As the training coordinator at my organization of young idealists, I have the responsibility of filling our Leadership Development half-days with programming every Friday. It’s done wonders for me, creatively, and I’ve had the opportunity to coach corps members through leading their own bits of programming as well. I’ve given space to just about every corps member that asked. Up until about a week ago.
One of our corps members e-mailed me with an innovative idea. Why not hold a blood drive at City Year on a Friday morning? We could open it up to the public, he suggested. It would encourage idealism, optimism, and potentially save lives in the process.
I knew that this was a great organizing opportunity for this corps member. He would need to make arrangements with the Red Cross, build relationships with their outreach people, and coordinate logistics for the blood drive. He could publicize the event and get City Year more exposure in a different circle.
And why not?
In theory, this is a great idea. As a leadership development person with the mission of making young people aware of their own power, I should love it. But I don’t. Here’s why.
The Red Cross determines its donor eligibility on outdated assumptions made by the FDA about whose blood is safe to donate. If you have ever tried donating blood before, you know that there are certain questions that, when answered in the affirmative, immediately disqualify you from donating blood. Here is an non-exhaustive list of the questions I take issue with for considering this blood drive:
For men: Have you had sex, even once, with another male since 1977?
For women: Within the last 12 months, have you had a male sex partner who had sex with another male, even once, since 1977?
How audacious. Remember those Facebook groups you could belong to: “Blondes have the most fun.” “Brunettes have the most fun.” “Jewish girls who have two rabbits and live in Leadville, Colorado have the most fun.” Then came along the tongue-in-cheek, “People who have the most fun, have the most fun” group.
Well guess what? Same tongue-in-cheek logic applies here. Men who have sex with men don’t have HIV. Women who have sex with men who have sex with men don’t have HIV. People who have HIV have HIV. Let’s just get that straight.
What I Know
According to fda.gov, “HIV tests currently in use are highly accurate, but still cannot detect HIV 100% of the time.” Well, good thing they supplement that shoddy scientific testing with the completely 100% accurate method of asking people who they’ve slept with! (By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that the answers provided on the FDA’s page are backed by a few studies conducted no later than 2005!) And I suppose we can expect the same amount of truthfulness and accuracy about sexual practices that we commonly find at your typical frat party.
And yeah. I have friends who have lied on this question because they are passionate about donating blood and know that they are HIV negative.
There’s a part of me that wants to let this blood drive happen – I want this corps member to initiate and execute his unprecedented and good-willed ideas for programming. I even want to help him do it. But can I, in this case? How can I allow my organization to partner with another organization that discriminates against me and others like me?
While it may be true that HIV disproportionately affects MSM populations, it is also true that HIV disproportionately affects African American and Latino populations. What would we call an FDA ban on African American or Latino blood? It is further true that HIV in America is most prevalent in Washington DC. What would it look like if the FDA banned the blood of people living in our nation’s capital?
If my National Service organization were to hold a blood drive, effectively it would discriminate against a protected population (albeit, minimally protected). We would implicitly be endorsing these policies. This situation is oddly reminiscent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – “okay, gay men can serve the country in this way, but only if they aren’t sexually active.”
The Red Cross’s policy is founded in the FDA’s baseless fears, debunked at least 20 years ago by HIV researchers. Why hasn’t the policy changed? Make no mistake about it: this is not about health anymore. It’s about fear. And we have a special word to describe policies that are made based on fear of homosexual people.
You can read more about this issue inBad Blood: Crisis in the American Red Cross by Judith Reitman.