Blood and Discrimination at CUNY

By Nicole Hanson, DSC Officer for Outreach

In May 2012, the CUNY Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC) passed a resolution asking the CUNY Graduate Center to cease holding New York Blood Center (NYBC) donation drives on campus property. The intention wasn’t to shortchange the New York blood supply—quite the contrary.  The DSC, like many other organizations, is protesting the Federal Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) unscientific and discriminatory policy of refusing to allow blood donations from men who have had sex with another man even once since 1977. Not only does this policy irrationally prevent many healthy donors from bolstering the blood supply, possibly contributing to blood shortages, it may put CUNY in the difficult legal and moral position of holding on-campus community events which discriminate against a portion of its student body. If CUNY continues to implicitly support the ban on gay and bisexual male blood by holding on-campus blood drives, it is not actually protecting all of its students; it merely pays lip service to its moral commitment to its students.

Since 1985, the FDA has prohibited men who have had sex with another man (often abbreviated “MSM” in the literature) even once since 1977 from donating blood for the rest of their lives. In the intervening years since the AIDS crisis prompted this change, science has learned a great deal more about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and has made significant advances in testing techniques. As the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) notes in their 2010 report, A Drive for Change: Reforming U.S. Blood Donation Policies, “current testing technology can detect HIV in donated blood within days or weeks of infection.” As such, GMHC points out that it would make more sense to focus on an individual’s recent high-risk behavior, and employ a donation policy which “defers only those donors who are within the ‘window period’ between that high-risk behavior and the point at which HIV is detectable by post-donation tests.” Such a policy is likely to be just as effective at protecting the blood supply as lifetime bans without discriminating against a group of people exclusively based on sexual orientation and sex.

Making the FDA policies more scientific and less discriminatory would also make them more rational. MSM donors have a lifetime ban on blood donation—even if they have never had unprotected sex, are in a monogamous relationship and both parties are HIV-negative, or are currently celibate and HIV-negative. However, non-MSM blood donors who have had unprotected sex with someone who is known to be HIV-positive or is a commercial sex worker only face a delay of one year. The insistence of the FDA on maintaining this ban in the face of such contradictory policies implies that the blood of all gay and bisexual men is somehow “tainted.” In a country in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer individuals face rampant discrimination and a suicide rate 200 to 400 percent greater than the general population, this implication is intensely troubling.

The MSM ban is not merely an abstract moral issue. This policy currently and seriously impacts CUNY students, faculty, and staff. Participation in blood drives at schools and workplaces, as noted by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, “is widely considered an important civic act.” This policy may therefore stigmatize gay and bisexual men at CUNY schools who do not participate, causing CUNY campuses to no longer feel like safe spaces for people of all sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. Members of the CUNY community often participate in blood drives as a group activity. If gay or bisexual men have not informed peers or colleagues of their sexual orientation, this policy puts them in a position of potentially having to lie about their identity to either their peers or to the New York Blood Center staff. Further, by allowing blood drives on campuses, CUNY implies support for an FDA policy that actively discriminates against students, putting it at odds with both federal anti-discrimination requirements for publicly-funded institutions and its own anti-discrimination policies.

This policy prohibits a very specific group of CUNY graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff from participating in a CUNY-supported community activity entirely because of their sex and sexual orientation. According to CUNY’s anti-discrimination policy, all CUNY schools are required to “provide services for students without regard to…sex, sexual orientation, [or] gender identity (CUNY Manual of General Policy, Article VI, Policy 6.2).” Further, Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendment, which CUNY is subject to, states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The DSC and GMHC are far from alone in their protest of the MSM blood donation policy. The New York City Council, members of the United States Congress, The American Red Cross (ARC), the American Association for Blood Banks (AABB), and America’s Blood Centers (ABC), including the New York Blood Center (NYBC), which runs the blood drives at CUNY campuses, have all called for the FDA to change this policy. In response, in 2010 the federal government convened the Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability (ACBSA) to review the MSM policy. While this review found that the current deferral policies were suboptimal, the FDA declined to change the policy until more research was completed on the best ways to differentiate low from high-risk donors (for example, by asking more specific behavioral questions in donor screening questionnaires). Recently, a group of Democratic and Independent lawmakers publicly urged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to move more quickly on studies that would help refine the MSM donor policy, calling the current broad ban on MSM donors “indefensible” and “discriminatory” in their letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Within CUNY, the CUNY LGBT Task Force, the Academic Senate of Queens College, and City College (CCNY) have all expressed deep concern about the particularly negative impact the ban has had on the CUNY community, and last year, City College moved an on-campus blood drive to off-campus property—an action which GMHC described as being “congruent with GMHC’s position on acceptable alternatives to blood drives.” Though they do not support full boycotts of blood drives or the discouraging of potential donors in any way, last year, in letters to CUNY leaders, GMHC expressed support of efforts to find “innovative” and “creative” ways to hold blood drives while continuing to draw attention to the MSM blood ban, and the organization has even offered to consult with CUNY on possible alternative measures.

