I’m a gay man, and I can’t donate blood.
It often comes as a surprise to people when I explain that gay or bi men who have had sex with another man in the last three months can’t donate. I was surprised myself when I first found out there were restrictions. My journey into the complex world of blood donation, window periods on blood-borne viruses and the intricacies of health policy began from an unexpected moment in my kitchen.
I was standing there, looking down at a questionnaire which, at the time, asked if I had had sex with a man in the previous 12 months. Now, I’m not one to brag about my sex life, but one man a year even by my standards seems like quite the dry patch. The impact of this question though had some pretty personal implications for me.
The reason I was reading these questions in the hope of donating blood was because of a pact my parents and I had made. It came about because of a major operation my Grandad had recently undergone, requiring almost 8 pints of blood. I was super close to my grandparents, both emotionally and physically, given they lived a hundred metres or so away from where I grew up. They were like a second set of parents to me, so the news that Grandad had been rushed to hospital was naturally pretty scary.
“Realising that I couldn’t repay the donor who had saved my Grandad’s life was nauseating”
He survived that operation due to the kindness of a stranger who had looked at the same form I was looking at right now and had donated blood. The difference being that, presumably, this stranger either had had a serious dry patch or wasn’t a gay or bi man. I had to make an excuse standing there in the kitchen as, at the time, my parents didn’t know I was gay. The plummeting feeling in my stomach, though, was realising that I couldn’t repay the donor who had saved my Grandad’s life was nauseating.
From that moment, I swore I wouldn’t stop until I could do the thing that that anonymous donor had done – make the life saving gesture of donating blood. And so, FreedomToDonate was born – a campaigning group of volunteers who secured a review into the policy for gay and bi men in 2015 and worked alongside the government in 2017 to drastically reduce that 12 month policy down to three months. And we’ve recently launched a national campaign to, once and for all, call for an end to a policy based on sexuality.
It’s been quite a ride. I didn’t think I’d be on the BBC Breakfast sofa or speaking to Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain about a voluntary campaign which has, in all honesty, got a little out of hand. But it represents two things; the wave of feeling out there that a policy based on sexuality is unfair and the thousands and thousands of pints of blood that could be safely donated by willing volunteers if we focused the policy on individual risk.
That, we believe, is the way forward. While maintaining the paramount importance of safety in the blood supply, we want a policy which effectively and fairly assesses individual risk rather than whether someone is a sexually active gay or bi man. Eligibility should be based on individual behaviour, not on sexual orientation, and by using technology and an up to date evidence base, we believe we can help secure a safe and sufficient blood supply for all.
“A policy based on sexuality is unfair... there are thousands and thousands of pints of blood that could be safely donated by willing volunteers if we focused the policy on individual risk.”
Our latest campaign called #BloodWithoutBias seeks to highlight the current policy and to symbolise the potential for new, safe blood. Rugby league professional Keegan Hirst helped us launch an awareness-raising video and the announcement of an ‘Illegal Blood Bank’ for volunteers who can’t currently donate to pledge a pint of blood in protest.
I believe this is a stark illustration on behalf of the thousands of potential donors we believe are out there who could donate blood safely but currently are restricted from doing so. For me, personally, it feels like I’ve never been closer to repaying the donor who saved my Grandad’s life.
I already been taken aback by the amount of encouragement and support we have had for the event, taking place this Saturday 23 November in East London. I’ve even been contacted from people across the country asking whether this could be replicated to showcase the breadth of support that exists for a change in the policy. Those volunteers are making a statement that they too would make a simple yet powerful gesture of donating a pint.
Pints that could save lives. Pints that saved my Grandad’s life.
Ethan is the founder of FreedomToDonate, the campaign for gay and bi men to be able to donate blood
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