By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
When the call went out for people in Orlando, Florida to donate blood to help the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting carried out by Omar Mateen at Pulse, a gay nightclub, many formed lines to do so but gay men already knew that their blood would not be accepted.
That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a 12-month blood donor deferral for men who have sex with men (MSM) since their last sexual contact with a man.
The FDA changed the indefinite deferral for MSM to five years and currently it is one year.
Here, the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) stipulates that: “Men who have sex with men (MSM) are ineligible to donate blood for five years following their last sexual contact with another man.”
This policy came into effect in July 2013, replacing the indefinite deferral period that had been in place since the early 1980s.
In its election campaign, the Liberal Party of Canada led by Justin Trudeau promised if it formed the government to bring an end to the discriminatory ban that prevents men who have had sex with men from donating blood.
In March 2016, CBS submitted a proposal to Health Canada to reduce the blood donation ineligibility period for men who have sex with men (MSM) from five years to one year.
CBS says Health Canada needs time to thoroughly review the submission and that these incremental changes are important steps towards being as minimally restrictive as possible while also maintaining the safety of the blood supply.
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Thorneloe University (at Laurentian University) in Sudbury, Ontario teaches in the areas of critical race theory, queer diaspora, and introductory and advanced queer and feminist theories.
Her research examines the links between race, sexuality, gender, and community through the themes of blood – how it is donated, discursively constructed, and shared.
She co-edited with Suzanne Lenon, associate professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, the book, “Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging,” published in 2015 and wrote a chapter, “A Queer Too Far: Blackness,” “Gay Blood,” and Transgressive Possibilities.”
The irony of the situation in Orlando is not lost on her that although the 49 people killed and 53 injured on Sunday are mainly black and brown queer and trans Latina and Latino, gay or bisexual men who want to donate their blood to help them would not be accepted – unless they didn’t have sex with a man for at least one year.
“It was at Pride, it was a special night at the club that attracted Latina and black and brown, queer, gay and trans people. You had drag queens, you had trans women who were performing and they were playing reggae, salsa, soca – the music for black, brown and Latina queer and trans people,” she said.
Dr. Dryden said the shooting at the Pulse nightclub was not only homophobic but was a form of racialized homophobia and the call for blood donation is extremely ironic.
“Because you’re actually calling for blood donation from a population that has been historically prevented from donating blood which is black and queer people. This is a problem.”
In the aftermath of the shooting on Sunday, she tweeted and posted on Facebook on this issue and was on journalist Desmond Cole’s show on CFRB Radio. Others started tagging her when they saw the notice that a blood agency in Orlando was relaxing the ban against gay men for blood donation, when in fact that was not at all what was being done.
The FDA came out immediately and said none of the requirements would be shifted.
“But the thing that gets lost here in this moment of crisis when it is important to donate blood, what is most important is we need to also see the impact of close to 30 years of perpetual ban against African and black people, that’s Caribbean people, specifically black Caribbean people and gay people. Lots of people have chosen not to donate blood because they believe that the blood donor system as it stands is not one that actually effectively provides a safe blood supply because it’s still so caught up with the kind of crisis narrative of the mid-to-late 1980s which were infected with homophobia, racism, misogyny, sex phobia and that is still what’s driving the logic being argued in defence of the donor questionnaire. And that means we’re in trouble if we can’t move beyond those things,” she says.
When Dryden started her PhD research she was specifically looking at the arguments that were being made around the inclusion of gay blood in the Canadian blood system.
Her work on this started from her time at York University, where she did her masters and worked, when students protested the blood donor drive because they said it was homophobic.
She read the donor questionnaire and noticed that, “not only does it target men who have sex with men but it targets anyone who was born in or lived in Africa or anyone who had sexual contact with someone from Africa.”
While doing her PhD she came across a lot of black gay men and lesbians who were also unsure about how the Africa question applied to the conversation around the gay black ban.
Through her research she noticed that from the inception of the blood system in Canada in 1940 there has always been a component about race.
In January 1940s, when the first blood donor clinic opened in Toronto, all the blood that was collected was used solely for military use.
