Open Mike #6 – Question 2.

Milady de Winter asks:

Mike, as a gay man well versed in the modern world and this being World AIDS Day and all: what is your opinion on the archaic and, in my opinion, homophobic rule regarding gay men and giving blood? I’ve been on my soap box about this all day at work as the blood doners are coming round and I’m boycotting them.

Oh, lawks. This was supposed to be a bit of light-hearted fluff for a Friday – and now here I am, mentally knackered at the end of a rather trying Tuesday on the mainframe, and faced with the prospect of knocking out another extended essay on a Major Issue. You’ve got me confused with a Deep and Knowledgable Authority Figure Slash Spokesman For His Community, with carefully evaluated opinions on stuff that actually, you know, matters! Hay-ulp!

Although I have always rather shied away from making AIDS-related posts on December 1st (a.k.a. World AIDS Day), this doesn’t mean to say that the day ever passes unremembered. Far from it. However – and perhaps this is surprising for someone of my generation, who came of Gay Age in 1982 – my direct personal experiences with the full-blown illness have been few and far between – and for the most part, they have occurred at one remove. I have never lost a friend to AIDS, and I have never been to the funeral of someone with AIDS. There have just been the occasional slight acquaintances, and friends of friends – and, OK, there was that one guy I slept with after a New Year’s Eve party in the early 1990s, but we only ever met the once, and… you know how it goes, right?

Naturally, I have known (and indeed had sex with) a few HIV+ people over the years – and obviously many more whose positive status has never been made known to me – but (and how can I best put this?) their status has only ever hovered in the background between us: as an abstract piece of information, rather than as a tangible reality which has ever required a more direct personal engagement.

I have always, always practised safer sex, and have never been tempted to lapse. Not that this has been too difficult, given my historic lack of enthusiasm – in either role – for that particular act which is so often held to be virtually synonymous with gay male sexuality.

(In fact, that handy little phrase “Sorry, I don’t have any condoms” has saved me from several potentially awkward situations over the years – and so, if anything, the global tragedy has worked very slightly in my favour. Talk about Survivor’s Guilt.)

And so, as a mere remote observer, I have never quite liked to claim the disease for my own by dredging up some tangential reminiscences, seasoning them with a few well-meant homilies, offering them up on this site, and standing by for compliments in the comments box. It would feel a little stretched, a little forced – and even slightly exploitative. Such matters are best left to those with stories which are truly worth telling, and memories which should never be forgotten.

However, I do have a vivid memory of the screening interview which I attended about six years ago, at my previous place of employment, with the intention of donating my blood – and of the awkward surprise and embarrassment on the face of the rather ill-briefed young nurse, as she falteringly tried to explain why my blood could not be accepted. And yes, I remember feeling a sharp pang of wounded embarrassment of my own. After all, I prided myself on being clued up in such matters. So how could I not have known that all gay men – or indeed any men who had ever had even one same-sex experience, of any nature, no matter how long ago – were still being barred from donating blood, even though all donations were now being screened for possible infection?

Did I feel unfairly discriminated against? Hell, yeah. Any straight person who had ever had unprotected sex could donate, whereas Lil’ Ol’ Goody Two-Shoes Me couldn’t. Where was the fairness in that?

Was it – indeed, is it still – evidence of institutionalised homophobia? In the light of all the recent legislative changes in this country, it is a viewpoint which has progressively become more and more untenable. Not so much homophobic, as hyper-cautious – maybe excessively cautious.

But is this caution truly excessive? Reading the explanatory document “Why we ask gay men not to give blood“, as produced by the UK Blood Transfusion Service, I cannot help but feel that their case is, by and large, a sound one. Yes, all donated blood is screened – but this is not a perfect process, and infected blood can still slip through the net. It’s a tiny risk, but a real one – and so, arguably, any measures which can significantly reduce that risk should be followed, regardless of the feelings of unjustified exclusion which they might cause. After all, what’s more important here: sparing hurt feelings, or saving lives?

Of course, I could always choose to treat this exclusion as evidence of my continued status as a member of an Oppressed Minority – but in this case, I have actively chosen not to do this. In my experience – and counter-assimilationists amongst My People may commence hissing here – the less that we gay men consider ourselves to be marginalised victims, and the more that our social interactions spring from the assumption that we are already fully integrated and equal members of society, then the less that straight society will marginalise and victimise us.

I might be missing some important facts here, and my lurking inner Peter Tatchell would actually quite like to be proved wrong – so, if you know of any compelling counter-arguments which I might have missed, then (ahum) please deposit them in my box. (Now, that’s an invitation you won’t ever hear me issue lightly.)

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