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Revisiting McGill’s fight to let gays give blood

We look back at the skirmish that started it all

Two years ago, students at McGill University became the accidental spokespeople for the fight to end discrimination at blood donor drives. As the battle picks up momentum on campuses across Canada, we look back at the skirmish that started it all.

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Boys in tight skirts rubbed up against young folks decked out in BDSM gear, twisting to campy music for an audience of needle-wielding nurses.

It sounds like a killer night out on the town. In fact, it was the surreal scene at a blood drive in a Montreal student union building two years ago. There, a radical queer group began one campus’s fight to end a longstanding ban on blood donations from gay men. In the days and months that followed, the McGill student union barred blood drives from their building, and the movement for equal treatment spread to campuses across the country.

Under current regulations, a man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977 is barred from donating blood for life, since they are considered a higher HIV risk. By contrast, a person who has had straight sex without knowing the sexual history of their partner is only asked to wait six months before donating. In increasing numbers, students are questioning the scientific justification for the ban and demanding equal treatment for gay men.

They are also navigating an emotional minefield. Patients justifiably demand that all possible precautions be taken to ensure a clean blood supply, while gays and allies argue that the ban unreasonably excludes them from helping to save lives. Add a web of government agencies and lobby groups to the mix, and it’s not hard to see why activists are conflicted as to the best tactics for continuing their fight.

Two years after the initial McGill protest, the effectiveness of banning blood drives is in dispute, while the case for change is being pressed in the courts and behind closed doors at negotiating tables. Still, activists agree that the need for grassroots activism has never been more urgent, and that university campuses are its best arena.

The birth of a blood drive ban

Incensed at being branded with the stigma of disease because of being queer, a group of friends at McGill University decided to do something about it. Calling themselves The Second Cumming, they set out to directly challenge Héma Québec, the province’s blood collection agency, on their policy of excluding gay men from donating blood.

The result was a noisy protest at a blood drive in January 2006, where participants were encouraged via a flyer to “act faggy, do drag, and lie about [their] sexual history.” Although the group meant that eligible donors should lie in order to exclude themselves and thus challenge the policy, Héma Québec staff reacted by shutting down the drive and insinuating in the press that McGill students intended to contaminate the blood supply.

The executive of the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU) stood behind the protesters, shooting back that Héma Québec was unwelcome in the building. The following November, SSMU council voted to officially ban Héma Québec from the student union building until they changed their policy.

But Adrian Bondy, a member of The Second Cumming who conceived the idea of the protest, says the group never wanted a ban and were not consulted in the decision making process leading up to it.

“I’m not at all clear that SSMU’s reaction was the right one,” he says. “Our intention was never to keep them from coming back to McGill. It really got blown up, and it was because of Héma Québec’s reaction. They closed the blood drive, they threw out all of the blood that had been collected so far. They really, really reacted very strongly to it.”

In the end, Bondy, Héma Québec, and the McGill admin were left out of the decision-making process. Rather, prompted by the protest, the student council decided that Héma Québec’s policy violated its constitution which states that “all Students’ Society endeavours shall be undertaken with full respect for human dignity and without discrimination on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics such as sexual orientation.”

Aaron Donny-Clark, SSMU president at the time, maintains that the ban was the right decision. He saw it as a pragmatic move meant to uphold the constitution and elicit a response from Héma Québec. He feels that both goals were accomplished.

“History shows that when we started talking about a ban, when we started actually not letting them in our building — my God, we got a couple of Héma Québec VPs in the boardroom and in front of the student body very quickly,” he says, referring to a town-hall meeting between Héma Québec representatives and McGill students.

Despite the fact that the ban was not his intention, Bondy is pleased that Héma Québec’s policy has been dragged into the spotlight. The protest garnered widespread media attention, including a photographer from the Montreal Gazette who came to Bondy’s apartment to take pictures of him in drag. He had to field a call from his grandmother when his photo appeared on page three.

“It was encouraging that so much attention was drawn to it, and that the moral side became our side,” says Bondy. “My impression was that it wasn’t something people noticed or cared about. It was just a splinter in my mind when I walked passed [the student union building], and realized I couldn’t give blood.”

Activism proves infectious

What started out as a splinter has now spread to campuses across the country. In Ontario, protests similar to the one staged by the Second Cumming at McGill have occurred at York and the University of Western Ontario. York has not banned blood drives, while UWO will be deciding the issue when school resumes this month. According to Brent Farrington, the deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), blood agencies are starting to listen.

“A lot of the research, data, and statements that come out of Canadian Blood Services (CBS), Héma Québec, and Health Canada reference the McGill situation. McGill, being a well-known school in Canada taking such a position, has raised a lot of eyebrows,” he says.

Since November, The CFS has been actively lobbying against the policy barring men who have sex with men from donating blood. They have been involved in negotiations with stakeholder groups and with a CBS research initiative that collects data using samples of blood from 20,000 people that would have been found ineligible to donate under the current rules. The CFS intends to take the empirical data and present it to Health Canada as evidence that the policy should change.

Farrington stresses the need for the CFS’ lobbying activities to be backed with widespread education on the issue, but is wary of the idea of a ban on blood drives, noting that his organization doesn’t endorse them.

“A ban for the sake of a ban is a bad idea. It needs to be coupled with a large information campaign to explain why this position has been taken,” he says.

There is also evidence that bans on blood drives may be targeting the wrong organizations. At the meeting with McGill students and Héma Québec, a Héma Québec representative said that the blood collection agency was “prepared to relax their criteria” from a permanent ban on donations from men who have sex with men to a one-year ban. The only stumbling block, he insisted, are federal regulations and patient groups who wish to keep the ban in place. Although there is an element of bureaucratic buck-passing here, as blood collection agencies regularly review their policies and make recommendations to the higher-ups, Héma Québec’s statement uncovers a problem with narrowly focussing activism on blood drives. The federal government has the final say on who can donate, and lobby groups, particularly the Canadian Hemophilia Society, play a major role in setting policy.

