Today the San Jose Mercury News reported that San Jose State University has banned Red Cross blood drives on campus due to the policy of the Red Cross and of the FDA to refuse blood donations from men who have sex with men regardless of health status.
The main point of SJSU's reasoning, as expressed in this letter from the president of SJSU, is that the University's anti-discrimination policy forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The president's letter points out that the FDA policy is antiquated and unbalanced, giving far more weight to MSM status than to other potential risk factors. For example, a person who reports they are HIV-, and who has had sexual contact with a partner who they know to be HIV+, may donate 12 months after the most recent contact. Yet a man who has had sex with a man even once since 1977 cannot donate ever under current guidelines. (For more details, view the FDA's standard donor questionnaire.) SJSU therefore concludes that the policy is discriminatory, and that blood drives operating under this policy cannot be permitted on campus.
SJSU is not the only campus to address the issue of homophobic discrimination in blood drives. The issue has also made news at MIT, Brandeis, Harvard, and Harbor High School in Santa Cruz, to name a few. Last October, the student government at UVM only narrowly voted against banning on-campus blood drives. The controversy there has been ongoing since at least as early as 2003, when blood-drives in dormitories were temporarily suspended. (That ban did not affect the blood drives in public spaces on campus).
This past fall I had an opportunity to speak with some of the UVM students who have been organizing around the issue. Whereas SJSU's official statement focused on the implications of the campus non-discrimination policy, and the irrationality of the FDA policy, the UVM students had additional concerns. They pointed out that many student organizations, including residence halls, fraternities, sororities and clubs, hold blood drives as group community service projects. Students may feel overt or subtle pressure to give blood, especially during these group projects. The student activists organizing against blood drives on campus worry that students who are HIV-positive and/or gay will be forced to out themselves, which can endanger their safety.
Of course those are not the only reasons that someone might be ineligible to donate blood. I've rarely worried about being "outed" as anemic, as under 18, as weighing less than 110 lbs., or as having recent body piercings (each of which excluded me from donating at some point in my college life). However many of the criteria are more sensitive. Currently I am not allowed to donate blood because I regularly take a medication that is injected. If I had been taking testosterone as an undergrad, and had to explain my ineligibility to fraternity brothers or hall-mates, it would have not only outed me as trans, but also exposed my private medical/gender decisions to public scrutiny, made everyone aware that I was in possession of a tightly restricted medication with a high street re-sale value, and seriously jeopardized my expectation of safety and security in a shared living environment.
And then of course, there's the equally serious but far more abstract and amusing issue of the actual meaning of the FDA criteria. The blood drive workers reading them always seem to think the questions are perfectly straightforward, but I am still struggling to figure out whether or how they apply to me. The last time I tried to donate blood (during the brief interval after I had gotten both weight and iron levels up to par and had no new piercings, but before I started taking testosterone), the blood drive worker asked me a standard question (for females), "In the past 12 months, have you had sex with a man who's had sex with another man, even once?" I responded, "Can you define 'man,' 'sex,' and 'man' for me?" She didn't answer, but did decide I was not eligible. Oh, well.
If you're interested in more info about how to organize against discriminatory blood drive policies on college and university campuses, check out this guide from Campus Pride.
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