Gay rights advocates have called on the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and Government to remove restrictions on gay men donating blood, describing the Red Cross policy as homophobic and discriminatory.
At present, the Red Cross ‘defers’ blood donations from men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months, effectively barring donations from sexually active gay men.
In 2012, a proposal by an independent expert committee convened by the Red Cross advocated easing the restriction on blood donations from 12 months to six months, and though this advice is yet to be acted on by the Red Cross, gay rights campaigners have criticised the proposal for perpetuating misleading stereotypes of HIV risk among gay men.
Michael Cain, the unsuccessful complainant in a landmark 2008 case that saw gay blood deferral brought before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal, said reducing the deferral period to six months would merely be a cosmetic change to discriminatory practices.
“It will mean the overwhelming majority of gay men who, like me, have safe blood to donate and are still banned from donating … Gay men will continue to be stigmatised as a threat to public health, and the Australian blood supply will continue to stay only a day or two ahead of demand.”
The Australian Red Cross aims to have six days’ worth of supply of all blood types, and at present the blood supply of the universal blood type O-negative is running low with the blood bank currently possessing only three days’ supply of it.
Matthew Ng, committee member on the LGBT Catholic Ministry Acceptance Sydney, said the Red Cross has a responsibility to increase the total number of Australians donating blood from current levels of 600,000 by removing the ban on gay blood donations.
“Only one in 30 Australians donate blood, but one in three will need blood. As people grow more accepting of the LGBT community, more people will come out and won’t be able to donate blood, making the problem worse.
UNSW Arts/Law student, Sean, 20, agreed. “On one hand, it promotes a really homophobic view, being wrapped up in ideas of purity, and of gay men being impure. But on the other hand, it’s actually costing lives. Straight people are dying because gay men can’t give blood. So even homophobic straight people should wake up to themselves and realise that having a gay man’s blood in them won’t kill them — in fact, not having it will.”
This view was shared by Rodney Croome, spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay Men Rights Group and researcher on Michael Cain’s case against the Red Cross.
“The gay blood donation ban has two consequences. It means gay men are stigmatised in public health, and it means that there’s less safe blood available for the public. The Australian Government needs to take a stronger position on this issue and insist that the Red Cross adopt a policy that is more appropriate.”
However, according to Jennifer Williams, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, the risk of HIV infection among gay men is significantly higher than for heterosexuals, claiming that even in monogamous relationships between men, one partner may cheat on the other, increasing the risk of HIV transmission.
“The risk of acquiring HIV is up to 300 times higher for gay men than for people in a heterosexual relationship. In 2009, 90 per cent of newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection in Australia involved men who reported sexual contact with men,” Williams argued in an article published online by the ABC.
Croome contested this viewpoint as being patently prejudicial, noting the use of similar arguments by Red Cross lawyers in Cain’s 2008 anti-discrimination case, which were rejected by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal at the time.
“I’m usually judicious about the use of the word ‘homophobic’, but the Red Cross put forward a number of homophobic arguments, arguing that gay monogamy is a myth, and exaggerating the risk of HIV infection associated with gay sex.
“And the tribunal threw all those discriminatory and prejudicial claims out, saying it had good evidence that the risk of HIV infection associated with men in monogamous relations is less than the Red Cross claims,” Croome said.
Australian Red Cross media manager, Kathy Bowlen, argued otherwise, stating that the independent review commissioned by the Red Cross had recommended that “removing the deferral for men who have sex with men in monogamous relationships would introduce an unacceptable risk to the ongoing safety of the blood supply.”
UNSW student Sean said this recommendation is still rooted in discrimination between heterosexual sex and sex between men.
“It seems to me the risk factor would be unsafe sex, regardless of who you are and who you’re sleeping with — not who you’re sleeping with.”
Croome agreed. “The gender of a sex partner is irrelevant to the safety of blood. What is relevant is the safety of sexual activity. That’s what creates a risk, and that’s what the Red Cross should screen for.”
Under the existing Red Cross policy, heterosexual men who have sex with multiple partners without the use of contraception are eligible to donate blood. By comparison, gay men who engage in protected oral sex with monogamous partners are immediately excluded from donating blood.
“The Red Cross should revise their policy to one that is based upon medical evidence of the causes of HIV transmission, and which applies consistently to everyone regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender,” Sean said.
Micheal Do, raconteur and Art History/Law student at UNSW, agreed. “Given the current state of medical research, I don’t understand why this discriminatory practice rooted in homophobic and bigoted assumptions about homosexuality still exists.”
Jarron Rapley, 21, echoed this viewpoint, stating that while it is important the Red Cross maintains stringent testing standards in regard to blood donations, excluding sexually active gay men from donating is an archaic policy.
“The simple fact is that every time a gay man is denied the right to donate, a patient is denied a potentially life-saving blood transfusion.”
According to Matthew Ng, the deferral on blood donations is stigmatising and damaging for gay men.
“We’re being excluded from being part of the community,” Ng said. “And I already feel slightly less valued than the entire community, so this is just something that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Worldwide, 36 countries currently have a deferral or complete ban on accepting blood donations from men who have sex with men. In the United States, Canada and much of Europe, sexually active gay men cannot donate blood at all, while in the United Kingdom, a one year deferral is in place.