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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

PERSPECTIVE: Trisk aims to raise awareness of anti-gay blood donation policies

Published: March 4, 2005
Section: Arts, Etc.

Imagine youve seen the signs all over campus advertising last weeks Red Cross blood drive. All your friends are wearing Be nice to me! I donated blood today stickers. You want to contribute to this life-saving endeavor, too. But when you try to sign up, you realize that you are banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from donating.

This is precisely what you would have experienced prior to break week if you are a man who has ever had sex with another man.

The FDA forbids the Red Cross from accepting blood donations from anyone who is at increased risk for becoming infected with HIV. This includes men who have had sex with another male even once since 1977, regardless of when the sexual act(s) took place, whether the relationship was monogamous, or even if you have tested negative for HIV.

When Matt Pohl, class of 2005 at Tufts University, found out about this FDA policy last spring, he was outraged. While giving blood is not a civic duty per se, it makes you feel like you are a real part of the community because you are contributing to saving lives, Matt says. That anonymous giving can really strengthen a community.
People had stickers on the day of the blood drive, saying, Oh, look at me, I gave blood. And then people ask you, Why you havent given blood? Its because Im gay. The FDA policy made me feel like I was less a part of the community than I should be because of who I am.

Pohl entered into discussions with university representatives at Tufts and they discussed their options, since Tufts has a non-discriminatory policy. He quickly realized that if he asked for the blood drive to be held off-campus because of the discriminatory policy, he would be endangering the turnout for the blood drive. Pohl is credited with starting the awareness campaign about this policy.

Obviously, people are dying;

people are in dire need of blood. In the end, I thought we should have the drive on campus because if not, ultimately there would be an even greater shortage of blood. So I was very willing to compromise on that.

Pohls position on the matter is echoed by Drew Wiechert 06, speaking on behalf of Triskelion, Brandeis queer support group. Trisk presented an information drive adjacent to the Red Cross blood drive in February in order to let donors know about the FDAs unnecessarily strict deferral policy banning gay men from donating blood for life after a single same-sex encounter.

However, Trisk only wanted people to sign the petition if they were already going to be donating. They did not want people to come, sign the petition, and subsequently choose not to donate because of the discriminatory policy.

Pohls group at Tufts was able to organize a speakers bureau who spoke to their campus in February about this policy. Speakers included the head of the New England Red Cross, a woman from the AIDS Action Committee and an epidemiologist.

Even the head of the Red Cross acknowledged that the FDA policy had some problems because of how HIV rates are starting to change. The whole issue of race came up because black women contract HIV at rates that are going to surpass those of men who have sex with men within the next few years. This policy is going to be very outdated very soon.

Wiechert agreed that the policy, developed 20 years ago, is outdated. The reason for the deferral is not blatantly discriminatory;

the FDA obviously has a vested interest in keeping the blood supply safe. In 1985, when the policy was instated, it made sense because HIV testing was not what it is now at that time.

But 20 years later, much more is known about HIV. Its everywhere now, in both men and women. Today, when its possible to know of you have HIV within 3 months of contraction, it doesnt make sense not to change the policy.

The only other groups who have a lifetime ban from donating blood are prostitutes and heroin users. There is a huge difference between having sex for drugs or money and being a gay man who selects his partner in an intelligent way whose health he trusts, says Wiechert.

It doesnt make sense to me that a man who has sex with a man is lumped into the same category as prostitutes. It would make more sense to ban heterosexual people who engage in anal sex with non-monogamous partners as well as gay men if that is their line of thinking.

The issue came up at Trisk when one of its members attempted to give blood was turned away because of the policy. It was then discussed at a Trisk meeting when it became clear that many Trisk members were completely unaware that this deferral even existed.

Pohl thinks that this issue has remained low on the national radar because people are afraid to touch this issue because its about blood. Its about human lives.

In February at the Tufts speakers bureau, the head of the New England Red Cross said, according to Pohl, that if half of the gay men who have been banned were to give blood, then we would have no blood shortage.

Blood is always in high demand and can only be used after a certain amount of time after it has been donated. Pohl and Wiechert want to have the opportunity to contribute to increasing the blood supply by being allowed to donate, but at the same time, they have to be cautious about not inadvertently increasing the blood shortage by turning eligible donors off to donation because of the discriminatory policy.

A vote in 2000 by an FDA-appointed board decided by a margin of 7 to 6 to keep the policy of banning men who have sex with men from donating blood. Trisk hopes the petition to the FDA will be able to tip the scales in favor of equality and against discrimination.