It was acceptable in the ’80s: Scotland’s ‘gay blood’ ban

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Rhys Harper
Online Editor

France’s rolling back of their medical ban on blood donations from MSMs (men who have sex with men: gay men, bisexual men, men who want to try new things but are frightened by the dental effects of crystal meth) two weeks ago is a welcome improvement for LGBT citizens across the channel. MSMs in pays des droits de l’homme have until now been outlawed from donating blood for use in transfusions, a policy brought in appropriately at the height of the western AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, before most of us were even born, never mind hunting and gathering at the midnight hour on Grindr. But time has moved on, as time generally does, and the world which gay and bisexual men inhabit today is very different to the world our counterparts of yesteryear knew. Cher is still around being Cher, but in 2015, we can get married, have kids, grow cold and distant from our other halves, resent our adult children as we grow old, and die feeling as unfulfilled and spiteful as our heterosexual brothers and friends. Equality and all that.

Though the reduction in France is welcome, it is just that: a reduction. The French regulations are now aligned with the MSM “blood ban” in place across the UK (except Northern Ireland, obviously: which is still run like a student union by people even pettier than those who actually run student unions, if you can comprehend such imaginings). In the UK system (the devolved and national parliaments are united in this), MSMs can indeed give blood: on the mere condition that we remain as celibate as Jesuit priests over the twelve months preceding said donation. In practical terms the NHS’s twelve month celibacy rule is a ban in all but name, which would be fine, though counterproductive, were it applicable to women and heterosexual men also. But it is not. This is a ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood, placing us in the company of blacklisted would-be donors, among “a commercial sex worker”, “someone who has injected drugs” and “someone who has haemophilia.” Whether it’s crude or rude to say so, being equated in public health legislation with prostitutes, heroin addicts and the infirm seems out of step with modernity’s supposed embracing of LGBT life. Insulting in the quant, backhanded, well-meaning way voices so often defend same-sex marriage in the same breath as abortion rights as if the two, for even the most righteous of pro-choicers, are in some way cousins. A cynic would conclude that our political leaders find it easy to chuck up a rainbow-filtered profile photo online, tweet #LoveWins, maybe even wave a flag on a pride parade for seven minutes or so. More challenging is finding a way to legislate meaningfully to avoid donation drives pulling up in schools, colleges and universities, informing young, impressionable gay and bisexual men that their very blood is, by the default position of the state, dirty; inferior; unwanted. 

Arguments made in the past for the scrapping of the MSM blood donation ban have failed, in part, as a consequence of campaigners screeching “Equality!” at their opponents with little practical engagement, until the moralising dies down. Rather like musical greeting cards left open until the battery weakens. Supporters of the ban’s continuation, meanwhile, rest almost lazily upon the very real body of statistical evidence that displays a visible increase over the past few years of MSMs contracting HIV, as though this accounts for all MSMs and in some way justifies a blanket ban. ‘Better safe than sorry’ stretches the bizarre fear-based tarring, a philosophy that has kept company with racial profiling and gender discrimination employment practices in the past for good reason. To argue that an increase in Edinburgh of gay guys with HIV ought to stand as a justification for married men in Dundee with rare blood types being stopped from fulfilling an important and potentially life-saving act of civic assistance is an argument stunningly devoid of nuance. It is an argument built upon the premise that gay and bisexual men are untrustworthy bed-hoppers, that we need the government to protect us from infesting the population. Men in long-term exclusive relationships for years, even decades, will always, in the eyes of NHS policy, be a larger risk to the blood supply of the country than heterosexual folk acquiring new sexual partners each weekend without protection.

Ergo a stronger public health policy would entail a ban on anyone who has had unprotected casual sex in the year previous to their donation, regardless of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not behavioural; it’s innate, it does not determine the number of sexual partners a guy might have, nor the frequency by which he has them. That’s what our vacuous superficial app-speak is for. Demanding the abstinence of MSMs while heterosexual folk can do as they please is creepy sacrificial nonsense. An approach to blood donation discounting those of any orientation who have engaged in risky unsafe sex allows for case-by-case distinction, for versatility in health policy – something all MSMs can appreciate.