5 min

In defence of Kyle Freeman

Not the 'selfish radical' he's made out to be

Kyle Freeman has admitted to doing something that hundreds of gay men have done. He has donated blood, lying about his sexual history in order to do so.

His sexual history, now being aired for the public in an Ottawa courthouse, shows that he was a conscientious blood donor: he donated blood only when it was safe to do so. He didn’t discount himself as a potential donor when he was having sex with condoms or while in monogamous relationships. And he waited six months before donating blood if he had had an encounter that he felt might have put him at risk of HIV infection.

To be clear, Freeman never contracted HIV from his sexual activities.

If he had, the virus would have shown up in his blood within about three weeks. Freeman would have known about his infection, since he was a familiar face at Toronto sexual health clinics. Those centres use a cautious rule of thumb: three months — not three weeks — after an encounter, if you screen negative, they will confirm that you didn’t pick up HIV from that encounter.

Canadian Blood Services uses an even more cautious test. To be extra safe, folks who engage in high-risk sexual activities are asked to wait six months before donating blood — unless you’re a gay man. If you’re gay, it’s a lifetime ban.

And that’s where things break down. If a gay man has a risky sexual encounter, it behooves him to wait several months before giving blood. If there were a CBS question asking gay men about recent sexual activity, that would make sense. The current question — which would disqualify a man if he received a blowjob in 1980 — makes no sense.

HIV enters the blood stream at the same speed (arguably faster) when transmitted through gay sex compared to straight sex. Therefore, the six-month wait ought to be sufficient.

Freeman knows this, and he’s bravely making his case to a judge throughout the fall.

Incidentally, much hay has been made of the fact that Freeman tested positive for two sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the process of donating blood. That those infections are easy to detect, curable and were screened out by Canadian Blood Services seems irrelevant to his antagonists. Folks are using this part of the story as a smoking gun, suggesting that Freeman willfully put blood transfusion recipients at risk for HIV. It’s preposterous, since both STIs are easily transmitted through oral sex, whereas HIV is not. As I mentioned, HIV never came into the picture for Freeman.

Gays and their allies have been making this argument for several years. Led by a group of committed, bright, university-aged activists, the message has been pretty consistent: we should set blood donation rules using the science of HIV infection, not by profiling at-risk groups. They call it event- or activity-based screening and it makes a ton of sense.

There has been a robust conversation in the gay community about how far to go in trying to change the rules. The consensus has generally been to protest — but not to disrupt donor drives or call for a boycott. Nobody wants empty seats at blood drives.

The Freeman case makes many gays uncomfortable because, in his tactics, he has gone further than most of us would. But he is in no way a monster.

* * *

People with an interest in the CBS blood ban are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Freeman has illustrated that a six-month ban would be sufficient to screen out blood that might contain HIV and that conventional tests can sort out the rest. But for some, it creates an intolerable public relations scenario that has conservative gays foaming at the mouth.

A year ago, blood ban activism was already threatening to go off the rails — and not because of the direct action approach that Kyle Freeman used.

At the time, I worried that purity-obsessed gays were beginning to make a conservative assault on workaday fags whose unabashedly sexual lifestyles happily discount them from the blood-donor pool.

You can read my shout out to singletons, sluts, threesome connoisseurs, the polyamorous, internet tricks, drag queens, bathhouse bears, kinky folks, rent boys and their sugar daddies, park cruisers, porn makers and consumers, the poz community, exhibitionists and drunks here.

Unfortunately, my fears have since been realized. Nathan Seckinger, the director of the University of Regina’s queer centre, GBLUR, took part in the blood agency’s consultation process with respect to gay blood. Since then, he has become a mouthpiece for the CBS, parroting back to the gay community the blood agency’s favourite excuses for not adopting a more sensible screening strategy (the policy isn’t homophobic; there’s not enough research; they can’t get Health Canada to change their stance).

Seckinger appears to be worried that the relatively vanilla sex life of Kyle Freeman is going to prove disastrous for his cause.

Seckinger has asked me not to quote from comments he made on the Egale Listserv. However, it’s an important issue and gays deserve to know what’s being said about them in a public discussion forum. I will quote his comments at length to ensure the context is clear.

“You may be interested to know that this week’s testimonies in the trial revealed that Mr Freeman’s blood apparently tested positive for syphilis after donation — a fact that is going to further discredit our work, as though Mr Freeman’s careless flaunting of the health code were not bad enough,” he wrote. “This is exactly the reason why activism should always follow a carefully planned, politically sensitive and media-aware strategy.  When activists just get pissed off and start bucking the system, it makes us look like selfish radicals rather than intelligent and innocent victims of discrimination, and gives ammunition to the already very well-funded and organized anti-queer lobby.”

Later, he adds, “We must maintain a squeaky clean public image if we are to turn this around.”

And finally, “We are now in a position of legal, economic, political and media leverage, which we will lose if we don’t represent ourselves as outstandingly intelligent and informed citizens who are altruistic beyond reproach.”

And so, we now have blood ban activists defending the CBS and pleading for gays to have a “squeaky clean public image.” It’s almost too strange to believe: even if the rules change, the debate is turning gays against each other, and not just Freeman. Because, let’s be honest, most of us weren’t born with haloes.

But, fear not — there is hope. Although I had to go digging for it, there are some university activists still keeping a level head about this case as it unfolds.

Ottawa-native Joshua Ferguson, now doing graduate work at the University of British Columbia, says that Seckinger’s position is reflects only a minority of young activists.

“I don’t believe members of the queer community need to alter their diverse sexual lives in order to win this battle,” says Ferguson.

It’s good to hear — especially since Ferguson has been so active on this issue. As an undergraduate, he founded Standing Against Queer Discrimination at the University of Western Ontario, and he was one of the organizers of a 2008 Parliament Hill demonstration against the blood ban that drew a mix of agitators and MPs.

“We must remain diligent regardless of one person’s experience. Mr Freeman should certainly not be burdened with representing the entire queer community,” he writes.

And still, he reiterates his stand — without equivocation, without apology.

“CBS, vis-a-vis Health Canada, needs to prioritize this issue to eliminate this dangerous proliferation of hatred and homophobia that the discriminatory policy perpetuates.”

The point isn’t that everyone is entitled to donate. As the National Post has rightly pointed out, giving blood is not a human right. But the lifetime ban, which isn’t consistent with what we know about HIV transmission, seems to be rooted in old-school prejudices rather than scientific fact. It needs to change.

I only hope that the people making our case can keep their wits about them during the debate.