On Monday, during my commute on the DC Metro, a billboard caught my eye. "Be a sperm donor," it told me. In addition to the promise of righteousness I would feel helping a family have children, I was also assured that I would be compensated for my, er, efforts.
Figuring "what the hell," I took out my iPhone and navigated to the website written on the sign, "beaspermdonor.com." There I was met by a male face smiling broadly (almost too broadly, as though he had been asked to imitate the expression of a man who has just jerked off into a cup so that strangers might have children) and the instruction, "Click to apply!"
Continuing in the "what the hell" vein, and encouraged by both the awkward smiling man and the provocative notion of paid onanism, I clicked. I found myself on a page with a short survey asking about my education, sexual, and medical history -- questions about the number of sexual partners I'd had in my life, how many I'd had in the last six months, how many I'd had in exchange for drugs or money. I was also asked to identify as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual.
I completed the form with the utmost honesty and accuracy, but when I clicked "submit," I was informed that I was not eligible to be a donor at this time.
Puzzled -- my sexual past could best be described as "vanilla," unless you can think of a more typical flavor -- I went back to the site to try again. I re-entered the same exact data, thinking it could have been a mistake, but received the same response. Ineligible.
It occurred to me that, though unlikely, I may have been rejected because I'd had too many sexual partners. So I tried again, changing my name and email address, and selecting zero for the number of sexual partners, past and present, just to see if the result would differ.
But again, "You are not eligible to be a donor at this time."
Then a thought occurred to me, an ugly, obvious, and chilling thought. My mind bolted in two directions at once -- "Of course!" and "Oh no!" collided like a Vaudeville routine in my head -- and made my stomach turn. I tried a third time with a different name and email address. The only other thing I changed was the orientation, from homosexual to heterosexual.
"Congratulations! You are eligible to be a donor."
A quick Google search brought me up to speed. The Food and Drug Administration states in its guidelines for sperm banks that "men who have had sex with another man in the preceding five years" are at high risk for relevant communicable disease and ineligible to donate.
According to an excellent Advocate article from 2012, the guideline is inconsistently interpreted, couched as it is in irresponsible legalese ("non-binding recommendation"), either to ban men who have sex with men entirely or not at all. It looks like "to ban or not to ban" is a question only the sperm bank can answer, with the tacit approval of the FDA.
In a moment of snark, I emailed the company to ask how they prevent infected samples from entering their supply. By "infected," of course, I mean gay or bisexual donor samples. That must be the case; after all, if preventing communicable disease were the sperm bank's only goal, surely they would simply have in place some means to test the individual samples, regardless of the orientation of the donor, in order to prevent disease-carrying samples from getting into the supply. It stands to reason that this sperm bank holds that men who have sex with men -- gay and bisexual men, for the most part -- are an inherently unclean group of people.
I inquired with the sperm bank how one could screen for MSM further along in the donor process. Self-reporting is obviously not the most reliable way, since I had proven all I had to do was change my answer from homosexual to heterosexual and -- voilà! -- I was deemed eligible. Perhaps they could try wrist-limpness checks, or loafer pressure tests. They could ask donors to redecorate their lobby. What other backward, stereotyped, outdated tests could they use to apply their blatant discrimination against MSM?
The truth, of course, is that this wishy-washy federal policy is patently illogical. If you have the capability to screen out infected samples, the sexual orientation of the donor cannot matter. Moreover, the weak language suggests a modicum of self-awareness; if the FDA were truly convinced that MSM donors were a grave risk, they would flat-out ban them in straightforward language. Congress might simply pass a law.
But no. The FDA policy shields sperm banks from owning up to their bigotry without making too many waves. It allows sperm banks to discriminate but does not require that they do so.
This One's Personal
There's another aspect to this whole thing which, like the ban on MSM blood donations, reaches a deeply personal level for me, and which also resonates with how I view the world around me. Human beings are essentialists. We value the chemical essence -- or what we imagine to be the chemical essence -- of other people.
Paul Bloom, in his excellent book How Pleasure Works, illustrates the point in a million ways, but I'll just briefly mention a humorous experiment involving George Clooney. Asked how much they would pay for George Clooney's sweater, subjects answered, "A lot!" even when they could not tell anyone else about the sweater. They would pay less if the sweater was washed.
When John and I first came to Washington, we visited the National Mall and found the spot on the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King had uttered his most famous of phrases, "I have a dream." We stood where he stood because it made us feel close to him. Think of how we value the ashes, letters, possessions of loved ones gone. We value the dust as though it is the totality of experiencing them. Consider, too, how we make sense of society itself through the lens of physical metaphors -- the body politic, the heart of our democracy, the lifeblood of our economy, the head of state.
We rely on our essentially human selves to make sense of the world, and for the world to make sense of us. The greatest achievements of human civilization have come from an understanding that despite our differences, we are essentially the same; the greatest evils have been perpetrated by fearing that, though we seem the same, we are essentially different.
What does this tell us about a society that will treat a group of fellow humans as though their very essence is infected, their blood diseased, their sperm unfit for reproduction?
A society that bases policies on a malignant belief in the inherent uncleanness of certain groups is itself unclean.
Gay sperm ban cartoon via Slap Upside the Head.