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Friday, 05 March 2010 03:36

Are We a Nation of Archie Bunkers? Discriminatory Ban on Gay Blood Donors Based on Squeamishness, Not Reality

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BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White

Did you know that the government is restricting gay men from being allowed to save your life?

Eighteen senators sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Thursday demanding an end to the lifetime ban prohibiting any man who has had gay sex since 1977 from donating blood.

From the Associated Press:

"Not a single piece of scientific evidence supports the ban," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass...

The lawmakers stressed that the science has changed dramatically since the ban was established in 1983 at the advent of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Today donated blood must undergo two different, highly accurate tests that make the risk of tainted blood entering the blood supply virtually zero, they said.

...Kerry compared the effort to lift the blood donation ban to legislation he backed in 2008 to end the law banning people with HIV from traveling and immigrating to the United States.

I see where Kerry was going with his comparison. If we can lift the travel ban on those with HIV (which we did last year), surely we can lift blood donation restrictions on completely healthy gay men.

Unfortunately, this issue is more fraught with intimacy than the travel ban. Our ingrained squeamishness over bodily fluids has traditionally meshed quite well with tribalism, creating unfounded fears over the blood of anyone we consider to be an "other."

The story reminded me of an All in the Family episode (of which I've embedded the final minutes) where the racist, sexist everyman we all love to hate, Archie Bunker, has to undergo surgery. It is discovered that Archie has a relatively rare blood type, and the only volunteer of the right type is a black female doctor from the West Indies. Bunker had spent a great deal of the episode making insensitive remarks about the doctor's heritage, so his resistance to accepting the gift comes as no surprise to anyone in the room.

"You mix my white -- whatcha call -- hemoglobins with her colored she-moglobins -- anything could happen!" Archie says to the surgeon. "Doctor, you don't understand what I'm trying to say. She is B-L-A-K!"

"But her blood is R-E-D-D," the surgeon unapologetically replies. Archie is carried away from the room in a stretcher, as the black doctor warns him that he may experience a "strange craving for watermelon" after the procedure. Ha, ha, fade out, applause.

In case you're unaware, All in the Family was a situation comedy and Archie Bunker was the embarrassing bigot whom we could all laugh off, confronting the darker side of American prejudice through our giggles. Isn't it just hilarious that Archie would think that a black woman's blood would be any different than his?

The difference here is that Archie's doctor didn't take his prejudice and make it into government policy.

This gay blood ban was a case of discrimination in this country that I was unaware of until today. I thought we were past the whole gay man = AIDS thing years ago. Apparently, the FDA hasn't caught up.

Things are even worse abroad. In Great Britain, the lifetime ban extends to any man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man. Due to some social pressure, the UK is reconsidering the ban.

There's encouragement from other EU countries, where the lifting of bans actually resulted in a lower incidence of contaminated blood supply. From the UK Guardian:

Since Spain and Italy ended their total gay ban, the number of HIV infections from contaminated blood donations has fallen dramatically. They eased the restrictions and, at the same time, improved the screening process and educated gay donors about the new policy.

Of course, that's not really the problem here. The FDA insists that its screening and testing regimes make U.S. blood supply among the safest in the world.

But if the FDA were really interested in blocking the most at-risk people from giving blood, they'd be focused on other populations. According to the U.S. government's source for women's health information, AIDS is now the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25-34.

Really, the only excuse for continuing to ban healthy gay men from giving blood is our collective squeamishness about bodily fluids and so-called alternative lifestyles.

Most Americans will need a blood transfusion over the course of their lives, including that squeamish, anti-gay relative of yours. Knowing that a healthy gay man is allowed to donate the blood that could save that person's life may seem like a small step toward equality in a world where GLBT men and women in this country are discriminated against in so many ways. But don't underestimate the anti-nausea power of being "blood brothers."

BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS