UK blood donation laws are marginalising queer men and need to change
The legislation in the UK surrounding blood donation and men who have sex with men (MSM) has long caused controversy, but after the length of sexual abstinence was reduced – from one year to three months, back in 2017 – complacency seems to have silenced the queer community.
In this altruistic world of do-gooders and life-savers, donating blood is viewed as one of the most selfless deeds a person can do.
People tweet with instant gratification when receiving a text informing them when their donation has been issued out, and NHS Blood sends out constant reminders for the never-ending need for donations.
“We need over 6,000 blood donations every day to treat patients in need across England…” says the NHS.
And this is not to undermine the actions of those already eligible to donate – because the reality is blood donation is an essential part of saving lives – and those that regularly donate do deserve recognition.
But, in the UK, queer men are excluded. We cannot donate. We want to donate. We’re told just how important it is to donate. And yet there is very little we can do about it.
Why can’t gay men donate blood?
NHS Blood state that statistically, MSM have a higher risk of acquiring blood-borne diseases, infections and viruses, so they can only donate if they have abstained from sex for a minimum of three months.
Its website reads: “This isn’t meant to be discriminatory. It’s not based on anyone’s sexual history or sexuality. It reflects statistical risks for the sexual behaviour that increases the risk of virus transmission.”
NHS Blood also clearly states that it’s not responsible for the eligibility criteria, as it follows the advice given from SaBTO – the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).
Ensuring blood is as safe as possible is an obvious necessity, but the term ‘statistical risk’ demonstrates how queer men are often medically treated as a monolithic entity – failing to see the vast differences in queer men and how that affects their ‘risk status’.
For example, two husbands in a monogamous relationship – who exclusively have sex with each other, and were both tested within the appropriate length of time after their last sexual encounter with another person – what risk do they pose?
Or two 16-year-old boys who lose their virginity with each other. As they walk into their sixth-form assembly on blood donation, they’re told that they’re no longer eligible.
It sends a specific message. One that undeniably echos the moral panic of the AIDS epidemic – where papers screamed that our blood was dirty, our lifestyle dangerous, and our death expected.
Individual assessments for eligibility present an opportunity to widen the inclusiveness of donors, by taking into consideration their personal circumstance and determining whether they’re actually ‘high risk’.
LGBTQ charity, Stonewall, also believe individualised assessments are the way forward.
“It’s simply untrue to say that every gay and bi man is a high-risk donor…” says the charity. “That’s why Stonewall is calling for a system based on individualised risk assessment of blood donors, rather than excluding an entire group.”
Thankfully, personal assessments could soon change the current limitations surrounding MSM donation.
Su Brailsford, Consultant in Epidemiology and Health Protection for NHS Blood and Transplant, has been exploring different approaches.
“We’re committed to exploring more individualised assessments and we have already started work…” says Brailsford. “We hope to report our findings in late 2020.”
“The UK Blood services are working with a range of stakeholders including LGBT groups. We have set up a steering group to oversee several pieces of work looking at whether a more individualised risk assessment approach could be used in donor selection policy.
“More detailed assessments could give us a better understanding of someone’s risk. The work will take both a behavioural science and epidemiological approach. Any changes to donor selection must be based on the best available evidence but we want as many people as possible to be able to give blood and save lives.”
What happens next?
For the queer men wanting to donate, the day may well come where you are eligible. If that day does come, please take advantage of it – the NHS needs your blood, even if it doesn’t realise it yet.