Héma-Québec, the provincial blood supply agency, was on our campus last week. The presence of this organization, which continues to uphold discriminatory policies toward men who have sex with other men (MSM), creates an unsafe space on campus for students and undermines the dignity of many members of the McGill community.
In 2006, SSMU Legislative Council banned Héma-Québec from operating within the Shatner building, citing the organization’s screening procedure as a violation of the SSMU Constitution. The previous year, a queer-affiliated group staged a demonstration at an on-campus blood drive to protest Héma-Québec’s policy. In response, the agency shut down the blood drive.
This year, however, the blood donation agency came and left without discussion or reflection on the effects of its presence on campus. SSMU and Queer McGill did not communicate with their constituents and did not comment on the issue. Although boycotting Héma-Québec is not the solution, not talking about the issue isn’t solving anything either.
Héma-Québec has an essential role in providing healthcare to the province; with the help of its donors, the organization saves lives on a daily basis. As such, blood donation is an important way to give back to one’s community and should be thoroughly encouraged. It is for this reason that the ban on MSM is especially discriminatory: members of our community are being denied the opportunity to help their peers, while many who need life-saving donations do not receive them.
Héma-Québec justifies the MSM policy, implemented in 1977, by pointing to the higher prevalence of HIV among homosexual men. According to their website, HIV prevalence is over 10 per cent among gay men as compared to 1 per cent among heterosexuals or other queer-identified groups.
However, in a recent issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Mark Wainberg of the Jewish General Hospital and Norbert Gilmore of the McGill University Health Centre argued against the maintenance of a lifetime ban for all men who have had sex with men. This study is one of many that have concluded that lifting the ban is safe, citing the availability of new, highly sensitive methods of screening for HIV-positive samples.
In recent years, many industrialized countries have lifted lifetime donation bans and replaced them with deferral policies that range from one to ten years. Although Héma-Québec supports replacing the permanent exclusion with an exclusion period of five years for MSM, the agency cannot change the policy by itself, as it is currently regulated by Health Canada.
Although the proposed revision to the policy would allow for a wider sample of donors to be included, it continues to be discriminatory. Five-year deferrals and lifetime bans are crude policies that base their exclusion on group membership rather than behaviour.
As it stands, the policy allows a straight man who has engaged in risky behaviour, such as having unprotected sex with multiple partners, to donate. Yet it prohibits a monogamous gay man who practices protected sex from donating. This policy is not appropriate, and it continues to discriminate against men who have had sex with other men. Alternative changes, such as revising the pre-screening procedure, should be considered.
Héma-Québec certainly provides a vital service to the province, and blood donations should not be obstructed; if anything, donations should be promoted. But not protesting this policy perpetuates the marginalization of groups that face attacks on many fronts in society. Héma-Québec and its MSM blood donation policy have a negative effect on members of our community, and it must be addressed.