Communication Currents

Banning Queer Blood

February 1, 2008
Critical and Cultural Studies

As a symbol of both purity and danger, blood is a peculiarly powerful cultural metaphor. Its ability to constitute meaning is nowhere more pronounced than in the federal deferral policies that prohibit men who have sex with other men from donating blood. Despite advances in screening procedures for HIV over the past two-and-a-half decades, the public continues to receive messages indicating that queer men are hostile threats to the nation, being universally associated with disease, impurity, and contagion by government institutions.

Photo - Man Giving BloodAnyone who has donated blood has confronted the question that prohibits queer men from saving lives. Without nuance for safe sex practices, relational status, or conscientiousness of one's health, the question asks: “Are you a man who has had sex with another man one time since 1977?” If a person answers affirmatively, that individual is indefinitely banned from giving blood. This question, while diabolical, is brilliantly constructed by the powers-that-be. At no point does the inquiry single out a person for identifying as gay. Indeed, officials eschew assertions of heterosexism because the question does not specify sexual orientation--it merely asks about a sexual act. The strategic ambiguity of the question is especially powerful in the refusal to name what constitutes sex, leaving that for the prospective donor to decide.

Of course, queer men are implicated in this discourse. In response to the policy, scores of queer men have taken measures of their own to participate in the communal ritual of giving blood. As part of a recent study on blood donation, I interviewed 21 men who took issue with the policy and elected to challenge it. Two of the most common ways of resisting the ban come in the form of passing as straight to donate or being confrontational with blood center staff members who turn them away. While it is tempting to romanticize this resistance, most of the men disregard the policy for reasons that have little to do with subverting the government. Rather, queer men usually lie because they are genuinely interested and invested in saving the lives of strangers residing in their communities. More often than not, the deferred donors are people who have benefited from blood transfusions, had family members who needed blood, or simply believe they are unnecessarily stereotyped. For these men, blood donation is a ritual intimately tied with civic identity because it requires commitment to fellow citizens, transpires in spaces of public important (schools, town halls, libraries, and workplaces), and requires specific acts to engender feelings of pride, sacrifice, and belonging.

On its face, it would appear that queer men lie to donate blood, or alternatively refuse to hide their identities, because they wish to be included as citizen equals. However, such a conclusion addresses only one aspect of a complicated situation for these citizens. Equally important is the fact that donors choose to pass, or refuse to lie, in order to defy oversimplified assumptions about their identity. They resist being neatly classified by scientists and agencies that reduce them to one aspect of their livelihood. They demand recognition of their lives on terms other than those presupposed by the government.

Some readers may question if such practices are truly resistive. After all, seeking incorporation into the system is hardly radical. Lying to give blood does little more than illustrate the importance of donation as a ritual and does not challenge how the system operates. But these actions as an important mechanism of pride, power, and moral agency should not be ignored. All movements must take root somewhere and the initial change sparked in participants to assert they are not going to be maligned is a vital part of that process. Most people do not change their minds or their behavior over night. And having the personal strength to resist problematic characterizations of one's identity is not always as easy as it sounds. Many of the men I interviewed, for example, still have lingering doubts about how susceptible they are to disease and if they should have given blood to start.

There is another important part to this story. The relationship between these two groups of men-- those who pass and those who protest--tells us something significant about the problematic foundation of data on which the policies are built. The men who openly dissent draw attention to those who pass and, in doing so, force questions about the number of queer donors and the amount of supposedly tainted blood slipping into the system. If one takes seriously the claims made by the FDA that blood donations from queer men would lead to heightened infections in the blood supply, then the logic follows that gay men who give would spark countless problems. Knowing that there are men who have sex with other men who continue to contribute blood should present evidence of increased infections. Such has not been the case.

As an educator, there is nothing more gratifying than knowing that college students of all sexual orientations are playing an especially important role in the attempts to overturn the donor deferral policies. There is now a student organization out of Harvard's Law School dedicated explicitly to combating these policies. Demonstrations have also been held at Stanford, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Vermont, the University of Arkansas, Bowling Green State University, and Dickinson College, among others. These protests are having an impact. Because the Red Cross is afraid of losing donors at an early age because of perceived discrimination, the benevolent organization now opposes the government mandate.

If there are any doubts about the value of blood donation, one need only look to the events of September 11, 2001 to comprehend its importance. By the end of the day, the Red Cross blood donation telephone line received more than a million calls from citizens eager to help with relief efforts, shattering the previous record of 3,000 calls in a given day. In the aftermath of the attacks the Red Cross collected two million units of blood and more than a quarter of a million people gave blood for the first time. But public tragedy is hardly the only time people are dependent on the kindness of strangers. Every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood. The urgency and necessity of repeat donors cannot be overstated. Blood agencies recently discovered that the number of eligible donors has been overestimated by about 66 million people. The government should revise the deferral policy against queer men to help ensure that all people can count on the gift of life when most they need it. When it comes to giving blood, communicating outdated and discriminatory messages to the public has the potential to harm all people, not simply queer men. New guidelines built on sound scientific research will lead to campaigns for more donors. And that kind of policy would be in the best interest of all citizens.