“And of that blood collected, it was categorized between white blood and not-white blood so that white soldiers would not get not-white blood,” she said, noting that this was at the height of anti-blackness racism which at the time was considered transgressive science.
She said through the blood crisis, there was a targeting of Haitian communities and gay men and a belief that the way that gay men had sex caused the HIV virus.
Then the discourse moved to it had to come from Africa and there was less of a critique around the narrative that AIDS is African so “even white gay people were saying we are also victims of the AIDS that came from Africa. We are not endemically diseased bodies, our bodies didn’t create HIV. We too are victims from this African disease called AIDS.”
On its website, Canadian Blood Services highlights HIV geographical risks: “people who have lived in certain regions of Africa and may have been exposed to a new strain of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are not eligible to donate blood. Anyone who has had sex with someone who lives there, is also not permitted to donate blood. This is based on possible exposure to newly emerging strains of HIV. Countries included are: Cameroon and Togo.”
Dryden says the CBS argues that the ban against Africa was a geographical ban, not a racial ban.
“However, it was only eight African countries, not all of Africa, but they changed the language from all eight African countries to read Africa and there was no further probing on whether or not you were from, let’s say South Africa which is not an endemic country on their original list or whether you were from Egypt which is not an endemic country from the original list.”
Dryden said they argued that HIV-O was a particular strain only found in these endemic eight countries in Africa, but the thing they refused to speak about was that HIV-O was also found in other regions. It was in Spain, Brazil and other countries, but these did not receive a permanent lifetime ban when donating blood.
“So, we see now where it is more about race and less about geography because if it were solely about geography then these other countries would also be banned but that didn’t happen.”
The professor said when she started talking across the country about her research, without fail, there would be white people – on university and college campuses where CBS gets its bulk of donations – who told her that they would go to the donor clinics to give blood.
They told her they would see the question and indicate that they were born in Kenya or South Africa and the nurse would tell them to answer no to the question because it wasn’t about or for them.
“So, in the animation and the operationalization of the donor questionnaire it absolutely becomes about race,” she says.
The other thing she noticed in her research was that in the Krever Inquiry – the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada — many nurses stated, because they did not have a test, that they would divert the blood donation of anybody that they thought looked suspicious.
“So when I say to black queer people, black people in general, are you sure your blood is being used when you donate blood, it’s because of this secondary step where there is absolutely a process where the clinic worker can say don’t use this blood for donation, use it for testing instead. So maybe our blood, although they’re calling for it is actually not being put into the larger donor system.”
She said in 2009 there was actually a test for HIV-O and in that moment the FDA removed that question from the donor questionnaire and they also lessened the time that gay men could donate blood.
In Canada, however, CBS kept that question on until 2015 and Dryden wonders what was the purpose for keeping the question on the questionnaire if there was a test specifically for HIV-O.
“So, this is no longer about the safety of the blood supply, this is more about the mythology that continues to happen around blackness, Africa and AIDS — that’s race based.”
Dryden is thinking of having a vigil which will include black, brown and queer trans people at “Blockorama 18” on July 3 on the last day of the Pride Toronto festival because she does not think that the vigil held outside The 519 Church Street Community Centre on Sunday represented those voices.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, Mayor John Tory, MP for Don Valley West Rob Oliphant, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and others spoke at the event but the voices of queer and trans people of colour were missing, said Dryden who is co-hosting the 18th annual event with Francis Loïc Kiromera from Ottawa.
On June 29, there will be a human rights panel discussion, “Blackness and Queer Politics” at The 519 including Angela Robertson, co-editor of “Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought” and Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, an academic and writer of Black diaspora cultural studies with an emphasis on queer sexualities, masculinity and cultural politics; among other panelists.
This panel will discuss the systemic and daily oppression faced by black queer and trans communities, highlighting the ways that anti-blackness is present in LGBTQ spaces.
Meanwhile, Glad Day Bookshop, the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore, will be holding “PulseTO,” a free event, at Nathan Phillips Square on June 19 at 8 p.m. to remember the lives of those who were killed at Pulse nightclub and to celebrate their lives.