The NHS is in desperate need of blood donors. More specifically, they need the blood of men, and they’re actively campaigning to encourage more of them to donate. ‘Come on in,’ they say. ‘It’s quick, it’s easy, and you get a free tea and biscuits afterwards.’
There is a disclaimer here, though. Because whilst our blood banks may be screaming out for the blood of men, they’ve shut the doors on men who have sex with men (MSM). Straight blood? Brilliant, that’s the best. Gay blood? Keep it to yourselves!
As it stands, a gay man cannot have sex for three months before they donate blood. This refers to all sexual activity, by the way. Condoms or not, a gay man cannot have sex if he wants to give blood three months down the line. I want you to remember that as we move on.
But before we go any further, I want to make something absolutely clear. The ban on MSM donating blood is homophobia. It’s homophobia in its purest, most unapologetic, form.
Now, allow to me to introduce you to Karen.
Karen is 19 (she’s fictional too, by the way, but I’m proving a point here.) Karen has donated blood since she was 19, and is due to give it again on Tuesday. On Saturday, she went out drinking with her mates, and had unprotected sex with a complete stranger. On Tuesday, she turns up to her local centre, and donates blood. No problem.
But Peter (also fictional but I imagine you’re getting the picture) is a sexually active gay man, in a long-term relationship. He too wants to give blood on Tuesday, but he can’t because he’s had sex with his boyfriend in the past three months. So, despite the fact that he was recently tested, and that he’s in a sexually monogamous relationship, this doesn’t matter to the NHS.
It doesn’t matter because he’s gay. And that, my friends, is the very definition of homophobia.
It isn’t just the rule that’s homophobic though, because the conversation surrounding it is dripping with homophobia. Take yesterday morning’s segment on Victoria Derbyshire, which reported on MSM who donate blood regardless of the rules. A married gay man text the show, asking how on earth it was justified that he was prevented from giving blood considering that he had no STIs, and is in a monogamous relationship.
So, how did Yusef Azad respond to this? Well, according to him, ‘one issue, of course, is that you can only speak to your own monogamy, rather than the monogamy of your sexual partner.’ Don’t believe me? You can catch this from 18.56, including Victoria Derbyshire agreeing with him, saying that it’s a ‘fair point.’
And that, too, is homophobic. Because Azad certainly didn’t extend the same logic to opposite sex couples. Instead he, just like the NHS, passed judgment on thousands of same-sex relationships on the basis that at least one of them must be a cheat.
This, against the backdrop of the NHS asking for more male blood donors, is irony par excellence. The old worthy v unworthy dichotomy between straight and gay people hasn’t gone away. It has simply been remodelled. Now, gay people are allowed into the corridors of polite society, but their blood must be kept out of the veins of the people who walk alongside them.
All of this raises the question of why. Why have they never run trials to assess the level of interest in blood donation amongst gay men? Why have they never run a trial that tests how much contaminated blood exists in a sample of the blood of gay men compared to that of straight people? I’ll let you have a stew on that one.
This malicious attitude needs to stop. Not only does this attitude make a tangible difference to the supply of blood that we can give to people who desperately need it, it also a direct attack on the intrinsic dignity of the gay man. The unworthy narrative is difficult enough to stomach when it’s shouted at you from a moving vehicle, but it’s even more difficult to stomach it when it comes straight out of the mouth of our National Health Service.
I know that a lot of gay men are very angry about this, and they should be. God knows I am. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a vital role to play in contributing to health care, and the potential continuation of life.
We can still sign up to the Organ Donor Register so that, in the unlikely event of our untimely death, the gift of life can be given to several people. If you’re gay and haven’t signed up: you have no excuse. Go and sign up now.
Done? Fabulous, because you have something else to do. The Anthony Nolan register gives you the tools to sign up to donate your blood stem cells. You may never need to but, if contacted to donate, you could be somebody with blood cancer’s ‘last chance of survival’. Here’s the best bit: sexually active gay men can still sign up. All you need to be is aged 16-30, and in good health. So, what are you waiting for?
The point I’m trying to make here is that, yes, the blood donation ban is frustrating. Yes, it is laced with homophobia. But neither of these facts prevent you from signing up to two other registers that mean you could, one day, save a life. Fellow gay men: turn that anger into something productive. Sign up to the two registers above, and potentially save a life.
One last thing. I imagine a few straight people are reading this, and are absolutely shocked by the blatant homophobia on show in twenty-first century Britain. I’m grateful that you are.
But if you are straight, and you don’t give blood, I have a simple question. Why? It’s about an hour out of your day, every three or four months depending on your sex, and could save a life.
It’s the greatest gift you could give, and it’s about time you did.