It’s time to talk bloody bureaucracy

A reflection on blood bans

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Every few months, a red bus appears on Eastern Avenue and invites generous students to come in and donate blood. Naturally altruistic students are drawn to this truck. There are students and staff who have witnessed first hand how much blood is needed in cases of emergency, and feel a sense of obligation to assist.

Yet inside this bus operates one of the few sharp legal lines of segregation between LGBTI+ people and the rest of the population. Australia in 2018 still refuses to allow you to donate blood if within the last 12 months you’ve had oral or anal sex with another man, even using a condom.

‘Men who have sex with Men’ (MSM) have been shut out of donating needed blood out of a fear of HIV. The word ‘fear’ here is appropriate. It was put in place in the very heights of the AIDS panic in the 80s. However, the AIDS panic and spread of the 1980s has not continued all the way to 2018. Condoms are used frequently, men are regularly tested for STIs and PrEP is on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. It is unscientific and unethical to assume that the blood of gay men is too risky for the purposes of blood donation.

The most frustrating thing about this archaic policy is that even if one believes that the blood of gay men is still likely to be a danger to the health system, there are still so many options for reducing the blistering inequalities that exist in what should be an open and voluntary service. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which controls the prescriptions set by the Red Cross, could consider lowering the ban to 3 months since the last sexual encounter. They could only allow the blood of those who have been tested for all relevant STDs. The TGA could take a more detailed test, or offer a combined LGBTI+ sexual health/blood donation program. Yes, the 12 month ban remains in place and out of step with other developed nations (E.g. South Korea and South Africa).

The fact is, blanket policies like this discourage healthy MSM giving blood. A same sex male couple, despite being together for a year and only having sex with each other, and being regularly tested, is treated the same way as a gay man who has multiple unprotected sexual encounters with different individuals a week.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, gay men across the state lined up at the American Red Cross to give blood, only to be turned away by a similar archaic policy. To be denied one of the only practical means of assistance when people in your community are dying must have been heartbreaking. I only wish that they didn’t later learn that such a ban was most probably impractical. There is some hope for change. In Australia, the Victorian Andrew government has called for a review into the ban against it. The Red Cross has asked the Therapeutic Goods Administration for change. Also, young people are learning about this issue and speaking out. The UK National Health Service has reduced the deferral to 3 months, and is investigating of how it is possible for MSM to be able to donate in the future.

This issue has barely been raised as conversation in Australia. This represents how that the Australian bureaucratic and the Australian public are still comfortable with the notion of LGBTI+ people, MSM in this instance, as societal outsiders. It is easy to shut off a community from an opportunity because they are the other. Instead of being accommodative, the easy answer is to be exclusionary.

Attitudes need to change. Conversations need to happen. Policies need to be designed in a way where we’re thinking of how LGBTI inclusion can benefit everyone, not how LGBTI+ exclusion is an easy fix for the benefit of everyone. The only thing my blood is doing when exclusionary bans still exist is boiling.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.