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.