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.
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.