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Red Cross Caters to Homophobia

Commentary

By Tyrone Jones

The annual American Red Cross Blood drive, which has become a Harvard-Radcliffe institution, was held last week in Boylston Hall. Many students chose to support the Red Cross by donating blood, while others chose not to donate. While students decide to donate or not to donate for many reasons, the one thing they all have in common is that they have the choice. I, like other gay men, have been stripped of this choice. Prior to donating blood, one is required to answer questions regarding one's history of drug use and medical history. Question 5.6 asks "for males: have you had sex, even once, with another male since 1977?" I recently learned that a positive answer to this question means that I cannot donate blood. These questions were developed by the CDC in conjunction with the American Red Cross in an attempt to protect the blood supply from HIV contamination.

I think it is quite reasonable to screen blood; however, I question the validity of the current methods of screening donors. Questions 5.6 and 5.7, in which women are asked if they have had sex in the last twelve months, even once, with a male who has had sex with another male since 1977, impose a flat ban on blood donation from gay men under the guise of protecting the public at large. The issue I have with this regulation is that it creates a false sense of security by supporting the notion that HIV infection and AIDS are exclusively "gay", and therefore, by protecting our blood supply from the blood of gay men, we are safe. The regulation reeks of the idiotic thinking implicit in President Reagan's announcement that he has asked "the Department of Health and Human Services to determine as soon as possible the extent to which the AIDS virus has penetrated our society." This is the first public statement President Reagan made about AIDS. It was made in November 1987 after more than 25,000 known deaths due to AIDS.

The thing I find most appalling about the regulation is that when I discuss it with my peers, their immediate reaction is that it seems to be a reasonable regulation. When I point out the fact that the percentage of new cases of HIV is proportionally much higher in the straight community and more specifically, in the straight minority community; they still argue that it seems reasonable. Would we as a community and nation be so willing to accept a similar regulation against African American straight men and women? Furthermore, a closer look at the American Red Cross questionnaire shows us that there are no questions asking about unprotected sexual encounters. This question, it would seem, is much more relevant to donor screening than questions about same-sex sexual encounters. They are more relevant because the question about same-sex encounters lump all homosexual contact in a high risk category. It ignores the fact that mutual masturbation between two men is of a much lower risk category than unprotected heterosexual intercourse. How can the CDC and the American Red Cross justify their blatant submission to the homophobic panic of the heterosexual American public under the guise of protecting the blood supply, while it allows a straight male who has had unprotected sex on multiple occasions to be a donor?

It isn't until I mention that the Red Cross screens all blood before use in medical treatment that a few of my peers concede that perhaps the regulation is ridiculous. Some still feel that the screening process is not foolproof. The reality is that there is an eight week window period between transmission and detection and that the screening process is just as likely to miss a straight donor who is infected as it is to miss a gay donor who has contracted HIV.

There is no medical or ethical justification for denying me and other gay men the choice all heterosexuals enjoy. The sole basis for the Red Cross and CDC regulation is the homophobic panic of the late eighties and the refusal by the Red Cross executive board to challenge the CDC. This is an issue most people choose not to discuss because it is not a safe battle. The devotees of gay rights have ignored it, and so to has the rest of the American public. It is my firm belief that if we are going to fight for equality we must fight for it in all areas of life and not simply those in which it can be nicely packaged. For this reason I plan to file a formal discrimination complaint with the Administration against the American Red Cross and urge the University to impose the same ban it has imposed on the ROTC.

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