Ten-year gay blood ban is unjustified

A change of policy to include the HIV virus test alongside the antibody test would be safer, smarter

According to the Sunday Times (£), the government is planning to lift the blanket, lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had oral or anal sex with men. This ban was introduced at the height of the Aids panic in the 1980s, on the grounds that gay and bisexual men are at greater risk of HIV.

The public health minister Anne Milton is reportedly planning to modify the ban. Men who have had sex with men will be no longer be barred for life, but only for ten years after the last time they had oral or anal sex. This ban will apply even if they always use a condom and even if they test HIV-negative.

A ten-year ban is too long. So is five years or even one year. These are needlessly cautious exclusion periods. Protecting the blood supply is the number-one priority but ensuring blood safety does not require such lengthy time spans during which gay and bisexual men should not donate blood.

The blood service could replace the blanket lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men with a much shorter exclusion period. It should focus on excluding donors who have engaged in risky behaviour and those whose HIV status cannot be accurately determined because of the delay between the date of infection and the date when the HIV virus and HIV antibodies manifest and become detectable in an infected person's blood.

HIV antibodies normally take a maximum of one to three months to become identifiable in lab tests. The HIV virus can take two weeks to be detected. The blood service currently tests all donated blood for HIV antibodies but not for the HIV virus. To be safe, perhaps it should do both tests on potentially risky blood donations?

Reducing the exclusion period for blood donations from gay and bisexual men should go hand-in-hand with a "Safe Blood" education campaign, targeted at the gay community, to ensure that no one donates blood if they are at risk of HIV and other blood-borne infections due to unsafe sexual behaviour.

Moreover, the questionnaire that would-be blood donors have to answer should be made more detailed for men who have had sex with men, in order to identify more accurately the degree of risk – if any – that their blood may pose.

There is, in addition, a strong case for excluding only men who have had risky sex without a condom. At the moment the blood service makes no distinction between sex with a condom and sex without one. All oral or anal sex between men – even with a rubber – is grounds for refusing a donor under the current rules. This strikes me as odd. If a condom is used correctly, it is absolute protection against the transmission and contraction of HIV. Those who use condoms every time and without breakages should not be barred from donating blood.

In contrast to the suggested ten-year ban for gay and bisexual blood donors, a six-month exclusion period would be sufficient. This would exclude male donors who have had oral or anal sex with a man without a condom in the previous six months. All men who last had unprotected sex with men more than six months ago would have their blood tested for HIV antibodies, as is the current practice.

Although the six-month exclusion period is more than twice as long as it takes HIV antibodies to appear in the blood of an infected person, this is may be justified, to err on the side of caution and to reassure the public.

The exclusion period could, however, be much shorter than six months, with certain provisos. The blood service could decide to ban only donations from men who have had unsafe, condomless oral or anal sex with a man in the past month. For men who have had unprotected oral or anal sex with a man in the preceding one to six months, the blood service could be extra-safe and do both a HIV antibody test and a HIV virus test on their blood.

Since the HIV virus shows up in blood tests within two weeks of the date of infection, the one-month total exclusion period offers a double-length margin of safety. This would guarantee that the donated blood posed no risk to recipients.

A change of policy along either of the aforementioned lines would not endanger the blood supply. With the specified safeguards, the blood donated would be safe.

The call for change is growing worldwide. The American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks and America's blood centres favour ending the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.

According to Dr Arthur Caplan, former chair of the US government advisory panel on blood donation: "Letting gay men give blood could help bolster the supply. At one time, long ago, the gay-blood ban may have made sense. But it no longer does."

The truth is that most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV. Both the lifetime and ten-year bans are driven by homophobic, stereotypical assumptions, not by scientific facts and medical evidence. For the vast majority of men who have sex with men, their blood is safe to donate. Far from threatening patients' lives, they can and should help save lives by becoming donors.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and the founder of the gay rights group OutRage!

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.