Challenging the blood ban

Gay men still face discrimination when giving blood – some are working to change that

For gay and bisexual men, donating blood to Canadian Blood Services (CBS) is not an easy process. Despite the Liberal party’s promise to end the discriminatory guidelines last election, men who have sex with men (MSM) are still required to forgo sexual contact for a year before giving blood.

Many western countries, including the United States, UK, Australia and France currently share a similar one-year deferral policy. In Canada, no policy exists that prevents lesbians or bisexual females from giving blood.

While the one-year deferral policy is markedly better than the five-year deferral policy that existed prior to Aug. 15, 2016, and the indefinite ban on MSM blood donations before that, LGBTQ advocates across the country have stated that it is time to end the ban once and for all.

Member unions of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) across Canada, including TRUSU, are just some of the groups advocating for change. During TRU’s Back-to-School BBQ and Clubs Day, TRUSU collected signatures from students who want to help end the ban as part of their End the Ban campaign.

“We started at the Back-to-School BBQ, and we were getting students and staff to sign petitions to send to our new health minister, Ginette Taylor,” said Caitlin Orteza, TRUSU’s vice-president equity. “We are calling on the federal government and Ginette Taylor to fulfill the promise they made last election to end the ban completely.”

Like TRUSU, the CFS believes the ban is a leftover policy from the HIV/AIDS scare in past decades. On their website, CFS states that the current policy is both transphobic and homophobic and calls the policy an attempt “to define and enforce oppressive definitions of gender identity and expression.”

While many Canadians don’t know much about the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Orteza said the stigma attached to the crisis has been difficult to remove.

“The not-knowing about HIV/AIDS back in the ‘80s and very much attributing it to specifically gay men, that has really stayed with us. That is where the ban comes from too.”

Despite more stringent screening and blood testing processes existing now, CBS has been slow to move from history-based screening to behaviour-based screening.

“Men who have sex with men account for the largest proportion of new HIV infections reported in Canada,” reads CBS’ history of the ban on their website. “A one-year deferral period, which was implemented in 2016, was chosen as a safe incremental step forward in updating our blood donation criteria based on the latest scientific evidence.”

Though CBS and their sister organization in Quebec, Héma-Québec, have stated that they wish to move towards behavior-based screening, they are still behind other countries like Italy, Argentina and even Russia, where no deferral policy exists.

Orteza hopes that the action of student groups across Canada will help expedite CBS’ switch to a behavior-based screening process.

“I think it’s great to see other student unions doing this as well,” she said. “I know that Canadian Blood Services is definitely paying more attention now that student unions are taking action, which is great.”

TRUSU will end its End the Ban campaign at this year’s Pride Parade on Sept. 28.