Op-ed: Antigay Blood Ban and What It Means to be Gay

As discriminatory as the antigay blood ban is, it's also part of gay history.



Besides its historical significance, the ban—like it or not—has a rationale in the present. The virus continues to plague us: Half of all those infected in the U.S. are men who have sex with men. And MSM account for about 60% of all new infections each year. We are continuing to contract the virus at catastrophic rates. Fighting the ban implies that HIV is no longer a gay issue. But in light of HIV’s continued prevalence among gay men, we should wonder what it means for anyone to proclaim publicly, “I’m gay, I want to give blood, and I don’t have HIV.” We still live in a society where HIV is generally perceived as a mark of divine condemnation, a sign of wickedness. And even gay men are not above discriminating. In this context, protesting the ban tacitly endorses the widespread view that there is something wrong—in a moral sense—with being positive. Protesting the ban, if not exactly disloyal, is a challenge to gay solidarity; it alienates positive gay men from negative gay men.

Given the stigma, the desire to overturn the ban prompts some uncomfortable, soul-searching questions: Are some gay men more concerned with appearing “normal” than with the life-or-death issues that still affect our people? Are some gay men protesting the ban because of their fear of HIV and because of a fear of being associated with it? What are our motives here? After all, the ban is not a crucial cause. Of course, donating blood is commendable. But it is not a political right. It is certainly not on the level of marriage equality—a basic human right, which when denied to us denies us our humanity. And a society that denies us our humanity is, as we have seen, all too willing to see us dead. Homophobia is still driving us to suicide at alarming rates, and we are being coerced into hurting ourselves with alcohol and drugs and unprotected sex. While the bodies continue to pile up, it seems treacherous that anyone would make overturning the ban a priority. Gay men face more pressing problems.

We might, for example, advocate for ACT UP’s proposed “Robin Hood Tax” on Wall Street in order to fund HIV/AIDS research. We might fight against the criminalization of HIV. We might help to curb the virus’s spread by ending the war on drugs, legalizing sex work, and creating needle-exchange programs. Above all, we need to end the stigma that creates fear and ignorance and helps to increase infection rates. And why should we organize around blood donation—a process that puts public health at the level of voluntary, individual good deeds, like a “faith-based” approach—instead of talking about this society’s absolute responsibility to protect all its citizens through free, state-run health care for all?

With homophobia continuing to ravage gays across the nation, donated gay blood could very well go to save the lives of those who oppress us. This would be to agree that gay lives are less important than straight lives. At least, it is not for us to take up the subordinate posture of petitioners, begging to have the privilege of helping those who do not want our help. Instead, mainstream culture needs to recognize what homophobia does to gay people, apologize, and try to make amends. This isn’t to say that the worst gay-basher doesn’t deserve a blood transfusion, but that we must honestly question our motives, our priorities, and where our loyalties lie. By pausing and considering the ban’s significance, by asking how HIV/AIDS still relates to our community, we might come to a richer understanding of what it means to be gay.

A.W. STROUSE is a poet, academic, labor activist, and political commentator. His poems and short stories have appeared in various literary journals. He holds an MA in medieval studies from Fordham University and is currently a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he studies medieval poetry, with a special focus on the history of love. For more of his work, see AllenStrouse.com.


Tags: Health