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The Polichick: Donate Blood! But Don’t if You’re Gay, says the FDA

On Wednesday, I braved the torrents of rain (and braved getting out of bed) and went to the Red Cross Blood drive held on campus. I donated blood for the first time this past February, mostly because I was dying to learn what my blood type is. I’m an O+ which initially made me so excited, not only because I believed myself to be a rare specimen, but also that I was a universal donor. Feeling loaded with duty, I donated again yesterday. As I lay on the donor table and the Red Cross official swabbed my inner arm with Iodine, I casually brought up that I was an O+, expecting it to have some effect:

“Yeah, pretty standard,” the man said. Standard?! Luckily the deflation brought me back to the bigger cause at hand: that donating blood, any kind of blood, is a really important deal. My lightheadedness was not too bad as I sauntered over towards the mandatory refreshment table where they forced me to eat oreos….

As I nibbled on my post-donation reward, I spoke with Grant Easterbrook – the pioneer organizer of every Blood Drive at Bowdoin I can remember – about the event. Through some grog I heard him mention that some students had asked him if they could protest the Blood Drive.

“Protest the Blood Drive?” I asked, taken abruptly out of my oreo rapture. Why would anyone want to protest such an established and positive volunteering event? Because, he said, that the FDA, not the Red Cross, bans gay people from donating blood. Take a moment to digest that if you are new to the club like me.

Since 1983, the FDA has banned homosexual men from donating blood because of the group’s  historically elevated risk of transmitting AIDS, HIV, hepatitis B and other infections via infected blood. The FDA’s website claims that gay men who have been having sex since 1977 have an HIV prevalence 60 times higher than the rest of the population. While I understand that gravity of insuring that blood donations are untainted, it seems to me that in this case the FDA is singling out a portion of the population “historically” identified with these diseases – but shouldn’t donating blood be about the individual and the individual’s health, and not about blatant stereotyping and open discrimination?

In a New York Times piece “Gay Men Condemn Blood Ban as Biased” written last August, this question was raised on the political level: a group of politicians, including Senator John Kerry, sent a letter to the FDA requesting the agency to reconsider the policy. No such news has come forth since. However, it is not as the blood donated goes without its share of testing to insure it is clean and healthy. It therefore inclines one to see the FDA’s ban as outright discrimination.

It is crazy to think how this kind of discrimination, veiled behind the curtain unchanged bureaucracy, trickles down to affect our own community at Bowdoin – a place with the utmost priority to keeping this environment safe and open for all individuals, no matter what kind of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, or background.  Giving back to the common good is such a principle of Bowdoin, it is hard to believe in this case, a select portion of the community cannot give back.

“I would say three out of four blood drives I get feedback from a frustrated gay student who tried to donate blood only to find out he or she was not allowed to. I always feel terrible about it since it is a ridiculous policy. The FDA continues to refuse to change this outdated policy,” said Easterbrook.

In the worst way, my blood donation ironically seems to be a rare kind, if not a privileged kind – not because I am anything great, but only because an old policy designed at federal system plainly forbids others from entry.

If there is a bright side, it is that Bowdoin students are unafraid to speak out against a mindset and policy that deprive people of equalities we are all inherently share.

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