When I was in graduate school pursuing my teaching degree, I substituted almost daily in the school where my husband taught music. Although we weren’t married at the time (this was long before gay marriage was legal), most of the kids and faculty knew our relationship, and with the exception of one seventh grade girl who told her guidance counselor she saw us kissing in the chorus room (not true), people accepted who we were–at least to our faces.
The school was literally in the middle of corn fields, and difference between me and the rural, racially homogenous population likely accounted for the few times a surly boy called me gook and why the younger children consistently asked if I knew judo or karate. Still, there was a contingent of nice, cool kids who thought I was nice and cool because of my relationship to their beloved music teacher. One day, they approached me about making a donation to the school blood drive. I remembered doing so once in high school, and I thought, “Why not?”
I headed down to the gymnasium where the drive was all set up. I waited patiently for my turn and was given a form to fill, which included a questionnaire.
Have I ever used intravenous drugs? No.
Any tattoos? Nope.
Pregnant? Not possible.
I checked off no to nearly every question, but one: “Have you ever had any sexual intercourse with someone from your same sex?” Duh. Yes.
To me this question didn’t seem overly important, and I didn’t realize there was any cause for alarm even though it was the only time I chose an affirmative response. I slipped the form into a handy folder that only revealed my responses and not the questions, and proceeded to the donation station.
The elderly woman working intake took a look at my form in the folder and made a screwy face. “Oh, I think you filled this out wrong dear.”
“No, I think it’s all right.”
“No, it couldn’t be. You checked off yes to one of these questions.”
“I did. Yes, I know.”
“Well that must have been a mistake. Let’s see which one you checked off yes to…” She then proceeded to pull the questionnaire out of the privacy folder to see which item I misread. Her eyebrows raised, she turned the form back to me, “See dear, you checked off yes to number 12 here. That’s not true, is it?”
I re-read the statement. Still about sexual intercourse with another man. “No, that’s still true for me.”
Her demeanor immediately changed. The moment of realization had struck. She was talking to a real live gay.
“Well you can’t donate blood then.”
“It’s the rules. Your social security number will go into our system now and you will never be allowed to donate blood. If you’d like to save face, you can still make a donation and we can mark your blood to be destroyed.”
“Um…no. Thanks. I’m good.” And I walked out.
I couldn’t believe this. Not only was I floored that I couldn’t give blood simply because I was actively gay (in high school, I was only gay in the head), but this woman had completely violated privacy protocols and then offered to push me back into the closet by donating useless blood so no one would know I had been rejected.
After doing some research, I found that this has actually been the FDA policy since 1983, a result of the AIDS crisis and the rash of people contracting the virus through infected blood during transfusions. Of note of course is the fact that this lifetime ban has only ever applied to gay men; all other high risk groups, including intravenous drug users, have only ever been banned for a single year since after last instance of risky behavior.
In the years since this interaction, my gay blood has continued to boil. I met my husband when I was nineteen years old, and as a result of that early meeting and my personal practices, I’ve had far fewer sexual partners than nearly all of my heterosexual friends, and a few of those friends have engaged in some pretty risky sexual behaviors. Yet I am the one who has been banned for life from helping people in need.
The other day at my current school, one of the students dressed up like a big blood drop, a mascot costume clearly provided by the Red Cross to drum up support for the blood drive the next day. This human blood drop knocked on my classroom door and made an announcement to my juniors that those who were old enough should donate blood. I countered by informing her that I was not allowed to.
“Really?” the large red blob asked.
“Yup…they don’t take gay blood.”
“That’s messed up,” she mumbled as she sloshed slowly away.
This morning, I saw this Huffington Post article about a potential life on the ban, and I quickly posted it with the editorial that “it’s about freaking time.” A friend read the article before I did, and pointed out that a federal advisory committee isn’t suggesting lifting the ban entirely; they are recommending that gay men who have abstained from sexual activity for one year be allowed to donate blood. Even if the FDA enacts this change, my husband and I, married ten years and monogamously partnered for nearly twice that, for almost twice that, will still not be allowed to donate blood.
Perhaps the tide is changing with this small concession from the federal advisory board to the FDA, just like the gay marriage wave sweeping over the country. Still, I married my husband more than ten years ago. Will it take another ten for my blood to be good enough to save a life?