I am probably just shy of 10 years old when I climb into the family’s rickety old Ford with my dad. We weave our way across town to a Royal Canadian Legion branch, a centre for community banquets, bingo and wedding receptions.
I follow my dad into the musty old hall. He’s screened by a nurse, passed along to another and then told to sit down. The needle goes in, and a steady stream of deep red fills a bag.
At some point, I questioned what exactly was going on. Why would anyone want to donate blood?
My parents paint a scenario: imagine a car accident, someone is badly hurt, they get cut and lose a lot of blood, so the doctors need to give them some. “It saves lives,” is, of course, the response.
I am so proud of my dad. I think about how noble donating blood is, and I vow that I will give as often as I can when I am older.
Skip to more than a decade later. I’m sitting and listening to Classical FM 96.3 on a quiet day at work, as per usual. An ad for Canadian Blood Services (CBS) comes on detailing Canada’s blood shortage, literally pleading for blood donations. The ad takes me by surprise; it’s like a punch in the gut. I start trembling from rage; I have to turn the radio off. I’m seeing red.
History, identity, prejudice and timing were against my 10-year-old self. After a certain point in my life, when I started having sex, I became virtually ineligible to give blood. All because I’m a man who has sex with men (MSM).
This is something I’m surprised that surprises a lot of people. CBS, like many other blood service agencies in the world, has had a MSM policy, in the books since the worst of the global HIV/AIDS crises of the 1980s.
Human immunodeficiency virus, a blood and bodily fluid transmitted virus that degenerates the human immune system, leading to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, was first diagnosed in North America in 1981. At the time, it was largely diagnosed among homosexual men and injecting drug user,s and very little was known about the virus.
In those early days, the press picked up the term “GRID” for “gay-related immune deficiency.” Different forms of sexual contact are one way the virus can be spread, and anyone who engages in unprotected sex with someone who is infected with HIV, including gay men, are at significant risk. While it was determined around the same time that the virus affects everyone, the association stuck.
Blood is, of course, one of the ways HIV can be transmitted, which became a major problem for blood services in those early days. In 1983, the Canadian Red Cross, which preceded the CBS, introduced a pamphlet outlining risk factors for HIV. The idea was people who engage in high risk behaviours would self-exclude themselves from donating blood.
This hope failed to materialize. On Nov. 3, 1985, the CBC reported that five Canadians had been infected with HIV by blood transfusions, and more than 1000 cases would emerge later.
It wasn’t until this time that the Red Cross began testing donated blood for the antibodies found in people with AIDS, but the damage had already been done. In 1988, they introduced a written questionnaire for MSM men. This barred them from donating blood — a lifelong deferral period.
After a damning commission into malpractice that found thousands of people were infected with Hepatitis C or HIV through Red Cross collected blood, CBS was formed to take over the task of collecting blood in 1998.
Despite significantly improved testing procedures and a greater understanding of the nature and transmission of HIV, the MSM deferral policy remained in the books, unchanged.
I come into the picture around this time. In the fall of 2005, I’m old enough to donate blood — though I’m not aware of it. Within less than two years, because of my sex life, I became ineligible to donate blood for the rest of my life.
To put this into perspective, if I was eligible and efficient, I could have, hypothetically, donated more than 50 times since I turned 17; that’s about 50 pints of blood. As the average amount of blood in one person is around 10.5 pints, according to CBS, that’s a significant amount of blood from just one person.
Thanks in no part to a pitiful sexual education curriculum, and completely to my own self-education, I’ve learned how to avoid behaviour — especially sexual behaviour — that would make me a high-risk of contracting HIV. Not to get too much into my sex life, but since becoming sexually active, I’ve been about as safe as someone can be. I’m tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, out of neurotic paranoia rather than any actual concern. The only thing standing in the way of me giving blood is a discriminatory questionnaire and a lifelong deferral.
However, just last year, after the authorization of Health Canada and the regulator of CBS extensively reviewed the deferral period, it was changed to five years after someone’s last MSM contact. So, hypothetically, if I was celibate for five years I could give blood.
To 10-year-old-me, when I heard the CBS ad pleading for donations, being allowed to donate blood or not was a very personal thing. Now, I realize the MSM policy is caught up in a snarl of failures. A disgusting failure on the part of the government to address HIV/AIDS, failure of the Red Cross to address the possibility of infected blood, and failure of society, both historically and today, to address systemic homophobia and the unique needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in HIV/AIDS prevention.
In the Public Health Agency of Canada’s 2012 surveillance report, based on new reports of HIV/AIDS in Canada, the number of new cases was at a record low at 2,062 reports. Even though MSM still represent the most predominant exposure group for HIV at about 50 per cent of adult cases in Canada, this number has decreased significantly over the years.
The MSM policy — one of the handful of conditions that can make people ineligible to donate blood — doesn’t differentiate between risk factors on a personal basis. It doesn’t care that you’re tested regularly, or that you have an uneventful, safer sex life. It’s little more than a closed door.
And CBS is, once again, conducting a public survey with the possibility of changing the MSM deferral from five years to one. I assume it’ll be completely lifted eventually.
The CBS slogan is, “Blood, it’s in you to give,” but until that day, my blood isn’t.