Bil Browning

Man Can't Donate Blood Because He Appears Gay

Filed By Bil Browning | July 17, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: blood donation, Indiana, plasma center, straight man

A Gary, Indiana man was turned away from a plasma center for appearing too gay. blood-draw.jpgThe man, who is admittedly effeminate, insists he isn't gay and is miffed that he's not allowed to participate. The plasma center, Bio-Blood Components Inc., pays for blood and plasma donations.

"I was humiliated and embarrassed," said Pace, 22. of Gary. "It's not right that homeless people can give blood but homosexuals can't. And I'm not even a homosexual."

...During the interview screening process, Pace said he was told he could not be a blood donor there because he "appears to be a homosexual."

When I was homeless during the early 90's in southern Indiana, I would go to these blood farms to get some quick cash. Obviously I lied on the original paperwork and said I wasn't gay, but back then I had bleached blond hair, a half dozen earrings, and plastic and metal bracelets up to my elbows. I was the epitome of the nelly little queen. No one ever asked about my sexual orientation.

I was turned away once for a pimple I had in the crook of my arm. They thought I might be a heroin addict. Three days later, sans red dot on my arm, I was allowed to donate again - smack addiction apparently cured.

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Apart from the errant stupidity of this policy, "appearance" is not supposed to be the determining factor. As obnoxious as the actual policy is at least it has an objective basis: Did the individual, if male, have sex with another male since 1978.

As I state below, I am not so sure that this policy is so "errant" and "obnoxious" -- I think such judgments need to be left to the experts. (And I admit, sfbob, that I am not familiar with your personal scientific or medical credentials, maybe you have a Ph.D. in Public Health, I don't know.) But it is indeed true that testing each unit of blood, or even blood from "questionable" donors, would be cost-prohibitive if a test that is not vulnerable to the 6-month HIV antibody formation window, such as PCR, is used.

Ultimately, when the blood industry puts this policy into place, they are not only protecting the nation's blood supply, they are also, as a complete side effect, protecting the public's more detached attitude toward the privacy of the gay male community. We as a community do not need the families of sick and deceased patients blaming us for unnecessary medical complications, expenses, and deaths. In comparison to the medical and socio-political risks at stake, I think it is prudent to accept this policy until science and the economics of the medical world come up with a better one.

(I stand by this even against those who argue that this policy is as much political as it is scientific -- so be it! We do not need any more perfect storms via California initiative efforts such as that state had in 1988. Google Proposition 96 and Proposition 102 if you are not familiar. The next wave of initiatives could be even more Draconian.

(Also, I could go into whether it is a good presumption that the incidence of HIV is higher among gay males than the general population. The statistics answer this question adequately, and within this comment I just won't go there.)

Sadly I am not surprised. It just shows we have more enlightenment to do in our efforts.

This incident really speaks to confusion around sexual orientation (bi, gay, straight), sexual behavior (has someone had sex with a man since the 1970s? and how is sex defined in the first place?), and gender expression (femininity and masculinity being two of the most common types).
It seems that they saw he was feminine (expression), so they assumed he was gay (orientation), and then further assumed that that meant he had had sex with another man (behavior). But, in fact, we only know from the article that he is feminine and he does not identify as gay. So he might be bi or straight, and, like all men who identify as bi or straight (or gay), he may or may not have ever had sex with another man.
If they had just asked him in the first place, "Have you ever had sex with another man? We're defining the word 'sex' to mean [X, Y, Z]," this whole situation could have been avoided. Or at least, gone in a very different direction.

I'm sure they did ask him directly -- it's part of the policy and requirements. However, in my experience they tend not to know what constitutes sex off hand.

My reading of this story is that he told them he has not had sex with a man, yet they didn't believe him, guessing that he was lying based on how he apparently looked gay.

In situations such as this, so much depends upon the social skills and sensitivity of the phlebotomist in question. I agree with the two commenters above, who say that the phlebotomist should have explained the exact criterion, Did the donor candidate have [exposure-risk] sex with another man since 1978? If this is the established policy, then the blood center should stick to it. The phlebotomist should also point out that this policy is in place to protect the nation's blood supply, not to discriminate or shame or stand in judgment of anyone.

