What Poots Did Next: Homophobia and Blood

Our last (but definitely not least!) contribution for Guest Post Week comes from Helen. Helen is a recent graduate with a MA in History and Gender & Women Studies. heS currently works for a local college in Northern Ireland and blog at @TakeitotheBR and at NursingClio.org. Her academic and blogging interests include gender, human rights and conflict resolution.

What Poots did next? The latest controversy

Northern Ireland Health Minister Edwin Poots is currently a factor in a legal battle on blood donations. An unidentified man is attempting to overturn the ban on homosexual men donating blood in NI. This case is another in a long line of Poots showcasing his inability to connect with, and properly represent, many of his constituents. My distaste for Minister Poots is well documented following his appalling record on reproductive choice alongside his homophobic prejudice.

In 2011, the United Kingdom updated the Blood Donation policy to be more inclusive of homosexual men for the first time following the AIDs scare in the 1980s. Those “whose last relevant sexual contract was more than 12 months ago” are now eligible to donate blood in England, Scotland and Wales.  Poots maintains that it is too dangerous to lift the ban against homosexual men giving blood in Northern Ireland. He has also called for further exclusions – those who have had sex “with somebody in Africa or sex with prostitutes”.

The Government Advisory Committee report which prompted the UK to update their policy indicated that a much shorter window existed than previously thought during which viruses such as HIV could not be detected. The period in which HIV is difficult to detect is usually up to three months. Keeping this in mind a 12 month ban still seems extremely cautious of the supposed danger of a sexually active homosexual man’s blood. While an improvement on what came before, as well as on Northern Ireland’s policy, this continues to feed the stereotype of the “promiscuous gay man.” A heterosexual man does not have to quantify his sexual life can give blood freely, whereas a homosexual man in a monogamous relationship cannot; this exposes the hypocrisy and discrimination of this policy.

For Northern Ireland, not even this 12 month window exists. Any man that has had anal and/or oral sex with another man is currently banned from donating blood in Northern Ireland. The reality is that most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV. Any ban which exists on homosexual men as a whole is a policy dictated by prejudice, not by scientific fact and medical evidence.

Poots’ comments and refusal to lift the ban perpetuates a culture of homophobia and exclusion from Northern Irish society. Ironic considering the “shared society” rhetoric which politicians (including the DUP) are constantly shovelling down our throats, yet simultaneously acting to promote the very opposite of that.

The Human Rights Commission have rightly pointed out that “Northern Ireland is subject to the obligations contained within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” This includes respect for all individuals without distinction of any kind. For the medical world to put forward 12 months as an extremely cautious safe guard against the HIV virus being transmitted through blood donations, it is therefore discriminatory for the life time ban to continue in Northern Ireland.

The case continues to investigate the legality of Northern Ireland policy.

What Poots Did Next: Homophobia and Blood
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Gushing & Giving

It’s Guest Week! While I’m off visiting the Ladyfriend, I’ve handed over the Tea Cosy to a bunch of the best guest posters a blogger could wish for. Today’s post comes courtesy of Tori from Anytime Yoga. A secondary teacher in the US, Tori enjoys many things in life: making education and critical thought fun for her students, making yoga accessible to her blog readers, and writing about sexual and reproductive health with frankness. As for other things in life — namely, running, writing catchy author bios, and remembering to do the dishes — well, those she is working on. 😉

 

Note: This post discusses menstrual bleeding and blood donation. It also contains a brief mention of miscarriage.

 

I saved three lives today. At least, that’s what the sticker from the American Red Cross blood drive tells me.

My donation experience today was surprisingly easy. I mean less in terms of wait time or needle sticks and more in terms of how my body reacts. For example, my blood pressure was normal, even as I anticipated them checking my iron. More than that, my hemoglobin was well into the healthy range — something I’ve not seen in a good long while. The donation itself — from needle in to needle out — took under five minutes. When it was over, I could promptly sit up, stand up, and walk myself over to the canteen — all without feeling flushed, lightheaded, or like I was on the verge of passing out. At the canteen, I did stay the required minimum of ten minutes, but I felt physically well enough to go long before I finished my water and Cheez Its.

All of this is a far cry from the last several times I gave blood. I used to do it in my late teens and early twenties. While my iron was technically high enough to qualify, blood donation left me feeling fatigued, dizzy, and nauseated for the next day or two. For a number of years in between then and now, I was altogether too anemic to donate, to the extent of being far more likely to need blood than to be able to safely give it.

See, among other idiosyncrasies, I have a menstrual history of chronic pain and gushing [explicit menstruation/bleeding talk at that link too]. It had always happened — and my iron had always been borderline — but after a miscarriage in my mid twenties, my hemoglobin levels plummeted and never really recovered. I mean, to the extent that being only “moderately” instead of “severely” anemic is not really recovering. Because it involved constant — not just period-long — symptoms, it was easy to feel like a lot of my physical life limits stemmed from my menstrual flooding. Limits which, now that I am healthy enough to give blood easily, are vastly reduced in scope and severity.

It’s difficult to explain why this is important to me. While giving blood is a nice and helpful thing to do for other people, it’s not like choosing to do it renders one morally or socially superior. And yet, when I couldn’t give blood**, I often felt inferior — like there was something wrong with me that made me not good enough to donate blood. Regardless of what, if anything, can be done about it, it’s uncomfortable and disheartening to repeatedly bump up against feelings of not good enough.

