Gay donor ban: one blood, two laws

January 30, 2010

To give blood in Australia, it is first necessary to answer a lot of questions. Some make sense. They range from recent illness to cholesterol. Some are invasive and confronting. One question asks: "Within the past 12 months have you had male to male sex?"

Answering "yes" results in a 12-month ban. It's the same for those who answer yes to sex with a man who "you think might be bisexual".

Men who have sex with men cannot give blood because the Australian Red Cross Blood Service says they are a "risk". It is based on "the statistically higher incidence of some blood borne diseases (such as HIV) and the existence of 'window period' infections".

"In terms of statistics", the service says, "the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (University of New South Wales) reports that men with a history of male to male sexual contact continue to make up the majority of people diagnosed with AIDS and HIV infection in Australia."

The rule is practised in one way or another in most countries. It is completely discriminatory and offers no exception for men who practise safe sex, or even those in monogamous relationships.

Questioning the validity and fidelity of someone's relationship, or their ability to have a safe sex life, is an insidious form of homophobia that is largely taken for granted. But campaigns for "equal blood" are cropping up as well.

In 2005, Michael Cain took the Red Cross Blood Service to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal to fight for the right to give blood. But, in June last year the ban was upheld.

Cain had been told by a nurse that "'you people' — referring to gay men — had a higher risk of blood contamination due to unsafe sex practices", the Sydney Morning Herald said in August 2005.

"I know that I have safe sex ... it almost felt like I was being accused of being a dirty person", he said.

Rodney Croome from the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group said the policy was introduced 20 years ago in response to the AIDS epidemic that largely affected the queer community.

"Now we know that AIDS is not simply a gay disease, it's a disease anyone can catch", he told the SMH when the case was first launched.

After the case was lost, the June 2, 2009 Sydney Star Observer said: "The Tribunal, however, made points in Cain's favour, asserting the current policy amounts to disadvantage that is real, a matter of substance and not trivial.

"The Tribunal also stated evidence given by the Red Cross to prove [men who have sex with men] are at more risk because they are less monogamous was unfounded."

Equating the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community with HIV/AIDS is more than two decades old and relies on myths and distortions. LGBTI people should by now be free of the gross stereotype of "diseased blood".

"A lot of the Red Cross's claims about the supposedly higher risk associated with gay sex have been demolished", Croome told the SSO. "They're dead and buried and the Tribunal accepts Michael's basic case that some gay sex is safer than other gay sex and some gay men are safer than some heterosexuals who can donate."

Giving blood saves lives. The Red Cross runs campaigns to encourage blood donor awareness and there is often a shortage. "Anyone with a heart can give blood", we're told.

It ran a drive over Christmas for "the gift that keeps on giving" and asks of those who visit the website: "Do something special. Give blood."

It's not just offensive to exclude people from this "honourable deed" based on who they have sex with. It's hypocritical because of the people who go without medical treatment, often vital, as a result of blood bank shortages.

It's also unnecessary. All blood taken by the Red Cross is screened for the same infections that gay and queer men are excluded for.

The Australian Red Cross says it uses seven different tests to screen blood for five "transfusion-transmissible infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, hepatitis B, human T-cell lymphocytotropic virus and syphilis)".

HIV testing until recently has relied on the detection of antibodies that form to fight the infection. The risk is in a defined "window period" between the time of possible infection and when there are enough antibodies in the blood to produce a positive result.

This period used to be defined as anywhere between three weeks to six months, but three months is usually enough.

But new testing means HIV can be detected much earlier and with greater accuracy. Nucleic Acid Testing is now used by the Australian Red Cross. By testing for the virus, not just antibodies, it closes the window period to just 12 days.

"There is nothing intrinsic to male sex that puts people who have it at risk", Croome wrote on his blog in 2006. "Risk arises from unsafe sex."

The LGBTI community has the right to say "my blood is the same". Technology, education campaigns and better resources for safe sex programs, sexual health information and facilities and empowerment within the LGBTI community are the answer to safe blood for life-saving medical treatments.

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