Monthly Archives: March 2022

Homophobia is a thing of the past in UK blood donation

Last June I gave blood for the first time ever, though it wasn’t the first time I tried to give blood – that was 40 years ago. I was a seminarian back then, studying to be a priest, living in a rectory, while going to university. There was a blood drive on Sunday after mass. I stood in the queue with all the other parishioners while we completed our medical forms. There on the form it was made clear that as a ‘homosexual’ man I was not allowed to give blood. I was closeted at the time and already felt like there was something wrong with me for being a homosexual. The AIDS hysteria and rampant homophobia of the time only added to those feelings of self-loathing.  I had to think quickly on my feet and find some excuse to mark on the form so that I could get out of giving blood without letting on I was a gay man. My conscience wouldn’t let me fake being straight to give blood just in case I had the gay disease. I just accepted at the time that I was a risk to society, simply because I was gay. That was certainly the messaging in the press and government at the time. Gay men were dangerous. Full stop. As a class of people, we were tainted, risky, vile, poisoned and must be avoided. Of course, it wasn’t just us. It was also drug users and Haitians – but the vitriol was focussed primarily on us. 

Twenty years later and in a different, more progressive country, I thought I would give blood. But no, the blanket ban on gay men giving blood was still in effect in the UK.  By this time, I was a very out gay man and had really come to understand homophobia and all the other isms in society. I recognised this time that the problem was not me or my blood. The problem was homophobia. The original and continuing ban was based on prejudice and fear about an entire class of people. With the advent of reliable HIV testing, I could guarantee that my blood was not tainted. How did I know this? Well I had regular testing and completely changed my behaviour. I did not engage in ANY risky behaviour. Most of my friends at the time were doing the same thing. We went to safer sex parties, which were much like Tupperware parties – not parties to have sex, where we learned about safer sex practices. We used self-help and community development activities to educate ourselves and change our behaviour. These were also a lot of fun and a good laugh. During this period I had two 4-5 year periods of celibacy as well as a long-term monogamous relationship. My blood was safer than most sexually active straight people I knew at the time.

I had straight friends who didn’t believe they were at risk of HIV infection so got up to all sorts of unsafe sexual behaviours. How did I know there was lots of unsafe sex going on in the straight world? Well, as my gay male friends can attest, many straight women love to talk to us about their sex lives. I think sometimes it’s nice to talk to a man about sex, without any sexual feelings getting in the way.  Regardless of the reason, we gay men often know all sorts of things about what straight women get up to or what they want from their male partners. For example, some of my female friends practiced anal sex – both so they didn’t get pregnant as well as for pleasure reasons. Another friend was called “Head Queen” by her sorority sisters as she thought that oral sex would not transmit HIV or other sexual diseases. Others who used oral contraceptives had a range of partners without using protection. Still others used types of protection that were not really useful against HIV (e.g. lambskin condoms). Though straight men were not as likely to share these types of details with me as a gay man, I still heard enough straight men talking about their sexual exploits to know that they too were engaging in high-risk behaviour – though some of what I heard was likely made up or at least exaggerated! Because I had become a safe sex expert out of necessity, I tried to educate my straight friends about their risk for HIV. Often, I was ignored because in the messaging from governments and media outlets, most people heard only that AIDS was about being a type of person (e.g., gay men), and not about behaviours. This is homophobia. As long as you weren’t one of “them” you were safe. This is an example of how homophobia also hurt straight people….worldwide now 50% of new infections occur in women and currently in the UK more straight people than gay/bisexual people are being diagnosed with HIV. But getting back to the main point of this blog post, the ban on donating blood should always have been about behaviours….not sexual orientation. It took untilJune of 2021 for this to happen in the UK.  It is still not the case in the USA, despite the Red Cross believing the UK approach should be adopted.

