GLBT issues raised at Macalester blood drive

By Daniel Kerwin

On Wednesday Macalester hosted a blood drive, as happens every semester. And as with every semester, no gay man was able to donate blood.There is a federal restriction prohibiting any “male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977” from donating blood to the Red Cross. Two events took place at the same time as the blood drive to promote awareness of the issue and to gain support to change what is recognized as an outdated policy. Even a group of 18 US senators, led by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, have called the policy “outdated, medically and scientifically unsound.”

On Tuesday, Phil Duran of OutFront Minnesota, a GLBT advocacy group, spoke at a Pizza and Politics event run by the CEC. The event, held in Davis Court in Markim Hall, attracted a group of approximately 30 students and staff to talk about the issue.

Duran talked about how blood has historically been a key area of discrimination, something that is no less true in this case. He told of how the policy was put in place because of the AIDS scare in the gay community in the 1970s, but pointed out that despite medical advances in screening for HIV there is still a double standard in place that prohibits gay men from donating blood.

“A heterosexual person who has a sexual relationship with someone who is known to be positive is excluded from donation for a period of a year,” Duran said. “A man who has a sexual relationship with another man, or just a one time thing, regardless of that person’s status, is banned for life.”

The other key event raising awareness of the issue on campus this week was a petition against the policy that was available to be signed at the same time that the blood drive was being held. This is the second year a petition has been organized at a blood drive at Macalester. Director of Health & Wellness Denise Ward has witnessed Macalester’s blood drives since 1987 and has seen the progression of discussion on the issue.

“The concern about donor restriction has been a topic of concern around the event for a number of years but it was last year that it was formally addressed by the action of letter writing to encourage change in policy,” Ward said. “There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue – the ongoing, critical need for blood products and the concern that that the donation policy is more restrictive than it needs to be, denying a significant segment of our population the opportunity to participate.”

Dupre residence hall director Ryan Prosser was an integral part of the planning committee behind the petition. The restriction on gay men donating blood can only be changed if enacted on a federal level, but Prosser feels hopeful the time is coming where a change in the policy is possible.

“I’m pretty hopeful because it’s really the first time ever since the policy was enacted that the FDA has considered changing it, this administration is more open to discussing it,” Prosser said. “I hope it’s not some compromise that still feels discriminatory.”

Director of Media Services Brian Longley, who is also active on the Wellness and Health at Macalester (WHAM) committee, has been a long time blood donor, but only recently was educated about the restriction against gay men. He helped man the petition table on Wednesday.

“It’s been very educational for me, I would say three years ago I was pretty clueless about the fact the restrictions were outdated,” Longley said. “So many people can’t donate for a variety of different reasons, it’s hard for this information to breakthrough. There are so many necessary restrictions that some of these unnecessary ones get buried.”

The problem with advocacy to change the policy is the problem with confronting the actual process of donating blood. While restrictions against gay men may be outdated and unjustified, there is still a such great need for donated blood that it would be too great a cost to boycott blood drives themselves.

“We’re not here to criticize the Red Cross or its colleagues, they have been leaders on this issue. and we should not condemn or criticize the people who take part in blood drives, there is a legitimate need for donations of blood, we should support people who choose to do that,” Duran said.

By both holding blood drives and also addressing the issue at the same time, Macalester has struck a balance in the situation. The petition will be sent to national representatives to urge their support to change the policy, but until the policy is changes, Macalester will continue holding blood drives with this same balance.

“The balance that has been struck to date is to hold the blood drives, generating a much needed resource and at the same time, using the event to highlight the current donor policy and encourage education and advocacy on the topic,” Ward said.