Moving blood drives off-campus may be seen by some as a drastic step – but that’s exactly what this issue needs right now. CUNY students, faculty, and staff could, of course, hand out pamphlets at blood drives in their schools. We could sign petitions, or write letters to the local newspapers, or stand outside the FDA headquarters with protest signs. But the truth is, all of this has been done, and none of it has been effective. CUNY colleges must take strong steps to protect both the blood supply and all members of its community, no matter their orientation, sex, or gender. As one of the largest public institutions of education in the country, CUNY could stand at the forefront of this historical moment by refusing to legitimate an irrational fear-based policy that creates a potential atmosphere of shame and discrimination by simply moving blood drives off-campus and maintaining its spaces as safe, non-discriminatory spaces for all students. This simple move will not only allow people to continue to donate blood but would put immense pressure on the FDA and other political actors to move forward with research and legislation.

The DSC suggests simply that CUNY schools refuse to hold blood drives on their campuses, and instead, arrange to have a donation bus parked just off-campus. The next scheduled blood drive at the Graduate Center will be held on October 18. If, instead of using a CUNY space, the Graduate Center arranged for a bus to be parked directly across from the building, donation levels would remain the same. Marketing which would normally advertise on-campus blood drives could be used to advertise off-campus bus drives, as well as producing awareness that informs students about the FDA’s MSM ban and encourage them to be vocal in their opposition of this policy.  As colleges are important donation sites, CUNY is in a unique position to both protect its students (rather than just paying lip service to its moral responsibility to do so) and make a strong statement about this policy by refusing to continue to ignore it.

***

Blood Pressure

By Colin Patrick Ashley, DSC Co-Chair for Business

Two years ago I was doing research at one of the CUNY community colleges.  While I was waiting in the cafeteria for my next interviewee to show up, an eager student approached me and asked if I would sign up to donate blood.  I responded that I unfortunately didn’t have the time due to a scheduled appointment.  The student, obviously excited about participating in and helping out with an important cause, continued pressuring me.  She mentioned that it was a short questionnaire and that the drive was an all day event so I could do it after my appointment.  She listed the benefits that such a simple act could have for the community.  I could save a life.  I shook my head with a “sorry, no thanks” and went back to my notes.

However, this mention of a lack of time didn’t reflect the actual tensions pouring through my body.  Do I out myself in this moment (a continual process for every LGBTQ individual) and lay into this eager humanitarian about the problematic nature of blood drives? Do I pounce on the word community and note the necessary others left out and stigmatized for a term to hold merit?  The activist, the educator in me says “yes, I should have.”  I stayed silent and went back to my notes.

That decision—to out myself or silence myself—and the feelings of guilt and regret, is of less concern to me today than the possibility of a newly out seventeen-year-old college freshman facing the same decision.  Outing oneself in such a situation isn’t simply announcing that you are gay or bi. Because of the fallacy of the MSM policy and its interpretation, you are also announcing that your intimate life is somehow inherently riskier, inherently more dangerous, inherently worse than that of another.

5 comments on “Blood and Discrimination at CUNY
  1. BY KNIGHT NEWS – OCTOBER 20, 2011POSTED IN: UNCATEGORIZED
    By Knight Newson October 20, 2011.
    By Fred Magovern

    News Reporter

    Queens College President James Muyskens has reinstated an on-campus blood drive policy upon receiving a memo from the CUNY administration which misconstrues the position of a leading gay men’s health organization.

    On April 14, the QC Academic Senate recommended to Muyskens the discontinuation of on-campus blood drives, citing a scientifically unsound and therefore unnecessarily discriminatory Food and Drug Administration policy.

    Beginning in 1983, the FDA has barred men who have had sex with other men (MSM) since the late ‘70s, even once, from contributing blood (see sidebar article).

    Muyskens, in concert with Vice President of Student Affairs Joe Bertolino, initially adopted the Senate’s recommendation, despite both having personal objections to the ban.

    However, only two months later, Musykens reversed his decision after receiving a memorandum from Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Frank Sanchez and Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs Frederick Schaffer.

