest of the group. "Pollution" was the metaphor used to normalize the relegation of the lowest caste Burakumin to the most unpleasant and worst paid tasks in feudal Japan. It's the same one used by the Nazis to persecute the Jews.
By labeling gay blood "unclean," we are not only talking about medicine, we are talking about politics. We are demonizing a sector of society, characterizing them as subhuman, unworthy of even the privilege of sacrificing themselves for the benefit of society. Unworthy, in the simplest sense, of integration. Chuck in "science"—the God of atheism—to back it all up and you've essentially been granted divine endorsement.
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Let's get one thing straight (no hetero): I had no intention of giving blood when I first came across the MSM controversy, nor, being under 17, was I of an age where I could have done. Moreover, I'm not sure I would do now, however easy that might be.
The reality of me donating blood would be to turn up at a clinic and tick a box on a form saying I have not had sex with a man in the last 12 months. But why should I have to tuck in my rainbow bandana and lie on a form in order to donate my 100 percent uncontaminated, have-never-had-unprotected-sex blood to a person in need? Why should I have to lie about my sexuality when my blood is going to undergo the same screening as a man who has had unprotected sex with hundreds of women and not had to lie about it?
Surely a more sensible setup would be to tailor the criteria, distinguishing more precisely between people who engage in high-risk sexual activities and those who don't. Everyone, whether they have sex with men or not, could be directed to a set of criteria determining risk-factor, such as whether you are in a long-term monogamous relationship, whether you regularly have unprotected sex, whether you have recently been tested... Based on this, they could decide whether or not they deem themselves suitable for donation. It might be based on trust, but so too is the current system. If anything, this way would create less risk of transmitting disease, as well as achieving the not-insignificant task of stemming a prejudice that is systemic.
Changing the donor register is about more than just laziness. It is about more than just a medical responsibility for the long list of patients in need of transfusions. It is about a social responsibility to change an institutionalized and archaic attitude towards gay men. It's about homophobia.
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