Still, members of Queer McGill, a social and support service for lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender students at the university, say that keeping Héma Québec out of student space is good for the cause and for students.

Devin Alfaro, a former political coordinator at Queer McGill, encourages other schools to follow McGill and ban blood drives in order to start a debate on campus and send a clear message that students oppose the policy towards gay men. Where Bondy sees the blood drive ban as an unexpected and dubious consequence of his initial protest, Alfaro argues that involvement from the student union was a key step in advancing the cause.

“In order to really get change, you have to have organizations like student unions put pressure and make a fuss about this. It’s only by doing that that you can push organizations like Canadian Blood Services and Héma Québec, which are inherently conservative, to action.”

Spurning this logic, some McGill students actively campaigned to overturn the blood drive ban, putting a referendum question before the student body. Before the vote, however, Donny-Clark brought the matter before the SSMU judicial board, a group of law students who act as judges. The board ruled that an affirmative vote would cause SSMU to breach its constitution, because the policy prohibiting gay men from donating blood constitutes discrimination based on an irrelevant personal characteristic. However, the results of the referendum were unsealed and it was revealed that two-thirds of the student body supported reinstating blood drives.

Asked about this paradoxical result, Donny Clark argues that a referendum is not a valid method for deciding this issue, since the majority should not decide issues of minority rights. But Marc-Andre Rousseau, the student that brought the referendum question, disagrees.

“There is no right to give blood,” he wrote in an email. “The agencies must discriminate based on what they see as statistically relevant characteristics which allow them to minimize the chance of passing on a disease to a recipient of a blood transfusion while maximizing the quantities of safe blood they can collect.”

Though it was declared void, the referendum at McGill illustrates the difficulty of selling a ban on blood drives to large groups of people.

After all, blood drives are an important public good, and few people would balk at permitting them on a campus at first blush. At McGill, were it not for a majority of student judges interpreting the constitution in a light favourable to proponents of the blood drive ban, the effort to keep Héma Québec out of the student building would have been dead in the water.

From campus to court

While the blood drive ban was being debated in McGill’s student court, another McGill student brought the prohibition on donations from gay men to the big leagues. Adrian Lomega, now an articling student at a Toronto law firm, sued Héma Québec in small-claims court when he found out he was ineligible to donate.

“When I first tried to donate my blood, I found it incredibly offensive that they didn’t give me the opportunity,” says Lomega. “At the time I wasn’t aware of the ban.”

He channeled his anger into an essay about the ban for a law course. “Once I wrote that, I felt more secure about my own sexuality, and then I decided to launch a suit in small claims to put my theoretical framework into practical use.”

Lomega sued for $1,500 in moral injury, but Héma Québec argued that, since they are not able to change their policy without approval from Health Canada, the federal government should be included with them in the suit. That meant that the case was moved from small claims to the Québec Superior Court, where it has the chance to set a legal precedent leading to a change in the blood collection policy towards gay men.

Bondy believes that legal efforts like Lomega’s, combined with lobbying efforts, are the most likely route to change.

“That’s the kind of change that has to happen now,” he says. “But at the time it didn’t seem like that was on the table. It was more like, ‘This is an issue. Someone please realize this is an issue.'”

But Lomega emphasizes the continued need for local activism, including blood drive bans.

“Campuses that have banned blood drives have raised the attention of officials of Canadian Blood Services and Héma Québec,” he says. “When you already have a declining donor pool, where the percentage of the population who is donating is most likely the lowest it has ever been, these blood organizations have been focussing on universities.

“When they’ve been cut off from having access to these potential lifetime donors, they’re loosing their future donor pool.”

This may be a frightening prospect for those concerned with maintaining a reliable supply of blood — and that should be everyone. But it also underscores the need to quickly solve the controversy surrounding donations from gay men. If the issue alienates too many young people, the supply of donors as a whole could be threatened — an outcome no one favours.

But what is the most likely solution? Lomega would like to see like risks treated alike, meaning that gay men would be treated the same as other groups at risk for HIV who now are deferred from donating for six months to a year. Of course, even if Lomega is successful, it might mean that gay men would have to be sexually abstinent for a year before giving blood. Still, he says, it would be an improvement.

“The reason why I find [the policy] such an affront to my dignity and to the dignity of all gay men is that there’s no justification for a lifetime deferral compared to the one year deferral. If you bring it in line with the one year deferral, well, the policy may be irrational but it will be irrational towards everyone.”

One report, prepared for Canadian Blood Services by the McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa, cleared the way for a five-year deferral for gay men. Although the report said that there is no clear evidence that a five-year exclusion period for men who have sex with men would result in an increased risk of tainted blood, CBS rejected the idea this past summer. But even if they had assented, questions certainly would have been raised concerning the number of donors that would have become eligible. Five years of chastity seems a hefty price to pay for the privilege of donating a pint of blood.

The ban at McGill turned heads in quarters where decisions are made, but student activism alone has yet to convince anyone in power to change the way things are done. To some extent, says Bondy, that’s not an altogether bad thing.

“Groups who are concerned with public health shouldn’t be political, they should be blind to that sort of thing in some sense.”

Still, even organizations with good intentions can become locked in inertia when it comes to policy, perpetuating hurtful discrimination. Activism of the kind that played out at McGill, buoyed by high-level lobbying and court challenges, is poised to break that lock and force a serious re-evaluation of the way blood donors are screened. There are hopeful signs that this is beginning to happen, but until blood collection agencies regain the trust of young people discontent with the status quo, blood drives will continue to be a sore spot on Canada’s campuses.