Part three of four in the LGBT History Month series: this time, Michael Petch takes to task the barriers that make donating blood a problematic experience for LGBT people
February is LGBT history month, but with the recent growth of LGBT rights, many are asking why we still need a month dedicated to LGBT people. Hopefully, throughout this series, by examining the experiences that LGBT people face, I will be able to argue why LGBT history month matters.
On the 8th of February, I donated blood at the Plymouth Grove Centre in Manchester. It is a place I am sure many students walk past without even considering what goes on inside. I rang up on the phone and booked my appointment, which only took a few minutes. The day arrived and my appointment was over and done with relatively quickly. They made me fill out a form, offered me a drink, tested my iron levels and within minutes, I was laid down in the chair donating blood.
Overall, it was a positive experience. The staff were friendly and it was great hearing the stories of people who had donated blood. So many had been donating because their family and friends had previously needed blood, and they wanted to help someone in the same situation. I cannot recommend this process more, it is easy and is instantly gratifying.
The only grievance I have is that as a gay man, I was not able to be myself truthfully. Gay and bisexual men have to either lie about their identity or abstain from any kind of sexual contact with other men for 12 months, with or without condoms. Either way, it is a compromise of who we are. It makes dishonesty a necessity in one instance, which then adds weight to the cultural belief that LGBT people are deceitful, as mentioned in my previous article about coming out.
While other donors were openly talking with the nurse about their wife and boyfriend, I could not talk about mine. The stigma surrounding gay men donating blood made me feel as though I should be ashamed of my sexuality and that it is in some way unclear — a feeling I have not had for a long time.
Abstaining is equally unfair. In order to be fully sure I was safe to donate, and also to understand the personal impact of abstaining, I did go through with it. This process obviously makes forming relationships harder. Because of the culture of gay men and students, most people I would be likely to talk to are not prepared to stick around and wait for me when there is someone else willing to do more for them. Luckily, when I met my current boyfriend, he was understanding and patient about this.
With no one to romantically engage with for a long time, I became very bored and lonely. As such I found myself drinking more which led to weight gain (not aided by the alluring call of drunk food). This worsened my self image and ultimately had a profound impact on my mood.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this law is that it does not even really make sense. Instead, it is a hangover from the AIDs crisis, which still leaves people in fear of gay blood. By putting a blanket ban on all gay men, it actively victimises all gay people rather than preventing donations from those who engage in risky sex, gay or straight.
It is foolish and dangerous to deny that HIV and hepatitis rates are higher among gay and bisexual men, but 12 months of no sex, even when condoms are used, is unnecessary. I have been vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B as part of travel vaccines, as many other people have been. These things should be assessed on a case by case basis, with a general rule that any person who has had unprotected sex within the past three months be questioned further. In fact, they already question donors in a consultation room, so this will not take up any new resources.
Any gay or bisexual man who has received a HIV negative result after not engaging in unprotected sex for three months with any new sexual partners should be able to donate. The current laws exclude monogamous homosexual couples who are both aware of their HIV negative status and gay and bisexual men who practise safe sex, as these do not fit the stereotype of the promiscuous and dangerous gay man.
Perhaps the inconvenient truth is that the NHS has said that they do not need the number of donors to increase significantly. Neil Simms, Senior Marketing Co-ordinator for donor centres in the north, said that due to increased efficiencies of procedures, less blood is needed. Currently, about 3-4 per cent of the eligible population donates blood, and Simms revealed to me on the phone that if this increased to 10 per cent it would in fact be too much. As the NHS does not need a huge increase in the number of donations of blood, there is no need to challenge their stigmatisation of gay and bisexual men.
All the issues raised in this article are why LGBT history month still matters. It reminds us that we still face judgement based on the issues of our past, and that we must work hard to dispel the social stigmas that are held against us.