Outward Bound

I want to donate blood. The blood drive is on Wednesday, and I want to do my part. My veins are healthy; my A-positive is good stuff. I’m not afraid of needles, and I haven’t lived on a farm in Europe in the last three years. People in my section ask me if I want to participate in the blood drive, and I have to tell them that I can’t. They are a little puzzled at first, and then they turn very cautious, as if they suddenly realized that I may have some sort of rare blood disease, or that I have some sort of religious belief that prevents me from donating.

Then I explain to them that I’m not allowed; the Red Cross doesn’t accept blood from gay men because supposedly, we are at higher risk for HIV. A reasonable concern, I suppose, but I do find it a little disturbing that an entire group is excluded from donating blood because of their sexual orientation.

Does The Red Cross think that as a gay man, I don’t know about safe sex, about risky sexual practices, or about what puts me at risk for HIV? Do only heterosexuals know about these issues, and thus, are safe from HIV, and should be allowed to donate blood? Do they know that today, in fact, HIV transmission is higher among heterosexuals than among gay men?

Maybe I’m overreacting. The guidelines also suggest that if you’ve had sex with a prostitute, or if you’ve had sex with an IV drug user, you should wait twelve months before you can donate blood. But if you’re gay – even if you’ve been in a monogamous relationship for the last ten years – no cookies and juice for you.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the Red Cross is an amazing organization that has done great things for people around the world. I’m not saying that it’s a homophobic organization that should be pilloried as a model of social injustice. I’m only suggesting that it look at its rules, and look at the reasons it has those rules. The Red Cross blood donation guidelines should address root causes rather than take broad sweeps that put people into buckets and then assign values to each of those groups. Isn’t that what stereotyping is about?

Why even mention gender or sexual orientation in the guidelines? Why can’t they advise anyone who has engaged in sexual behavior that may have exposed him/her to the HIV virus not to donate blood? Surely, this group encompasses much more than gay men. And clearly, not all gay men engage in behavior that may expose them to HIV.

I’m not one who cries discrimination every chance that I get. I’m the first to admit that gays and lesbians face challenges that are unique; but, in general, I think we’re doing alright. Being gay is almost trendy nowadays. Television is openly embracing gay and lesbian characters, large consumer companies are spending big dollars to attract my professional, mobile, and image conscious demographic, and many corporations are starting to recognize sexual orientation in their diversity policies.

Trying to get help in the men’s department at Banana Republic is like standing on the corner of Castro Street in San Francisco with a tight T-shirt. My male friends ask me for fashion advice, my female friends want to go to gay clubs with me (“because the music is soooooo good”), and everyone wants to watch Will & Grace with me so I can explain all the inside jokes. Things are going well.

Admittedly, I have bigger issues to worry about in my life. I need a summer job, I need to get snow tires for my car, I need to get out of my pre-lunch class faster so that I can be at the head of the Spangler stir-fry line. But every now and then, I get a sharp wake-up call, a quick reminder that things aren’t all rosy in Alice’s Wonderland.

Despite all the progress that society has made in accepting gays and lesbians for who they are, we’re not quite there yet; our sexual orientation does matter. Like when a schoolteacher is fired from her job because parents complained to the school district that she was a lesbian. Like when friends of mine, a male couple together for almost 15 years, couldn’t adopt a child together. Like this blood thing.