Age of the Twink: Red Cross picks politics over science

When I was in high school, the American Red Cross would sometimes station one of their “bloodmobiles” in the parking lot. A doctor, nurse, and phlebotomist collected pints from willing donors, and students lined the sidewalk waiting to contribute to the cause. I recall one time when my physical education teacher attempted to persuade me to donate blood. She was a kind woman who meant no harm, yet that afternoon, she egged me on at an incessant rate to donate.

This was a perplexing situation for me, a boy in the closet. Donating blood is a simple way to give back to the community, and everyone was doing it, so how could I decline? Nonetheless, if I told her my honest reasoning—that I was gay, that the Red Cross didn’t accept my blood—I’d out myself, and my secret wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

It was peculiar to be placed in this same situation last week in the lobby of an Emerson residence hall, when a student representative rushed toward me with information on donating blood. The Red Cross was back and just across the street. I shook my head, nonchalantly brushed them off, even though that inner feeling of guilt still bombarded me.

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I’m no longer in the closet, and the Red Cross’ lifetime ban placed on men who have sex with men has been reduced, since just 2015, to 12 months of recent sexual activity. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and Japan had already initiated this one-year deferral rule. This change in other countries prompted the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s blood supply,  to “better harmonize” the ban with the deferral already in place for those who have increased exposure to HIV. This includes those with a partner who’s HIV positive or those who copulate with a commercial sex worker.

Nevertheless, I am regularly tested. I know my body, and I wish to donate blood. I still have issues witnessing my peers being able to do something I am barred from, thanks to some sensationalist paranoia from the era of AIDS and Ronald Reagan.

The lifetime policy was put in place in 1983, during the Reagan presidency. The AIDS crisis was in full swing: Gay men were dying by the thousands, our government did nothing to rectify this, and people everywhere were terrified of this “gay disease” and the community from which it seemingly originated.  It took over three decades for the U.S. to reduce this ban to 12 months, but the pure, unadulterated homophobia behind it still remains.

Every time I bring up this topic with someone—usually cisgender, usually heterosexual—they present me with foundationless information and made-up statistics. They would ask, didn’t I know that gay men are more susceptible to HIV? To avoid friction, I had always accepted that as a fact until, recently, I dug a tad deeper into the intricacies of the Red Cross policy.

With the 2015 changes, the FDA also revised its guidelines to recognize the difference between gender identity and biological sex. A transgender man could now be documented as a man, and a transgender woman could be documented as a woman. Before, gender was determined by one’s sex assigned at birth. This is a wonderful change that addresses decades’ worth of discrimination—but not completely.

In the Red Cross’ eyes, I will always be classified as a man who has sex with men. Now, a homosexual transgender man with a vagina cannot donate. Though the Red Cross did not previously classify them as a “man who has sex with a man,” they are now seen as such. Contrastingly, a heterosexual transgender woman with a penis who was not able to donate prior to this rule can do so now. I am not one to put some observational lens on another’s genitals, or what it says about one’s character, but these new grounds highlight a loophole in the FDA’s system.

By this standard, if I were to go to a “bloodmobile” or something of the like and lie that my gender identity is female, I would be permitted to donate, no questions asked. The government and overall population are too obsessed with what is between a person’s legs, and this no-questions-asked policy about gender satisfies me. But it puts a spotlight on how baseless the Red Cross’ denial of gay men is.

When the 2016 mass shooting occurred at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a dire need for blood donations arose. Yet gay men—the same community targeted by this terrorist attack—were prohibited from helping to save the lives of our own people.

This isn’t science—this is fear. Even on the Red Cross’ website, they admit there is “insufficient scientific data” to measure the correlation, if any, between individual behavioral risk factors and eligibility to donate. A gay man who has been committed to a longtime monogamous relationship would be rejected, while any heterosexual, even those with many sexual partners, would be permitted. Moreover, the Red Cross tests all donated blood for infectious diseases—including HIV—which renders the ban unnecessary.

Personally, I don’t believe the FDA has any grounds here. The government will continue to let us die without the opportunity to save one another. This isn’t just another case of discrimination. This is reflective of the cultural understanding of gay men at large: we are often forgotten, erased from every narrative, excluded from even the most basic experiences of life.

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