Like getting excited over your first mobile phone or waving the teary parents off after being dropped off at university, being able to donate blood is seen as one of life’s signs that you’re a grown-up.
But not for gay and bisexual men. Until this week – or more accurately, until next summer – we have been banned from donating our blood, unless we abstained from sexual activity for more than three months. It’s always felt dehumanising.
There’s something markedly unsettling and contradictory about the messaging around blood donations for people like me. On one hand, donating blood is promoted as one of the most upstanding things a citizen can do for others – and yet a whole class of people are blocked from going about this selfless good deed, even if they wanted to.
So why not us? According to the NHS, “the 3-month wait is to reduce the risk of any very recently acquired infections not being detected on screening and further tests. This applies to all donors whose partners may be at a higher risk of blood borne infections.” This is because “at a population level, men who have sex with men are at an increased risk of acquiring certain infections through sex.”
In plain terms, this had meant that men who have sex with men must abstain from sexual behaviour for three months before they can donate - even if you have no obvious health ailments. But now, a new ruling means men who have sex with men can now give blood – so long as they have only had anal sex with one male partner in the last three months.
The process leading to this change has felt excruciating and slow, like a needle slowly penetrating the skin. Pressure groups such as Freedom To Donate – who successfully brought the wait time down to three months from twelve in 2017 – have been campaigning for this exact ruling for years, saying men “should be treated as people, not on the basis of their sexuality,” when it comes to donating. And this seems like a fair deal to me, as it means those of us that practice safe and responsible sex have the same right to donate blood as the next straight male who also acts similarly.
In the UK, we’re lucky, relatively speaking, that LGBTQ representation and acceptance is broadly very high – but sometimes that can mask where there is still work to be done. Many injustices still pervade our daily lives such as the heightened levels of abuse some queer people face, as well as systematic marginalisation,and many of us aren’t as okay with the slow progress as we may seem.
For people outside of the community, it may seem like not being able to donate blood is a small thing. But it’s sometimes the simplest injustices which feel the most bizarre and hurt the most. What people may not realise is that dehumanising rules like these reinforce feelings of shame that many LGBTQ people carry around with them as a heavy mental burden each day. By being discounted from an activity most people are encouraged to do, we’re reminded that we are perceived to be ‘different’ by some in society – no matter how many times people tell us we aren’t.
From the seemingly small things like volunteering with elders this Christmas to the seismic things like having the option to have children with our partners, being included is not only fair – it makes us feel like we are one and the same.
And feeling included is perhaps more important than ever for LGBTQ people: during the pandemic, people like me were revealed to have struggled with their mental health disproportionately more than straight people.
If my friendship group and set of acquaintances is anything to go by, this fact is certainly true, and so, on the one hand, we can actually take this ruling as a positive thing – a reminder of how helpful we can be towards others.
So although this has taken far too long – and for many of us the damage will have already been done in the years we’ve been told we’re banned – at least we can use this inevitably symbolic time of year to think of the positive effects the new ruling will have on many LGBTQ people.
Let’s also not forget that over the last 10 years, there has been a 40% drop in the number of people giving blood so I’d assume the NHS needs all the blood it can get to improve the lives of more Britons. We can take stock – and potentially sign up to donate – in the knowledge that in the NHS’ eyes, we’re now as valuable as everyone else.
Complications still remain: PrEP users, for instance, still cannot give blood unless they come off their medication, and neither can donors who have engaged in anal sex with a new partner or more than one partner in the three months prior to donating.
But, for many of us, this is a landmark ruling worth celebrating. Giving blood may not be warm and fuzzy, but the sentiment is the Christmas message of inclusion many of us have long sought out.
Adam Bloodworth is a features writer at HuffPost UK. Follow him on Twiter at @adamzx.
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