As The Advocate recently reported, the Food and Drug Administration may review its ban on blood donations by gay and bisexual men. And many of us have probably signed a petition or "liked" a Facebook status denouncing the ban. But before railing against the policy, let's first consider that the ban symbolizes the gay community's connection with HIV/AIDS. Let's think through the implications of parting with such a symbol.
If we are a people with any sense of communal identity, then the epidemic is, however tragically, a part of that identity. Gay men, regardless of serostatus, must reconcile themselves to the disease. And the ban, in lumping us together, attests to that shared experience. Overturning the ban would distance certain gays from a phenomenon that currently defines us all; it would publicly separate those who are HIV-negative from those who are positive; it would symbolically change our communal identity. What's at stake, then, is the very meaning of being gay.
HIV/AIDS is inseparable from gay history. Roughly 300,000 of our brothers have died. These men died not simply because of a disease but because of this homophobic society's genocidal neglect of gay people. And progress in treating the illness has come almost entirely because of the courageous activism of LGBTQ people and allies. The history of this disease is our history. We cannot simply "move on," and we cannot grant an unwarranted reprieve to the guilty.* Indeed, America has enough of our blood on its hands, and the dead still ache for justice. The ban stands as a monument to the oppression of gay people, and to our resistance. It helps us fulfill our ethical obligation to remember the past, and it maintains our history as a part of our identity. Parting with the ban does not come without a cost.
* There is an ethical value to resentment, as philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Vladimir Jankelevitch have written in their discussions of the Holocaust. Refusing to forgive injustice is, for these thinkers, the most ethical way to relate to the past. To simply "move on" is an outrage against the dead.
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.