I have a fear of needles.
When I was little, my fear was so great that when flu shot time came around, I would go upstairs and hide in my closet hoping that that my parents would forget they had a third child in need of some form of immunity to influenza. Even today, I can't drive past the Medic building behind the Fort without getting a little queasy.
Most people would see my fear of needles as an inconsequential thing; I mean how often on a daily basis do I come in contact with my fear? This past week, however, I gained a new perspective on needles, and more accurately on giving blood.
I recently came across an article documenting a movement to repeal the ban on gay men donating blood. The article, which dealt with the Red Cross' growing need for healthy blood, brought a clench to my stomach. Originally, the clench was due to my above-mentioned fear, but by the end of the text that feeling shifted to anger and outrage.
I've given blood a couple of times, and each time I've been asked the same questions. And to me, the answers I gave were perfunctory. I didn't think about the question for longer than the time it took me to be certain of their answers. To me, they were little questions with little answers, but that's not how one of those questions is.
Ever since the HIV/AIDS scare of the mid-1980s, one particular screening question has been asked continually to all male donors. The phrasing of this question isn't universal but its meaning is. "Have you (as the donor) had sex with a man, even once, since 1977?" Any man who says yes is ultimately and indefinitely removed from the donor pool.
This ban on gay men, or MSMs ("men who have sex with men") as classified by federal agencies, wasn't readily challenged when it was first instituted. It was created in an era of extreme uncertainty over the mysterious specter that was HIV/AIDS, and prevailing wisdom said that there was something in the blood donor supply that was spreading AIDS and that gay men were disproportionately affected by the disease. So by putting two and two together, the FDA instituted the screening process to try and eliminate the risk of further infection.
For the past twenty-odd years, this ban has gone unquestioned by the majority of Americans, as many like me saw those screening questions as nothing more than a small inconvenience, but this trend has started to change. Coming on the heels of China's recent repeal of a ban on lesbians being able to donate blood and the UK's loosening on gay male blood donations in some areas of the country, over 60 US legislators have banded together in the hopes of furthering the process of eliminating the ban.
The FDA's ban isn't inherently a bad thing in the sense that it was not made out of a spirit of discrimination, but rather one of fear. It's easy for me, as someone born in the early '90s, to not be able to completely understand the fear that AIDS caused. It was literally a mystery killer that came out of nowhere. The FDA added these questions to help, but in the end they helped preserve an archaic discriminatory notion against homosexuals in this country.
America has come a long way since the Reagan years. Testing and screening for HIV/AIDS is exponentially better and the nation's overall attitude toward the gay community is on an unprecedented upswing. And yet in this positive environment, a gay man is not afforded the simply ability to give blood, something a straight man can do after an infinite number of unprotected sexual encounters without a moment's hesitation. Even individual blood banks are calling for the recall of this ban, viewing it as "medically and scientifically unwarranted."
American blood banks are in desperate need for donations, but they automatically rule out over 2 million possible donors for nothing more than their sexual orientation. Not every gay man has AIDS, and yet they are still classified and treated as if they do by the FDA.
I may be afraid to give blood, but any blood bank would be more than happy for me to give blood. We live in a nation with one of the most liberal and encompassing constitutions and set of human rights in the world, and yet rules like these are still readily allowed and supported by our institutions.
Giving blood is a choice. I may be afraid of taking the needle's plunge, but I still have the ability to. And that is a choice that all people in this country should have. The ability to give blood should be decided by health (or in my case cowardice), not sexual orientation.
- Preston Peeden is a senior in history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.