In June this year, for the first time since the 1990s, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) imported 115 units of blood from the NHS due to a shortage of home-donated blood. When this was reported, people took to Twitter in droves to point out that the service discriminates against men who have sex with men (MSM) and their female partners.
Currently, in order to be eligible to donate blood, MSM are required to abstain from oral and anal sex for a period of twelve months prior to their donation (this is a minor improvement from the total ban on MSM donating blood prior to 2017). Similarly confusing is the fact that any woman who has had oral, anal, or vaginal sex with an MSM is banned indefinitely from donating blood. Of course, this is ridiculous. Queer men have perfectly healthy blood, as do their female partners. There are plenty of people who have blood unsuitable for transfusion (straight people, for example, who are HIV positive) which is why IBTS go through the obviously sensible process of testing every donation they receive. Ultimately, the blood ban is a remnant of a rabidly homophobic moral panic which Ireland can’t seem to get over.
While their effort is laudable, and their cause just, to any regular at the D’Olier Street blood donation clinic, the campaign raises some questions.
A campaign group was quickly set up to protest this injustice — #BloodForAll set up a Change.org petition (which, at the time of writing, has just over 600 signatures) and a number of social media accounts. While they are not formally affiliated with TCDSU’s campaign of the same nature, their material has been shared by the union’s social media accounts. At this time, no direct action has been announced on their part. While their effort is laudable, and their cause just, to any regular at the D’Olier Street blood donation clinic (as I myself am), the focus of this campaign raises some questions.
I will admit that this battle is a largely symbolic one. Anyone who has been to the Irish Blood Transfusion Service is well aware that you can simply lie to the nurses about your sexual past (this is not an endorsement— I’ll leave it up to you to weigh up the discomfort of breaking some unconfirmable rules versus the potential of saving a life). But to call this battle symbolic is not to dismiss it. The idea that men who have sex with men (and their female partners) can not safely give blood is certainly linked to the perception that MSM are overwhelmingly likely to have HIV or AIDs. Though, importantly, this same logic can be applied to the other groups of people who are discriminated against by IBTS.
IBTS’s guidelines are homophobic, but they’re also discriminatory against sex workers and previously incarcerated people.
For context, there are a number of questions that one is required to answer prior to donation. There are the ones that make sense: have you taken medication in the past 2 days? Are you healthy and well? Have you recently gotten a tattoo? Then, you quite quickly get to the ones that do not make sense: are you a man who has had sex with a man in the past year? Have you ever exchanged sex for drugs or money? Have you been incarcerated in the past 12 months? Each of these nonsensical questions represent a different ban on a different group of people from donating blood. IBTS’s guidelines are homophobic, but they’re also discriminatory against sex workers and previously incarcerated people.
Sex workers (a number of whom are MSM) are already disproportionately marginalised within Irish society. The current legal model for sex work in Ireland means that those who choose to work together for safety can be criminalised for “brothel-keeping” and those who work in public can be moved on and away from outreach services and support. Obviously, there is nothing inherent to being a sex worker which compromises the quality of one’s blood. The deeply insulting logic here is that those who have worked in the sex industry are more likely to have HIV. As well as there being no evidence to say this is true, now would be a good time to reiterate that IBTS does, indeed, test the blood it receives.
The exact same argument can be made for those who have been incarcerated — every reason that IBTS chooses not to accept their blood is based on one unjustifiable stereotype or another, and there is nothing inherently compromised about any group of marginalised people’s blood.
Regardless, it is simply not sufficient to end the fight with the rights of Western, non-incarcerated, non-sex working queer men.
So why, then, does the only campaign for IBTS reform we’ve seen in recent years focus exclusively on the ban on queer men? I would venture that this either comes from an ignorance of IBTS’s rules (which can be corrected with an amendment to the campaign) or a perception that queer men are a more palatable target for political reform. Or maybe it just didn’t occur to them.
Regardless, it is not sufficient to end the fight with the rights of non-incarcerated, non-sex-working queer men. The LGBTQ+ movement has struggled for its entire history to strike a balance between “respectable” and “representative”. Time and time again we have chosen respectability, and where has that left us? A sanitised, sexless pride with AIB sponsorship and Google floats. All this, while 98.8% of LGBTQ+ students in the US have witnessed or experienced homophobic harassment in school.
With this in mind, we must push further and demand an end to all the IBTS’ blood bans. They overlap, and they are all rooted in the marginalisation of minority groups.
There is a perception that ending the blood ban is the final frontier of gay rights in Ireland. But we must remember that the rights of all marginalised groups are inherently interlinked, and even our symbolic battles must be fought with care, empathy, and complete solidarity.