Thursday, May 23, 2013

Gay blood: Homophobia at Canadian Blood Services

Today I saw a news article that poked at a very old sore spot of mine: the Canadian blood supply.
 Gay men allowed to donate blood...sort of.

I work in a blood bank and have done so for more than 20 years so blood is a subject that is near and dear to my heart and something that affects my life on a daily basis. I used to donate blood regularly, but a number of years ago I stopped. There were some health and lifestyle issues that interfered, but the biggest factor for me was my outrage over various Canadian Blood Services policies. Their homophobia being high on that list.

For those who don't know, CBS is the agency in charge of the collection and distribution of donor blood across Canada....with the exception of Quebec which has their own agency. In the 1980's, after the scandal of HIV tainted blood, the Krever inquiry, and all the law suits that followed, Canada decided to separate the blood collection branch of the Canadian Red Cross and administer it separately. Hence the creation of Canadian Blood Services.  About five years ago I attended a symposium of lectures, one of which was given by a member of the Canadian Blood Services agency and it was at that lecture that I had my first taste of the unapologetic homophobia that persists in our national health organizations. Basically gay men are banned from donating blood. Not because of their sexual habits...but because they are gay. I know that sounds like a ridiculous differentiation...but bear with with me.

The problems stem from the questions that all donors are required to answer to qualify to donate. Just to be clear there are a LOT of problems with the donor questionnaire and a LOT of inconsistencies. You can read it in its entirety here, if you're so inclined: CBS Donor Questionnaire

But for my purposes we'll just focus on two key questions. (It should be noted that the definition of "sex" according for the purposes of the questionnaire include vaginal, anal and oral fun):
19. Male donors: Have you had sex with a man, even one time since 1977?

23. Female donors: In the last 12 months, have you had sex with a man who had sex, even one time since 1977 with another man?

I would assume that the revised form of the questionnaire will read like this:

19. Male donors: Have you had sex with a man, even one time in the last 5 years?

23. Female donors: In the last 12 months, have you had sex with a man who had sex, even one time in the last 5 years with another man?

So.....Gay men who engage in "risky" behaviour (i.e. being gay) are banned for life. But women who engage in "risky" behaviour with such biggie.

Let's be clear here. The "high risk" activity that we are really talking about isn't just any sex, it's anal sex. The reason the risk is higher--and the reason HIV hit the gay community so hard in the 1980's--is because the anus is not really made to accommodate a penis. It isn't lubricated and doesn't stretch as well and is much more prone to tearing--hence the risk of the pitcher's semen mixing with the catcher's blood. The sex of the catcher has nothing to do with it! It is not like a woman's rectum is more lubricated or less likely to tear than a man' why are women only restricted for one year after engaging in risky behaviour...and men banned for life?

Although their broad definition of sex does include anal it is obvious that the assumption is that the women don't participate in that...nasty stuff. Otherwise why would there be such a huge difference in the time restrictions for men and women?

If you read the rest of the questions you'll see that no other body fluid risky behaviours involve a restriction of longer than 12 months....

25. At any time in the last 12 months, have you paid money or drugs for sex? 
26. At any time in the last 12 months, have you had sex with anyone who has taken money or drugs for sex?

So they are saying that monogamous homosexual men present a higher risk than intravenous drug users? And of course IV drug users are much more reputable sources when it comes to judging their sexual partners.

It's obvious that the reason male/male sex has been singled out is because of the high likelihood that this involves anal sex..and because gay men must be know...dirty. These questions basically assume that a woman in a "normal" heterosexual relationship doesn't engage in anal sex with her husband...and that her husband doesn't get down and dirty with anybody else.

Let's face it sex is risky. Oral. Vaginal. Anal. It matters not. And there is no way for anyone to know for certain what their latest partner has been up to on their own time. Asking someone to swear to something that someone else did...or didn't frankly ridiculous in the first place. And it is beyond ridiculous to  ban men in committed, long term, monogamous relationships from donating blood simply because...they're gay

The tests used to check donor blood for HIV and Hepatitis are able to detect signs to the diseases within FIVE DAYS of exposure. It is these tests that have made our blood supply one of the safest in the world, not these ridiculous questionnaires and restrictions. If we have to have lifestyle questions in the questionnaire then make them specific enough and nondiscriminatory enough to be meaningful. The questions should be behaviour based, as the article states, rather than gay based.

How about:

  • Have you swallowed the cum of a stranger in the past 12 months?
  • Have you had anal sex with an anonymous partner in a prison shower in the last 12 months?

  • Have you attended a sex club or participated in a group orgy in the past 12 months?

or how about

  • Have you shared a sex toy or butt plug with anyone whose sexual history you don't know in the past 12 months?

Oops. My habits are showing.
And leave it at that.

Note: For any Canadian citizens who feel strongly about this, I encourage you to send your concerns to the person who is ultimately responsible for these decisions. You can contact our Minister of Health by filling out the following FORM


  1. An enlightened post. It seems to me that our world is being divided between enlightened people and the unenlightened. This crosses religious, political and socio-economic lines. How people respond to your post is driven by where they are in the growing dichotomy. I suspect it also drives the policy wonks that generate the questionnaires cited. I applaud your efforts at education. I have missed your writings.

  2. Thanks, J! I am hopeful that the enlightenment is spreading...slowly if not completely. I agree that the "policy wonks" are part of the more less enlightened part of the political spectrum. Or at the very least the idea of sex-parties or dildo-sharing would never occur to them as something they should consider when making policy.

  3. It is disgusting to me that we still are so bigoted towards homosexuality. I understand the risk factors involved in some types of sex, but they aren't asking about that. They are asking about homosexuality. If they were concerned about the high risk factor sex acts they would ask specifically about them irrespective of gender preference. Anal sex is anal sex regardless of who it is with. So ridiculous.

    1. Today one of my sons brought up this topic with an acquaintance of his...a young man, under 30. Someone who you would think had grown up in the age of enlightenment. The moment my son broached the subject of gay men not being able to donate, the reaction was, "Good. I wouldn't any of that gay blood in ME!"
      It seems we have a long way to go.