As I gave blood last June during the 1st week gay people in the UK were allowed to, I let staff know what it meant to me to finally after 40 years be able to give blood. They were so welcoming and happy to see us coming in droves to give blood. They said lots of the gay men were saying the same thing as me. I knew I would be back. You are able to donate blood every three months, but I was unable to donate in September for a behavioural reason – I got a tattoo that month.  I needed to wait 4 months after my tattoo to be able to give blood again. This is a very sensible behavioural screening. After my 4 months were up, I gave blood the second time. Because I came back to give another blood donation, I got a special pin for showing up again, and I also got some information about my blood type. I have a rare blood type that is constantly in demand, and all I could think of was the number of people I could have helped save or help treat over the past 40 years if it wasn’t for the homophobia and fear that guided public policy for so long.  I plan on making up for lost time and giving blood as often as I can. I encourage others to do the same if you meet the now sensible eligibility criteria. Now if we can just tackle the rest of homophobia and the other isms too. 

Bathroom Police

This past week I’ve heard from two different female friends about their experience being accused of being in the wrong bathroom. Neither of them could be mistaken for being a Playboy Bunny, a Miss UK contestant, or a WAG, but I would never have guessed in a million years that anyone would assume that either of them were anything other than a woman. It’s true that neither of them fit an idealised, commercialised vision of western femininity or Hollywood fictional beauty. One is a butch lesbian the other is a very tall woman with an earth goddess type figure in a heterosexual marriage.  Both are physically lovely, but apparently neither are womanly enough despite having been born with ovaries, a cervix, vagina, uterus and a biology that was designed to make more oestrogen than testosterone.  Both were stunned and at a loss for words…though they both continued to do their business. My earth goddess friend was upset at herself for not having a trans-positive response at the ready to confront the woman policing appropriate gender appearance. She posted her experience on Facebook and I was taken aback by the well-meaning people who said things like, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this, “That’s awful”, or my favourite, “That’s terrible as you are every bit a woman”. The responses seemed to suggest there was something wrong or ‘less than’ with being trans. I’m sure none of these people are overtly transphobic, but the responses do suggest the inculcation of transphobic beliefs. It’s not surprising as we do live in a transphobic culture. My earth goddess friend is comfortable in her womanhood and was not upset about being mistaken for a trans woman (or a bloke in a dress as I’m sure the gender police assumed). She was upset she didn’t stand up for trans rights in the moment. I conceptualised her experience as one of collateral transphobia and she has nothing to regret about the encounter. Continuing to go for a wee was like pissing on that other person’s transphobia. Sure, in hindsight it can be fun to imagine coming back with a pithy saying or imagine flashing one’s genitalia to make a point, but carrying on as normal works just as well. Also, if you don’t belong to a specific oppressed group, you don’t typically have the previous experiences that help you develop coping mechanisms like instant come backs. 

Both of these experiences have really gotten me thinking about the difficulties the gender police would have if they began to police all bathroom usage. I do worry that we are not far away from that going by my friends’ recent experiences.  I began to think of all the gender non-conforming people I’ve met in my travels since 1980. I thought of Jai who took me in when I was made homeless as a young gay man because of homophobia. Jai was the 2nd butchest lesbian in Atlanta, and one could be forgiven for thinking she was a man, but she was all woman. I would have loved to see the bathroom police try to stop her and escape with their lives. Jai was fierce, but downright girlie compared to Brenda, who was the butchest lesbian in Atlanta. In fact, Brenda was the butchest person I ever met.  Brenda could have gone into any bathroom she wanted to, and no one would have dared stopped her! It’s not just butch lesbians that could cause some difficulty for the bathroom police. In Miami I had a straight cis-woman friend who had the deepest speaking voice I’ve ever heard. She had a strangely shaped body and didn’t quite know how to dress herself. Her gender appeared nebulous at best, but if you heard her speak it was even more confusing. The gender police would have had real difficulty deciding whether to inspect genitalia or not. Going back to Atlanta there was Sandi, who was what was called at the time, a post-operative transexual (gawd that sounds awful now). In today’s language Sandi was a trans woman who had had gender affirming surgery. Even with the surgery, years of hormones and buckets of makeup, Sandi always looked like a bloke in a dress. However, once you spoke to her for any time at all, her maternal, female spirit was enveloping. She stopped looking like ‘a bloke in a dress’ and simply was Sandi your female friend.  However, imagine the gender police’s consternation if they made Sandi show her genitalia before allowing passage into the women’s toilet.  Then there was Mandy – one of the most beautiful women you would meet anywhere in the world. She was drop dead gorgeous, and you would never look at her and think she was trans. She was one of the many trans women who can just pass. Unlike some of my trans friends who tried to pass, Mandy was loud and proud, announcing to strangers in her feminine strong Southern drawl that she had “her tree chopped down and her trunk split.” She loved to shock people with that one.  Imagine this scene: Mandy with all her womanly gorgeousness approaches the women’s toilets, the bathroom police take one look at her and say, “Come on in here honey. We can tell you are a girl.” I can just imagine the horror on the gender police’s faces when Mandy used her shock line! I do declare, I would love to see that!

