Virginia Blood Services — a regional affiliate of the American Red Cross — hosts regular blood drives on the plaza outside of Clark Hall. About twice per month, a massive donation truck rolls onto the sidewalk and is flanked with balloons, signs and volunteers encouraging people to donate. No matter what time of day, there’s always a line of students at the registration table, eager to donate their blood and help alleviate a seemingly omnipresent shortage across the Commonwealth. But not all blood is equal.
For nearly 36 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned sexually active gay men from donating blood. Given that this policy is still in place, the University’s continued support of blood drives on Grounds consitutes an absolute failure to honor its non-discrimination policy.
The lifetime ban on gay blood arose in 1983 during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In the panic surrounding the virus, and spectacular apathy from the Reagan administration, the ban was implemented as a stop-gap measure to contain the spread of HIV. Years later, after signficant progress in research and treatment, the lifetime ban was reduced in 2015 to a ban for 12 months after the last same-sex encounter. The fact remains that this blanket ban directly targets gay men because of their sexual orientation. The ban presumes that the risk of contracting and transmitting HIV is solely determined by an individual's sexual preferences, but the truth is much more nuanced.
A number of factors contribute to an individual’s risk — including the use of condoms, the number and frequency of partners and whether or not they’re getting regularly tested. For example, a straight man having unprotected sex with multiple partners is at a much higher risk than a gay man having protected sex with one partner, but the former would be allowed to donate while the latter would be denied. Simply banning donations from gay men doesn’t actually reduce the risk, because gay men aren’t always at higher risk to begin with. The ban does not reflect the current knowledge of risk factors, and in its current state only serves to further discriminate, stigmatize and pathologize. The policy only reinforces the horrific and incorrect implicit conflation of gay men and HIV and must be repealed.
The University's continued support of blood drives on Grounds endorses this stigmatization and is in blatant violation of the University’s non-discrimination policy. The Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights proudly displays the policy on its website, “The University of Virginia does not discriminate on the basis of … sex (including pregnancy), [or] sexual orientation.” All University-affiliated or otherwise sponsored organizations — from Contracted Independent Organizations, to Greek Life organizations, to academic departments — are required to follow this policy. The University is granting the Red Cross a free pass on sex and sexual orientation discrimination by allowing it to use University property to host blood drives. The University is in violation of its own policy, is furthering discrimination against the queer community and is promoting further stigma surrounding queer men and HIV. The University must cease blood drives until the FDA repeals its ban, in order to fulfill its compliance with the non-driscrimination policy.
We wouldn’t be the first. There is signficant precendent from other univerisities across the country and their actions of protest and condemnation regarding the FDA’s ban and its blatant discrimination toward queer men. In 2005, after recieving a complaint from a student, the University of Vermont’s Office for Affirmative Action found that the ban on gay blood at university-sanctioned blood drives violated its own non-discrimination policy. In the following years, the Student Government Association at the University of Vermont attempted to pass a bill banning blood drives on their campus and successfully passed a resolution in condemnation of the FDA’s ban. In 2008, President Don Kassing of San Jose State University suspended blood drives on campus for the same reason — violating the school’s non-discrimination policy. And in 2011, the faculty senate at Queens College, City University of New York voted to recommend the end of blood drives on campus until the ban was repealed.
Since the University is home to the best public hospital in Virginia and one of the best medical research schools in the country, its decisions carry an incredible amount of weight.The University has the unique obligation to not only the medical community, but to its gay students, faculty and community members, to take a stand. It must honor its non-discrimination policy across the board, even if it means ending blood drives on Grounds.
Some groups on Grounds and around the Commonwealth — such as Homoglobin — are already engaging in activism around the FDA ban and its discriminatory affaects on gay community members. The University must be responsive to their concerns and take substantive steps to realize their goals.
The FDA ban is based on outdated medical precedent and only serves to further isolate and stigmitize gay men. If the University continues to allow blood drives to take place on Grounds, it is doing nothing short of disregarding the dignity of all its community members.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.