Thursday, 8 September 2011

Why lifting the ban on gay men giving blood has made me more angry

So, the lifetime ban on men giving blood who have ever had sex with another man has been – partially - lifted. After a 12-month ‘window period’ of effective celibacy, men who have ever had sex with another man can give blood. Great. A particularly discriminatory restriction has been lifted.

It’s fine if you’re celibate, or asexual, or a monk. As the Twitter feed of my favourite online magazine said when the announcement was made, “it’s that awkward moment when you realise you’ve not had any in so long, it’s OK for you to donate blood”. For some people, that will be the case, either out of choice or not through want of trying. The vast majority of gay men, I suspect will not fall into the monk category. After all, even in the most remote outposts of the UK, the internet has made it more than possible for men who want to have sex with men – regardless of whether they’re gay or not – to do just that. They don’t even have to define as ‘gay’ these days.

But how should you feel when you’re in a monogamous, long-term relationship of over four years, and you know that you’re free of any sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? I’m entering into a civil partnership with him next year, for goodness’ sake.

I take great issue at being pigeon-holed in that great mass of gay men who are at particularly high-risk of catching and transmitting hepatitis B, which is difficult to detect for up to 12 months after transmission. Quite rightly, this article points out the tacit failure of UK governments, past and present, to immunise against hepatitis B, as 85% have done. So, surely there is a big question about the duties of government and the public healthcare systems to protect against such diseases? I am a gay man, but I’m not a member of the mass of gay men who, somewhat mythically, carry a myriad of STIs. Whereas sexually active gay men may well be at high risk statistically, I simply don’t believe this is the case for many, simply because they don’t have sex, they engage in safe sex, or they engage in safe sexual activity which is within the confines of any normal, loving relationship. I do take responsibility for my health, funnily enough.

It couldn’t just be men who have sex with men who are prevented from giving blood, so I had a look on the National Blood Transfusion Service website, which gives some advice on who should, and shouldn’t give blood. At the top of the page, it gives its less severe advice. Apparently you should not give blood if:

“You've already given blood in the last 12 weeks (normally, you must wait 16 weeks)”Fat chance, the blanket ban was only lifted today so thus far in my life I’ve been prevented from doing so.

“You have a chesty cough, sore throat or active cold sore.”Hmmm, not lately. Last time I checked my phlegm-like output, there weren’t any STIs lurking.

“A member of your family (parent, brother, sister or child) has suffered with CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease)”Not as far as I know. Although we did eat British beef in the 1990s - does that count?

There are many other reasons given, including if you’ve had a recent tattoo or body piercing or if you’re pregnant (none, certainly not the latter, apply to me). Fair enough. I would assume there are valid, legitimate medical reasons behind all of this, not least in the interests of the health of the individual giving blood but also public health at large.

Going towards the bottom of the page (where most eyes will have begun to turn off, because the website isn’t brilliantly designed) it finally tells me that I should never give blood if I’m a man who's had sex with another man, even safe sex using a condom. So, I can be entirely clean, clear and safe of any nasty STIs or HIV, completely healthy, yet still banned (and that will still apply to me when the ban is partially lifted, because I’m in a sexually active relationship).

What’s more, any woman who has had sex with another man, who in turn has had sex with another man must never give blood less than 12 months after sex. That might rely on an awful lot of investigative work on the part of the woman who surely, shouldn’t be expected to know the sexual history of the man she’s in the sack with (and wouldn’t necessarily get an honest or reliable answer as a result).

Human honesty, therefore, is rather problematic. The National Blood Transfusion Service, quite rightly, needs to ensure that the quality of the blood it takes from people does not in any way endanger public health. But surely science is better than ever before to ensure that the quality of blood is never compromised? The questions that are asked of people should, surely be based on everyone’s unprotected sex and not just one group. There are significant numbers of people in the UK who still have unprotected or high-risk sex, without condoms, and in this instance, I’m talking about people who engage in sexual activity with the opposite sex.

I can’t say I’m in a massive hurry to give blood. But I’d like to one day. Who knows when a close friend or family member will need that particular blood type that I have because, God forbid, they’ve been involved in some horrific accident or has to undergo some sort of emergency medical procedure? It doesn’t bear thinking about. For the time being, I can’t go anywhere near one of those big trucks the National Blood Transfusion Service trundles around the country, and enjoy my first ever post-transfusion cup of tea and a biscuit.

What am I led to believe? The argument from the powers-that-be seems to be that a 12-month restriction can only rest on some sort of inherent homophobia at worst (and I hate to think this), at best a complete ignorance of the sexual behaviours of gay men, not least women who’ve ever had sex with gay men. My response is: let the science do the talking and treat us as individuals, gay, straight or whatever.

Anything less, and it will still feel like the state thinks what I’m doing in the bedroom is a bit wrong.

Worth saying also that London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a good port-of-call for advice on these matters: 0300 330 0630.

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