So far my examples have been about the ‘confusion’ that women who ‘look like’ men or some trans women would cause the bathroom police. Let’s not leave trans men out of this crazy fun. Where should my friend John go to the bathroom? John has had top surgery and has been on testosterone for many years. He has a much better beard than me and does masculinity way better than me. He truly ‘looks like’ a man. However, he has not had gender affirming ‘bottom’ surgery so still has female genitalia. Would the gender police let him in the female toilets? They would definitely try to stop him yet would be in for quite a shock if he dared to bare all. Thankfully he’s able to peacefully use the stalls in male toilets. 

I don’t want to leave my intersex friends out of the picture. Where would the gender police have them go? I met Billy/Billie first as Billie. They presented as female. Billie was intersexed and assigned one gender at birth that didn’t really fit who they were. In the process of becoming clean and sober Billie started to present as Billy and was very androgenous.  I wonder which bathroom the gender police would want Billy/Billie to go to regardless of how they were presenting. 

All of these examples illustrate just how crazy all this bathroom hysteria is. My trans friends have been using the bathroom that is most appropriate to how they live since I started meeting them way back 1980. And trans people have been doing it way before I became aware of their existence. The world hasn’t come to an end because trans women use women’s toilets. Why has it become such a polarising issue in recent years?

The transphobic hysteria has been heating up in Scotland again with the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act. There are versions of the transphobic hysteria across the UK and people are getting themselves tied up in knots over it. I know that a lot of the moral panic that swept the United States was created by right wing Christian groups who were losing their battles against broader LGBTQ acceptance and human rights, and they have been funding that hysteria here in the UK now too. The right wing landed on using anti-trans messages to push back against the progress we were seeing across a wide range of issues including LGBT rights and women’s rights…and the anti-trans message was a winner. It whips up a moral panic and it creates strange bedfellows, reminding me of how some black Christian groups joined with right wing white Christian groups to oppose abortion or gay rights, when just years before the white right wing was fighting FOR segregation. The anti-trans movement has brought together some feminists, some lesbians with right wing groups who are homophobic, misogynistic, sexist or very conservative when it comes to women’s rights or what being a woman is. 

The discourse I hear coming from the anti-trans movement is that women like my two friends I began this essay about aren’t womanly enough. Real women are feminine and lady like. This discourse is part of what the feminist movement and many lesbians have been fighting against for generations. I find it odd that the moral panic has allowed some feminists and lesbians to crawl into bed with the right wing. 

I also hear discourse that suggests that women are weak, helpless, fragile victims and they must be protected from all the evil predatory men that are around every corner. This just strikes me as incredibly sexist. Yes, there are predatory and dangerous men in the world, but that doesn’t justify that some feminists and some lesbians should work with the right wing to oppress trans people. Again, the moral panic created by the religious right has led to some crazy bedfellows. I fear that the moral panic around trans issues has given momentum to conservative forces and we are beginning to see the rollback of hard fought progress. Just look at the Don’t Say Gay bill that has just passed in Florida (Think Section 28 – only worse). Or look at all the roll back on women’s reproductive rights sweeping the USA, or the strong pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement. If you don’t think this could happen in the UK, think again. Ask my friends who were told they were in the wrong bathroom…the ugliness that is so apparent in the USA is already taking root here in the UK. 

Content and Questioning: Living Comfortably with Contradiction

My last blog entry was just over 8 weeks ago, and my retirement decision continues to feel like the correct decision. However, retirement only feels like a reality now. The very beginning of my retirement occurred over the Christmas period, and we had a 12-day Norwegian cruise booked for the 30th of January as one of the bucket list events on my things to do in retirement list.  So essentially from the 17th of December until the 13th of February I was living in a retirement, holiday, vacation bubble. Sure, as my previous retirement blogposts document, I was working on developing a shape to my retirement life, but retirement didn’t feel 100% real. That initial two-month period was fabulous and I felt myself de-stress, relax, lighten and begin to recover. The trip to Norway was particularly rejuvenating and I remained in a childlike state of wonder, amazement, exploration, mindfulness, and joy for the entire trip. (More about that in another blog). Normally on holiday I would remain worried or thinking about work – and often doing some work. Not having the unconscious/semi-conscious worry was palpable (and lovely). 

