We all know that in many parts of the world, blood donation bans apply to gay men, but trans men and women also suffer under these kinds of bans — and with the added stigma of having their gender questioned and ignored.
One woman who had to face this recently was Clayre Sessoms from Vancouver. Sessoms had regularly donated blood without any problems but, after arriving at a downtown Vancouver clinic earlier in May, faced questions about whether she had undergone genital change surgery. Sessoms informed the nurse that she had not. The nurse then left for a short while, before returning to tell Sessoms that the blood donation service would have to defer her donation.
Sessoms, who according to CBC News made cellphone recordings of her discussions with blood clinic staff, was then told she wasn’t banned from donating blood but would have to fill out a separate form. Sessoms contends that even after she began her gender confirmation last November and informed staff, they allowed her to donate blood. As such, Sessoms questioned whether this was as a result of any medication she was taking or anything like that. No, she was told, and then when she asked if it was solely on the grounds of her gender identity, the nurse appeared to confirm this was the case.
The reasoning behind the clinic’s decision is unclear. We’re aware of the standard ban on so-called men who have sex with men (MSM), and we’ve detailed in the past why this ban is discriminatory. Canada now uses a five year deferral on gay men donating blood, meaning that blood donors must not have had sexual contact with another man in that time in order to be eligible to donate.
While we can see how the clinic, in refusing to accept Sessoms’ gender identity, could wrongly say the rule against gay men applies if Sessoms were a straight trans woman, this is in fact not the case: Sessoms is reportedly happily married to a woman and identifies as a lesbian. She has never therefore, even under the widest and most discriminatory readings, fallen into the MSM category. As such, we’re left to question precisely what criteria the clinic used to defer Sessoms donation.
The clinic, while not wanting to comment on the specifics of this case, released a statement saying:
“Canadian Blood Services does not exclude any potential donor based solely on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Any transsexual or transgender individual is screened at our blood donor clinics according to the same standard eligibility criteria we use for all blood donors. In certain cases, a donor with a complex medical history may be referred to one of our medical staff for further assessment. This procedure is in place to protect both the donor and the patient. We appreciate that a request for further medical consultation can cause distress for some donors, but we do this to ensure the safety of the blood system and it is not intended to reflect negatively on any individual.”
Sadly, Sessoms’ case is not unique to Canada or in fact much of the world. In the United States, a lifetime ban on MSM donating blood is still in effect, and this also routinely bans straight trans women. Trans men are not considered a health risk in the same way, but may face problems of being misgendered when it comes to trying to donate blood and, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, may also be turned away.
The USA’s blood donation ban survives despite the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Red Cross in 2010 campaigning for the ban’s repeal, noting that there is plenty of medical evidence to at least support a five year deferral period being safe. The FDA says it needs more time to study the issue but campaigners say that with chance of infection already as low as 1 in 2 million, there’s plenty of evidence to make the change and for minimal risk.
The ban is particularly injurious because it is unapologetic about its discriminatory underpinnings. For instance, the FDA website justifies the ban by saying that “a history of male-to-male sex is associated with an increased risk for exposure to and transmission of certain infections diseases, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS,” and that this is not discriminatory because it is “based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections” among MSM.
The FDA does not screen for unsafe promiscuity among straight men, and so applies a different standard to heterosexuals. Lawmakers, continuing the work of then-Senator John Kerry, are working with the FDA to explore how the ban might be changed.
Clearly, this change is important not just for gay men, but also trans people who like Sessoms just want to donate blood to help others and are being turned away sometimes for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.