In the midst of Carleton University’s Pride Week this year, students aren’t at movie marathons or board game night. Rather, they’ve fanned across the campus, hitting main thoroughfares, residence buildings and big classrooms, armed with clipboards.
Volunteers gathered nearly 600 signatures in a two-day blitz, a campaign that will continue throughout the spring — and which is poised to go national.
The workshops, coffeehouses and perennial drag show haven’t been cancelled. But new organ donor rules from the federal government — which prohibit men who’ve had sex with men in the last five years from giving their organs — have mobilized students in one of Carleton’s most political Prides in years.
For Mike Wiseman, the coordinator of the Carleton GLBTQ Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity, the timing was perfect. The organ donor rules, which made national headlines in early January, had students talking.
“As soon as the first news story broke, we were like, ‘What the hell is going on here?'” says Wiseman.
Wiseman and his queer centre cohorts already planned to protest Canadian Blood Services’ lifetime ban on gay blood donors. But catching the wave of anger caused by the new rules, they swung into action.
“As soon as we mention the ban, we start to get quizzical looks,” says Wiseman. “It’s perplexing to students that [the federal government] would institute a ban.”
Within a week, the student council passed a motion calling on federal health minister Tony Clement to reverse the organ donor rules. The Carleton University Student’s Association (CUSA) passed the motion unanimously.
“One’s sexual orientation is not the deciding factor for STI transmission or a leading indicator of unsafe sexual practices,” reads the motion. Furthermore, “the denying of MSM cell, tissue, and organ donation puts all Canadians waiting for a transplant at risk.”
University students are leading the charge against both the blood and organ donor rules because prejudice that’s contrary to science is so baffling to young, educated people, says Wiseman.
“It’s such an old archaic viewpoint to ban organ donation based on orientation alone,” he says. “That’s why students are getting involved. To them, this is the modern age, we have the technology to do screening that’s more sophisticated. It doesn’t make sense.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Brent Farrington from the Canadian Federation of Students. Representatives from Carleton and other Ontario universities met in Markham and on Jan 20 passed a resolution promising to campaign against the organ donor prohibitions.
“Students have always been at the forefront of social movements,” says Farrington. “We live in a society where tolerance has been taught now for 20 years, so it’s a cultural shock to a lot of people; it just doesn’t click with what we’ve been taught.”
CFS’s national body hasn’t met yet, but Farrington says he’d be very surprised if they didn’t echo the Ontario decision — especially given that the organization, which represents over 80 colleges and universities, has opposed the gay male blood ban for 15 years, says Farrington.
“When you see that other countries around the world moving away from demographic-based policies, moving toward behaviour-based policies, really trying to distance themselves from this kind of policy, it’s really surprising to see our government do this now,” he says.
Carleton is following the lead of the University of Western Ontario, where Joshua Ferguson leads Standing Against Queer Discrimination (SAQD), a student group trying to get the blood donation ban lifted.
SAQD is “calling for a clear and evidence-based explanation for both the old policy and the new,” according to a statement released by the group.
“It shows how arbitrary these bans are, not even the same rules,” says Ferguson. “On one hand [Health Canada] say they agree the policy is outdated and needs research, and at the same time they turn around and choose to bypass research and rely on stereotypes.”
Even after Carleton’s Pride Week is over, students will be passing the petition and handing out copies of their End the Ban Now pamphlet. But Wiseman is careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“We have nothing against CBS, we have nothing against organ donation,” says Wiseman. “Even when we do information pickets outside of blood drives, we don’t say, ‘Don’t give blood.’ We say, ‘Hey, did you know we have a blood shortage in this country, and they’re not letting perfectly good donors give?'”
As for the Canadian Federation of Students, Farrington says they will continue to push for new organ donor rules that are behaviour-based rather than demographic-based. But as Farrington points out, activism doesn’t end when students step off campus.
“Students are certainly willing to carry the torch,” he says. “But we need communities to get behind it.