Hilary Beaumont

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Health Canada won’t let gay men give blood

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This story was originally published nationally by OpenFile on Feb. 15, 2012. A longer version was then published by Briarpatch Magazine on July 1, 2012.

The Canadian Blood Services won’t let Nick Shaw give blood. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont)

The first and only time he gave blood, Nick Shaw felt like a hero.

The Canadian Blood Services advertised their clinic at his high school with posters, announcements over the PA-system, and in-class talks by teachers and nurses. Blood donation was touted as a moral imperative, and lots of high school seniors planned to do it.

The 17-year-old saw it as a chance to contribute to some greater good.

At the clinic, Nick completed a questionnaire and entered a private booth where a nurse asked him more questions about where he had travelled and whether he had tested positive for HIV or AIDS.

Then she asked him: “Have you had sex with a man, even one time since 1977?”

The blood rushed to his cheeks and his heart started to race and he said, “No,” quickly.

His high school near Hamilton, Ontario was brimming with homophobia. Nick had accepted his attraction to men, but he didn’t plan to act on his feelings, and he certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone he was gay. He knew if he had sex with a man, he would be banned from giving blood.

Since the early 1980s, the blood service has maintained a lifetime ban against one group, males who have sex with other males (MSM), because they are statistically more likely to contract HIV.

Recently, though, the blood service decided to revisit its policy toward MSM donors. The organization is now looking into a five-to-10-year deferral period rather than a lifetime ban.

“I would hope that if we get permission from Health Canada to do this, we should be able to implement the change early in the fall,” CBS’ VP of medical and scientific research, Dr. Dana Devine, says.

“Hopefully [MSM donors] will be able to see this as step one down the path of getting to a better place,” she says.

‘Who you are is wrong’
Years later, while he was completing his bachelor of science degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nick’s phone rang. It was a woman from the Canadian Blood Services calling for his roommate, who wasn’t home.

She engaged Nick in conversation. He mentioned his blood type, the rarest kind: AB-. They had a pleasant chat about giving blood and Nick’s future plans, but then he asked her: “What about gay men and donations?”

“Have you had sex with a man, even one time, since 1977?” she asked.

“Yes,” Nick replied truthfully.

The warmth left her voice. She told him he was barred from donating and she would remove him from the registry. He asked if there were any policy changes coming up. She said the CBS constantly revisited their policy. Their conversation ended abruptly, leaving Nick with a feeling of disappointment and sadness.

When he commented on the ban in 2010, Nick said the policy confirmed at a deeper level that society sees something wrong with him because he is gay. He still feels that way.

“You tell yourself and people tell you that who you are is wrong, that you’re not good enough, and there’s something wrong with you,” he says. “That’s a fundamental fear that a lot of people carry, especially homosexuals.”

‘We have to start somewhere’
The path to change hasn’t come without a fight. CBS’ decision to revisit the ban comes after a court case in 2010 that challenged the policy, and a high-profile “End the Ban” campaign by several advocacy groups.

The Canadian Federation of Students is one such group. For the new CBS policy to be fair, activist and CFS representative Rebecca Rose says it must take other risk factors into account, such as safe sex practices, various risk levels for different sexual interactions and the donor’s relationship status.

The CBS invited Rose to present to its board about the ban two months ago. She told them the deferral period should be the same as that of heterosexual donors.

“What I tried to drive home was that really a five-to-10-year deferral period isn’t much different than a ban, because if you think about it practically, what that would mean is a sexually-active queer man, or a man who’s had sex with other men, would have to abstain from sex for five-to-10 years if they wanted to donate blood, which I think is unrealistic and unfair.”

Devine says the organization’s screening process isn’t subtle enough to take those behaviours into account.

“The first important thing to change is the paradigm of infinity to something that’s time-based,” she says. “That’s a big change and we have to start somewhere.”

Nick Shaw outside the Dalhousie Planning School. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont)

‘Follow the science’
Today, Nick is out. The 24-year-old is in his first year of a planning program at Dalhousie University. He says the school has a welcoming, inclusive environment. Four of the 10 guys in his class are out too. He still struggles with his sexuality, but less so now.

“To be told by a large organization that there is something wrong with you, it pushes on a sore spot in a lot of homosexual men, as it would with anyone. They’re reminded that the thing they’re fighting and struggling with the most is acceptance of themselves, and they’re told that [being gay] is not acceptable.

But that’s not something I want to mix up with logic. That’s something I have to deal with myself and it’s not necessarily the place of the blood service to deal with the emotional battle a lot of homosexual men are going through.”

Nick likes the idea of the more nuanced behaviour-based risk assessment proposed by the CFS. He also appreciates the CBS’ goal of time-based deferral, but he says a five-to-10 year policy would exclude gay men unless they are celibate.

The final policy should consider the higher risk factor of MSM donors, Nick says, even if that means his demographic is deferred for longer than heterosexuals.

“Follow the science and don’t let the emotion get into the decision-making,” he says.

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Written by hilarybeaumont

July 1, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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