    Although the communication expressed nothing more than disapproval of the QC and City College bans, Muyskens relied on Bertolino’s interpretation of the memo as a “pseudo-directive.”

    “Let’s say you’re working for Hewlett- Packard, and Hewlett-Packard says ‘we strongly recommend this not be done’ and you’re doing it. Wouldn’t you take that as a directive?” Muyskens said. “We’re talking about my boss.”

    “If any other campus within CUNY turns around and bans blood drives after this memo, I can assume that president will get another memo or will be called into a meeting. Take that for what it’s worth. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Bertolino said suggestively.

    The CUNY-wide memo quoted a letter from the public policy director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Nathan Schaefer, as support for the university’s critical position of the bans.

    According to Schaefer, he was approached by New York Blood Center on CUNY’s behalf, the former fearing it might lose CUNY campuses as venues for blood drives. In response, Schaefer wrote a letter explaining the position of his organization.

    In their memo, immediately following a paragraph criticizing the banning of blood drives at QC and CCNY as having “gone too far,” the vice chancellors quoted the letter from GMHC:

    “’GMHC does not support the boycotting of blood drives…’ GMHC views boycotts…as both ‘counterproductive and detrimental.’ Instead, GMHC chooses to ‘endorse alternative creative approaches that simultaneously raise awareness of the absolute deferral of MSM donors and increase blood donations.’”

    This paragraph, and the one immediately preceding it which Bertolino characterized as “somewhat scolding,” appear underneath a section header that reads, “CUNY Supports a Wide Variety of Protests Against the FDA Policy, But Does Not Support Boycotts of Blood Drives.”

    Sanchez denied that the memo could be misinterpreted as treating “bans” and “boycotts” as interchangeable terms, a confusion which would obscure GMHC’s approval of the former. Both Muyskens and Bertolino, however, reached the mistaken conclusion that GMHC is opposed to the bans.

    “We are only unsupportive of initiatives or messages that discourage people who are eligible donors from donating blood,” Schaefer clarified, highlighting the distinction between a boycott and a ban.

    Sanchez would not even admit that the paragraphs are related, despite the fact that they are adjacent and comprise two out of only three paragraphs within the section. “I think they were looking for an easy out or some cover to say ‘no, you can’t do this,’” Schaefer said.

    “The bans at City and Queens College were not boycotts by any means; they were alternative events that still encourage people to donate blood and are entirely congruent with our position,” he continued.

    Schaefer emphasized his endorsement was contingent upon the veracity of reports that CCNY and QC were continuing to advertise and support blood drives relocated nearby off- campus, which Sanchez said he could confirm for City College.

    In an interview with The Knight News, Sanchez demonstrated a clear understanding of GMHC’s opposition to boycotts and support for bans.

    Furthermore, as the memo was co- authored by the general counsel of the university, it was presumably carefully reviewed under a legal microscope.

    This would suggest that the memo was purposefully worded so that the GMHC’s position would be likely misinterpreted as identical to CUNY’s.

    Recalling a recent meeting between Sanchez and the various vice presidents of student affairs, Bertolino said, “We talked at length about the educational process and about the opportunity to engage in dialogue and discussion. I left that meeting with the clear message that ‘yes, this decision [to ban blood drives] is problematic.’ But we were criticized by the central office less for the decision and more for the way in which it came about.”

    “Having sat in that [Academic Senate] meeting, I think they made the decision quickly without good, substantive discussion and debate. Technically there doesn’t have to be, but I think that if we’re going to talk about the integrity of the process and we’re at an educational institution, we have a responsibility to make sure all of the information is presented on the floor so that people can make a sound decision,” Bertolino said.

    The chancellery’s espoused commitment to healthy debate as an educational institution appears to not extend to the board of trustees, whose recent meeting took less than 15 minutes (it would’ve been even shorter if it wasn’t interrupted by protestors) with no debate whatsoever before a unanimous vote to raise tuition.

    Either the CUNY administration selectively applies its commitment to thorough, principled discussion, or we can soon expect another CUNY-wide memo, this time chastising the board of trustees.

  2. @linked here – You’re totally right about the lack of discussion regarding trans folks, and I apologize. That was a serious lapse on my part. I don’t know if this article is amendable, but I’ll find out. If so, I’ll add in what should have been there to begin with. In any case, my future discussions of this issue will absolutely include the impact of this policy on trans folks. I want a CUNY where ALL students, faculty, and staff are respected and protected.

  3. Pingback: DSC Minutes, 9/21 Meeting - Political Science Student Representation

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