Today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it is moving to put an end to what many have described as a “ban on gay blood donations,” in favor of one that would allow individuals the FDA classifies as “men who have sex with men” to donate blood on the condition that they’ve been celibate for at least a year. Now, the absurdity of the fact that we’re just now easing up on a 31-year-old policy built around the boogeyman of “gay dude = AIDS,” aside (and even this new policy is somewhat ridiculous, in which someone needs to abstain from sex for a year before being allowed to donate blood despite of the fact that hospitals desperately need blood donations), let’s talk about the fact that this policy does one other, often-overlooked, insulting thing: it erases the existence of trans people.
The ban, which the FDA refers to as a ban on blood from “men who have sex with other men,” impacts far more than “men who have sex with men.” Essentially, the ban applies to anyone who was assigned male at birth who has had sex with another person who was assigned male at birth anytime since 1977. Examples of individuals banned from donating blood include:
- Gay cisgender men who sleep with other gay cisgender men.
- Straight or bi cisgender men who sleep with bi or straight trans women.
- Straight or bi transgender women who sleep with straight cisgender men.
- Gay transgender women who sleep with other gay trans women.
- Transgender women who sleep with non-binary people assigned male at birth.
- Non-binary people assigned male at birth who sleep with trans women.
- Non-binary people assigned male at birth who sleep with other non-binary people assigned male at birth.
The list could go on, but you get the point. With exception of the first example, none of those are “men who have sex with men.”
Still, in the eyes of the FDA, a government agency (it doesn’t get any more official than that, really), all of these people are classified as “men.” Every single one of them.
Now, anytime someone brings this up, we’re often brushed aside with a roll of the eyes as “arguing about semantics,” as though the erasure of the existence of trans people in the eyes of a government agency isn’t something worth noting. Countless blog posts will go up in the next day or so, praising the decision for easing the ban, criticizing the decision to continue to “other” those they classify as “men who have sex with men.”
Is there any medical reason to have differing policies for MSM and non-MSM individuals? Nope, not really. All blood is screened for the diseases the FDA claims to be so concerned about. While there are a small number of groups also banned from donating blood (those admitting to being intraveneous drug users, for example), the ban on MSM blood can’t come off as anything but discriminatory. The FDA, somewhat laughably, tries to address this in the form of an FAQ document:
[blockquote source=”FDA”]Is FDA’s policy of excluding MSM blood donors discriminatory?
FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.
What about men who have had a low number of partners, practice safe sex, or who are currently in monogamous relationships?
Having had a low number of partners is known to decrease the risk of HIV infection. However, to date, no donor eligibility questions have been shown to reliably identify a subset of MSM (e.g., based on monogamy or safe sexual practices) who do not still have a substantially increased rate of HIV infection compared to the general population or currently accepted blood donors. In the future, improved questionnaires may be helpful to better select safe donors, but this cannot be assumed without evidence.[/blockquote]
So, we can all agree that this ban, generally, is awful, right? Most can agree that the proposed change to the ban still doesn’t completely resolve the issues, right? Okay, so, that aside, back to my point.
Why is it more than just semantics to be concerned about whether or not the government accurately classifies trans people? For one, when a group of people (say, trans women) aren’t properly categorized, it can lead to inaccurate data collection, slowed research on illnesses that impact these communities, and generally worse treatment than everyone else. Labeling trans women as “men who have sex with men” comes with a research, development, health, and life cost, leading to headlines like this:
Secondly (and this is about semantics), how can someone claim to be an “ally” when their respect for your own existence extends only as far as “well, it’s confusing to have to explain this in my article, so I won’t?” That’s been the overwhelming attitude of journalists covering the ban. Seeing cis LGB individuals perpetuating the same kind of erasure the FDA does, is beyond disappointing.
Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has written about the ban twice in the past two weeks. In both instances, he focused on gay, cisgender men.
“Currently, any man who has had sexual contact with another man since 1977—even once, even using condoms—is barred for life from donating blood,” Stern wrote on December 10th. In his most recent post, he writes, “Rather than banning such men for life, the FDA will now require that gay and bisexual men be celibate for a full year before donating blood.”
Men. Man. Gay men. Such men. Men. Men. Men.
*waves* Hey! Um… So…
He’s hardly alone. Nearly every major news outlet refers to the ban as being a ban on blood from gay men. To some extent, it’s expected, if not entirely excusible for groups like the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC, CNN, and other big-name, mainstream outlets to stick to the FDA’s language. What’s less okay is when it comes from supposed allies of trans people. The Advocate, Queerty, Huffington Post Gay Voices, and nearly every other “LGBT” outlet falls in line, erasing trans people.
If my existence is only valid when it’s convenient for you, you don’t actually respect my existence; you’re simply humoring me. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Some have questioned whether or not the ban actually impacts trans women. BuzzFeed’s Dominic Holden writes, “Transgender advocates say this rule has been used to ban transgender people from donating blood.” Suggesting that it’s merely trans people who say that the ban impacts them implies that maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
Here’s what an FDA spokeperson told Vox about the ban recently.
I’ve asked Holden to update his post. He has yet to do so.