I think we should focus on that last fact: The goal of this policy is to protect the blood supply, and by design it errs to the conservative. The scientific reasoning is sound, and if LGBT people expect the world to trust good science at the top of the page, then we must accept it when we are expected to trust properly-formulated science at the bottom of the page.

Rachel Bellum | July 18, 2011 12:18 AM

The policy may or may not contribute to "protecting" the nation's blood supply, and, personally, I find that to be an interesting argument in which to engage. I know that my original position on this was changed by what I felt was a convincing argument, but I'm still quite open to being convinced to change it again.

A large part of the effect this policy is clearly designed to have is on the perceptions of potential receivers of donated blood. Part of the reason for instituting this policy was fear that the general public could begin refusing to accept donated blood because of gay/HIV panic. Please recall that a lot of people believe that the general, straight, population at the time didn't seem to care at all about HIV/AIDS until kids with hemophilia (like Ryan White) started reporting infections from blood supplies.

Another argument that I personally find interesting is if public perception is a legitimate reason to institute such a policy. And without revealing my current position, I have been known to flip on this too when presented with a convincing enough argument, at least once.

However if the public needs to be protected from HIV and/or the perception of possible infection, then there are clearly other populations that should receive similar treatment for similar reasons. Even if we make allowances for a policy suggested while HIV/AIDS related panic was high in the US, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a consistent and reasonable argument that only affects men who have sex with men. This suggests to many people, including me, that some other factor(s), like homophobia, may be in play here.

I'll add that years ago a female friend of mine was banned from donating at her local facility because she reported being bisexual even though she had only ever had sex (of any kind) with one person (who was male). If I added that she described her appearance and self-identification as "butch dyke," I believe it would be getting closer to what she was probably actually excluded for.

For instance, many people have suggested that it would be an improvement to screen for high risk behaviors in anyone than simply for men who have sex with men (meaning a more directed set of questions applied to everyone the same way). Being such a man and being a person who engages in high risk behaviors is not equivalent even if there is some overlap. There are people in each group who don't belong to the other.

And it seems like if we permanently exclude every person who may be/is a member of a high risk population (which is NOT what is happening good, bad, or indifferently), we would be excluding a lot of the people who donate to a system that is often running short already. This appears to be the argument that results in some other groups only getting excluded from donation for a year, for instance.

I should probably add that I am prepared to accept that some allowance may need to be made due to the difficulties that might arise in public perception if this policy was removed or significantly reduced.

What I'm trying to say is that while I have sympathy for the difficulties of the situation, there does appear to be homophobia and transphobia in play here.

Now, whether it's something that would be constructive to fight would appear to be yet another argument.

As far as this particular situation goes, my understanding was that agency representatives were supposed to accept a potential donor's responses unless there was a clear reason to believe otherwise (for instance, he was there the week before answering questions differently).

I'm not prepared to accept being perceived as "effeminate" (or "butch") as clear evidence of risky behavior.

Oh, there's no doubt that some phlebotomists are homophobic! -- I find it bizarre that a woman would be rejected for being "bisexual" or "butch" when there is nothing in the guidelines that says lesbians should not give blood! Admittedly, the woman was rejected purely because of lesbia-phobia, just as it is moderately apparent that the man discussed in the main post was rejected because of effemina-phobia.

Rachel Bellum | July 20, 2011 11:03 PM

Yes, I assume in my friends' case it was a complete misapplication of the rule regarding MSMs to anyone that induction counselor (or whatever the actual job title was) perceived as "queer" and therefore dangerous.

In terms of anything that might be considered risky behavior, she had definitely engaged in less than most straight girls her own age.

It was years ago and I can't remember if for some reason my friend described herself as bi on that occasion or if the induction counselor just classified her that way (sometimes it's just hard to get people to understand or accept self-descriptions as this article points out).

Her story might or might not be an anomaly, I can't say. I don't even know if the data exists to document how pervasive these types of cases may be. But I think her story and the story described in the above post suggest the possibility that this rule, being based on male homosexual contact rather than risky behavior, could encourage misapplications based on personal views of LGBT people.

Alexandria IamSasha | July 18, 2011 1:39 AM

I really don't think that the right to give blood is something to be fought for...and though the actions of the phlebotomist-or whomever made the the decision-may have seemed discriminatory, I believe it was in the interest of the safety of the blood supply. Sadly, you can't always trust people's self-reporting and I feel that it's better to err on the safe side.