About bloody time gay people were allowed to donate blood in Ireland

France has conceded there is no scientific point in the ban of homosexuals giving blood. It is well beyond time that Health Minister Leo Varadkar lifted the stigma hanging over all gay men in this country, writes Shaun Connolly

About bloody time gay people were allowed to donate blood in Ireland

SO-CALLED jokes of the time went along the lines: They are called “gay” because G-A-Y stands for Got Aids Yet?

It was the type of drive-by hatred common in the mainstream tabloid press in the mid-1980s as the onset of HIV-Aids hysteria and panic fanned the flames of a homophobic culture that had been gradually subsiding to that point.

Suddenly, prejudice was all the rage again and as a result gay men — all gay men — were banned from doing that most decent and generously spirited of things: giving blood. And that ban would last forever.

Even at that now dark and distant time, a life-long ban on gay men giving blood had very little rationale — now it has none at all. There is no scientific, medical, or logical reason for the lifetime ban, the only thing that sustains it is ignorance and residual, deeply ingrained, homophobia.

But all that has changed hasn’t with the referendum?

“The Gays” have been brought in from the cold and everyone is equal under the Republic’s rainbow?

Well, up to a point, but when it comes to doing your civic duty, some remain more equal than others.

And the debate over gay men and their blood is reaching boiling point once again as the lifetime ban becomes not only unjustifiable, but unsustainable.

With France moving to eradicate the discrimination altogether this week, Health Minister Leo Varadkar will soon have to make a decision here after kicking the issue to touch all year with an outsourced review he knows he will need to give him the political cover needed to make any changes at all.

And, given Mr Varadkar’s stated preference for only allowing gay men to donate blood if they have been celibate for a year beforehand, the inevitable question will arise if he makes that policy decision: Can you really remain health minister if you fail to lead by example by giving blood yourself?

Obviously, the key person in all of this is the patient who needs the donated blood — their needs must be paramount. As Mr Varadkar correctly states, nobody has the right to give blood. And while that is true, the wider issue is that while nobody has the right to give blood, everybody has the right to be treated equally by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service regardless of their sexuality.

Many gay people find the idea of a 12-month sexual abstinence period before they are permitted to give blood ludicrous and offensive. This is underlined by the fact the IBTS say that there is only a six-day danger window between any risky sexual activity leading to HIV infection and that infection being picked up by their sophisticated screening techniques.

So, if you only need a week’s firewall, why impose a 365-day one instead — except to impose stigmatisation to a whole societal group in the process?

The most advanced countries in this area have, or a moving to, a four-month deferral for all donors regardless of sexuality, so why not Ireland? The more Uncle Tom types in the gay rights advocacy groups say that it’s all incremental and a 12-month ban is better than a five-year one that some still want to move to.

Some insist switching to a year-long ban will show how “tolerant” Ireland has become. But who on Earth aspires to be merely “tolerated” in their own society? Surely, all of us should be seeking an inclusive country, where everyone who abides by basic civic norms is included equally?

It is equally stupid to ban all British people in Ireland giving blood due to the outbreak there of mad cow disease in the 1990s, but while you could class that as xenophobia, it is hardly equivalent to homophobia, as the British have never really been a repressed minority anywhere— as, historically, they tended to be the repressers around the globe.

But prejudice is prejudice, however you want to dress it up.

For France, with an infinitely better healthcare system, and much healthier population, to have conceded there is no scientific point in the ban, why should Ireland hold out? France will take more than a year to achieve it, but it is moving to equality in blood donation.

French health minister Marisol Touraine said: “Giving one’s blood is an act of generosity and of civic responsibility that cannot be conditioned by sexual orientation. While respecting the absolute security of patients, it is a taboo, a discrimination that is being lifted here today.” French politician Jean-Luc Romero-Michel told The New York Times: “What I don’t understand is why we don’t condition blood donation by high-risk behaviour. It isn’t being heterosexual that is a risk. It isn’t being gay that is a risk. It’s behaviours that are risky.”

The French move will see donation equalised so that all men, gay or straight, will have to wait four months before giving blood if they have changed sexual partners. In Italy and Spain there is no discrimination as donors are screened for high-risk sexual behaviour regardless of their sexual orientation and limits of sexual deferral are determined on an individual basis. Whatever the restrictions might say, the reality in Ireland is that any person, gay or straight, with HIV, or who engages in high-risk sexual activity, could probably donate blood if they really wanted to, regardless of the official ban. But, of course, they would not want to, which makes the proscription on gay men even more absurd.

It is well beyond time this country lifted the stigma imposed on all gay men by this ban, and a switch to just 12 months worth of prejudice rather than a full lifetimes just will not cut it.

It’s time the “what does G-A-Y stand for” question was updated to ask — Got Acceptance Yet?

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