On Monday the 14th of February I woke up and had a panic – “Shit I’m retired now. What am I going to do with myself?” I was shocked at the intensity of the panic and anxiety that washed over me in that minute. I sat with those feelings as I went about my new morning routine – coffee for my husband, dogs out for a walk, exercise, meditation, journaling, breakfast and bath. The panic eased, but I was left with an uneasy questioning sense of “is this enough?” I began to engage with the days domestic tasks and then began to do my intellectual pursuits in the afternoon: reviewing an article for a journal, reviewing promotions applications for an international university, preparing for some mediation sessions coming up later in the week. The rest of the week followed a similar pattern as I continued to work on those intellectual pursuits.

In my meditation practice I began to simply ask the question in the 3rd person, “What do you want to do in retirement?” I just let that question percolate in meditation and in my unconscious for the next several weeks. Thankfully there was no panic, just a reflective wondering. On one level it seemed a bit odd that I would be asking myself this question because I had done so much pre-retirement planning and thinking, but I know myself well enough to realise that my processing and discernment process occurs in waves. (Even for simple decisions – which drives my quick decision-making husband crazy). There was a sense of comfort in simply asking the question in meditation even though the initial structure I developed was working for me.

The following two weeks were much the same, though we came down with a cold. We went to our first big event since lockdown over that weekend and our immune systems must have gone into a state of shock! Though I was still doing some intellectual activities, the cold really slowed me down (e.g. I was having to take a nap everyday and my thinking wasn’t as clear). I reflected on how while working I would have continued to push through the cold. At the end of that two-week period I had my delayed night out with the staff from the School. It was so good to see people from work and I was reminded just how much I liked the people I worked with. I got to hear about some of the university machinations and that was enough to remind me that I really don’t miss the stress that came with being Dean, but I do miss the interaction with the amazing people there. The School gave me an incredibly thoughtful and beautiful retirement present – a commissioned painting (the graphic with this blogpost) by DJCAD alumna Stephen French. I was so touched and it is one of my favourite views from Dundee – a view of the V&A looking across the River Tay. I lived on and looked over the Tay every day for 13 years and I do miss the beauty and power of that majestic river. 

I took the train home the next morning and again reflected on how retirement really was the right thing for me at this point. I also felt very fortunate to have had such a great career and to have worked with such amazing people over the years. I was also very proud of my legacy. It was a nice place to be mentally/emotionally. At the same time, I was still asking myself, “What do you want to do in retirement?” No panic, no anxiety, no fear…. just a simple question.

Our immune system must have been weakened by that lingering cold, as I picked up another bug in all those festivities/train journeys and was totally flattened for two weeks. We were convinced it was COVID at first because of the horrible cough and extreme fatigue, but numerous PCR and LFD tests said no. Again, I reflected on the experience of being unwell while retired as compared to being unwell while working. If I’m honest with myself, I really was rubbish at self-care while working. I frequently went to work while sick, came back too soon, or worked from home while ill. Part of that was being an American who was brought up with having only two weeks sick leave entitlement each year, but part of it was my own workaholic drive or my fear of letting people down. For the past 2 weeks I just let myself be sick, engaged in soothing self-care, slept a lot – a whole lot, played on my PlayStation when I had the energy, and took the dogs out for their walks. It was such a strange, but pleasant, experience to be sick, but not stressed. I do have some deadlines coming up in the next 2 weeks, but I felt no stress or worry. I wonder what my working life would have been like if I hadn’t run myself ragged all the time. 

So here I am now, back in the saddle again. Back to doing my routine, feeling well, engaging in my intellectual pursuits, doing a wee bit of volunteer work, continuing my caring responsibilities and picking up my hobbies. I am really content AND I’m still asking, “what do you want to do in retirement?”  This apparent contradiction feels great. Let’s see where this ends up.