Ironically, the thing that made me healthy enough to donate comfortably is something others think may not be good for me in the long run. I started a new birth control pill over the summer. Though my periods have not become what I would term “light,” they have lost their, “Dear God, how is there any blood left on the inside?” feeling. With the iron rich eating habits I’ve adopted over the years (kale + me = BFF), my hemoglobin has soared to record levels. There’s still the pain issue to deal with, but not being so draggy all the time makes even that easier to manage.

Generally, I just feel better.

Until such a time that someone hears that I’m on birth control pills — let alone my particular brand of pill*** — and starts getting all concerned, as one “someone” also did today.

“The estrogen in birth control pills can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.”

“Which pill? Isn’t that the one with all the lawsuits?”

“That’s the one where one of the ingredients carries, like, double the risk of blood clots.”

“And your doctor is okay with you taking that? At your age and weight?”

You know what? All these things? Technically supported by evidence. I do not dispute that this medication increases my risk for some adverse health outcomes. That said, it improves my quality of life. And also? All these things? Asked and answered, multiple prior times in my life.

I’m never going to please every person who’d like to weigh in on my health. But I’m also getting to the point where I’m comfortable articulating the believe that I never have been under any social or moral obligation to do so (though I would suggest that social pressure is another matter entirely). As long as I’m not harming others with my decisions — and I think it would be pretty difficult to harm others with my personal health choices — then I get to prioritize my health as I see fit. I get to be the boss of my body.

I get this one shot at being alive and having a body. It’s hard enough to learn how to cope when my body doesn’t behave as I’d like it to. Other people’s hangups about my body and my health are going to have to remain just that — the concerns of other people.

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** I’m a faculty advisor to a student organization that organizes multiple blood drives each year, so there’s ample opportunity for me to come across “Give Blood Today!” messages.

*** I participate in some online discussion spaces devoted to my same health issues, so this isn’t necessarily a matter of random folk on the street asking about what I’m doing to secure the state of my uterus.

Gushing & Giving

Blood, safety, and arbitrary guidelines.

Today, I tried to give blood. It’s a thing that I- like many people- had always thought that I should do. Recently, I had to get tested for haemochromatosis. I made my mind up that since if I had it I’d have to get blood taken regularly, if I tested negative I’d get my bum down to the blood transfusion clinic, stat, and just bloody well donate.

Turns out that, after feeding myself a rather impressively large lunch and downing almost three pints of water* before my appointment, I’m ineligible to donate. I’ve lived in a malaria zone, you see. While being in a malaria zone for less than six months only means a 12-month ban on donation, doing so for more than that time leads to a lifetime ban. This was a bit disappointing, but hey. But then I got thinking. And what I am thinking about is this, as well as another factor which renders people ineligible to donate, and how this impacts on safety.

The reason, as far as I can tell, why I cannot donate is because malaria can, very rarely, have an incredibly long incubation time. Given that it’s a bloodborne disease, it’s good to be careful.

This is not a thing I have a problem with. Taking care to make sure that people don’t get malaria is a Good Thing! Malaria is a godawful illness, I know several people who’ve died of it. I am very, very much in favour of making sure that the blood that people donate is safe. However, I’m not sure that this ban does that.

Here’s the thing. If there is a chance that everyone who goes to or lives in a malarial zone could, entirely asymptomatically, be carrying around malaria in their systems, then why do we allow people who have been in malarial zones to donate at all? Why is this tied to time spent in a malarial zone and not, say, whether or not the person in question was rigorously taking antimalarials? Anecdata time: I know of people who’ve come down with malaria within a week of landing in a malarial zone. In my (anecdotal!) experience, people tend to get bitten more when they first arrive, and within very short order get very, very sick of mosquito bites and start getting sensible about not getting bitten. Wearing shorts at sunset and not tucking in your mosquito nets properly gets very old, very fast, when the alternative is those whiny feckers making you itch. While I’m happy to see any stats people could provide on this one, I find it hard to accept that there is a vastly increased risk of exposure to malaria when you’ve been in a malaria zone more than a very short time indeed. And yet we allow people who went to a malaria zone for 5 1/2 months and spent their entire time lounging about in shorts at sunset next to stagnant water forgetting to take their antimalarials to donate after a year! But those who were there for a few weeks longer, who took their antimalarials, wore their long sleeves at sunset, stayed away from stagnant water, used their mosquito repellant and tucked in their mosquito nets at bedtime? Lifetime ban.

And yes, there’s a huge parallel here. I’ve advocated for years against the gay blood ban, where any man who’s had sexual contact with another man, ever, even protected, is banned forever from donating blood. Whereas as a cis woman, I could cheerfully have unprotected sex with as many men as I pleased, wait a year, and donate.

My question is this: How do these rules protect people? If I am a significant malaria risk despite having gone 15 years since leaving a malarial zone and never having had malaria, how is a person who was in the same place as me for five months, a year ago, not a risk? If John sleeps with Bob on Tuesday, and me on Wednesday, then how is it safe to allow me to give blood after a year, when Bob is barred for life? These things simply don’t make sense.

*I had hoped that one of those would be exiting through my arm. No such luck.

Blood, safety, and arbitrary guidelines.