Justin Peligri: Ending an old stigma

Media Credit: Justin Peligri

On Saturday, GW began its celebration of “LGBT Colonial Pride Week,” when members of the community had the opportunity to listen to speakers and participate in events to promote awareness of LGBT issues.

But there’s an important issue affecting Americans every day that you might not hear about: the national ban prohibiting men who have had sex with men from donating blood. As a school that prides itself on being an inclusive environment for all students – and considering the sizable LGBT community on campus – the University should join the growing national campaign to have the ban removed from the books.

The University cannot continue following health practices in blood drives that are openly discriminatory. Not only does it send the wrong message to students, but it makes the University look as though it tacitly accepts this antiquated practice. In years past, other colleges, like San Jose State University and Sarah Lawrence College decided to stop on-campus blood drives, because they felt the practice violated their policies of inclusion and acceptance.

It is admirable that educational institutions are standing up for LGBT equality, but cancelling a blood drive seems counterproductive. Rather, GW should actively lobby for all Americans to be able to donate blood.

And GW’s close proximity to government buildings and a politically active student body can help this community lead the charge.

Even though there are no signs that this ban currently benefits the community, the Food and Drug Administration, which created the ban in 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, has not changed its practice.

The ban is blatantly discriminatory and also works against those who are in need of blood transfusions but are less likely to get one if the pool of people legally allowed to donate is limited. And the University plays into the stereotypes by doing nothing about it.

The American Red Cross’ website says “you should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test.” Their statement goes on to say that you are prohibited from donating if you are “at risk” for contracting HIV.

That makes sense. But then, the language gets more specific – and more dubious. The website lists various situations that might put donors “at risk” for having HIV/AIDS, one of which is if the donor is a “male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.”

“This categorical exclusion, which might have been prudent during the period when HIV/AIDS was emerging, serves now merely to perpetuate negative social stigma toward gay and bisexual men,” Silvio Weisner, the new director of the University Counseling Center, who specializes in counseling for the LGBT- and HIV/AIDS-affected communities, told me in an email.

There’s a shortage of blood donors in this country. But if the ban were lifted, studies suggest that at least 53,000 donors would be legally permitted to give at least 89,000 additional donations of blood, according to a 2010 study from the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Nobody disputes that AIDS is still a serious health concern. In fact, more than three percent of D.C. residents have HIV/AIDS, according to the District’s HIV/AIDS Administration.

All blood goes through rigorous tests after the donation is made to ensure that it is clean and healthy. AIDS is a global issue that affects all different kinds of communities. There is no need for a policy that singles out a specific group.

Even today, there is a stigma that associates HIV/AIDS exclusively with the LGBT community. And while LGBT individuals are one community affected by AIDS, they are certainly not alone. And having a ban specifically on men who have had sex with men is a clear sign that the negative connotations haven’t vanished.

By refusing to remove this ban, the FDA is effectively reducing the number of AIDS-free Americans who want to donate their healthy blood to someone whose life might be at risk.

The ban does more harm than good.

Justin Peligri, a political communication major, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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