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    Gay Blood Is Thicker Than Water

    By Stuart Gaffney–

    Many years ago, when I was a college student, I did my civic duty and decided to participate in a Red Cross blood drive publicized on campus. As a nurse prepared me to donate, I told her I was gay in response to a screening question, and she said she didn’t know whether I could donate. To find out, she yelled to her supervisor on the other side of the crowded donation site: “Marjorie—do we take gay blood?!”

    Before I could explain that my blood was not “gay,” Marjorie hollered back: “No!”

    Not surprisingly I, like many LGBTIQ people, have been deeply disturbed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decades-long policy discriminating against gay and bisexual men in blood donation, founded on fear and prejudice and not medical science.

    On March 19, 2020, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams at a White House press conference urged all Americans to give blood as the COVID-19 crisis threatens to deplete the U.S. supply. But the Surgeon General’s call by its very nature excluded gay and bisexual men—or at least all gay and bisexual men who had not been celibate for over a year, per the FDA rules updated in 2015. In response to Adams’ call, LGBTIQ leaders, such as State Senator Scott Wiener, who termed the FDA restriction “completely unnecessary” given “overwhelmingly accurate” current laboratory blood screening technologies, urged the FDA to end its anti-gay policy immediately. 

    A week later, the FDA reduced the gay celibacy requirement from 1 year to 3 months, stating that the reduction would remain in effect even after the COVID-19 crisis ended. The FDA’s actions, though a welcome step forward, reveal their recognition that the anti-gay policy itself makes no sense. Why would it suddenly be OK to ease the restriction on a permanent basis? If the COVID-19 crisis enabled the FDA to let go of 75% of its anti-gay prejudice, why not just let go of it all?

    Some prominent Americans and also personal friends have said they notice that people have been kinder to each other during the COVID-19 crisis, much as they perceived people to be after 9/11. I hope that we as a society and many of us individually take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to reflect upon and re-evaluate how we live and act now and in the future.

    However, a half block from our house in our heavily Asian-American neighborhood, I recently saw scrawled on a telephone pole anti-Chinese graffiti, calling on neighbors to buy guns. It reminded me of a South Asian American friend’s observation that after 9/11 people were not nicer to her or other people thought to look Middle Eastern.

    Ongoing discrimination not just about blood donations continues to loom over the LGBTIQ community during the current crisis as well. Earlier this month, we completed our U.S. Census questionnaire—something critical for each of us to do to ensure our representation in Congress and access to federal funds. As soon as we read the gender question offering respondents only the binary choice of male and female, we were reminded of how the Trump administration 3 year ago eliminated questions about gender identity and sexual orientation that could have provided invaluable information about our community and enabled us to be fully seen and dignified in the Census.

    The Evangelical Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse, led by the notoriously anti-LGBTIQ minister Franklin Graham, has for weeks run a makeshift overflow tent hospital in Central Park for COVID-19 patients, sanctioned by the City of New York during the crisis. Although the organization claims it does not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in caring for patients, it openly discriminates in employment and who can volunteer. I can only imagine how disturbing it could be for an LGBTIQ person to receive life or death medical treatment under those tents.

    Looming over us is the real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis could rule that Title VII, the nation’s law prohibiting employment discrimination, does not apply to us. Although the legal arguments presented to the Court are strongly in our favor, we remember how back in 1986 at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the Supreme Court held that states could put LGBTIQ people in jail for sexual expression of our love, even in the privacy of our own homes. When employers resume hiring as the COVID-19 crisis recedes, nothing in federal statute would prevent employers from openly discriminating against LGBTIQ people if the Court rules against us in the current cases.

    All of this and more could potentially whip us into a state of fury. Although some activists say that anger at injustice is an important motivator for them, two quotations often attributed to the Dalai Lama come to mind. It is said that someone asked the Dalai Lama how he could harbor no anger towards the Chinese government given all it had done to him and Tibetan culture and people. He replied, “They have taken everything from us, why should I let them take away my peace and happiness as well?” And “don’t ever mistake my silence for ignorance, my calmness for acceptance, or my kindness for weakness.”

    These words bespeak the importance of protecting our ability to love, care, and find peace and stability even when external circumstances make it difficult. And although John and I fervently wish that the HIV/AIDS epidemic never took place, we cherish what it has taught us about love, care, dignity, community, and life itself, and recognize its role in increasing the visibility of LGBTIQ people, thereby laying groundwork of the marriage equality movement and other advances. 

    Let us take this opportunity now to learn from the current pandemic so that when restrictions are finally eased, we don’t move backwards but instead move forward towards a more equal, just, and caring society.

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on April 23, 2020