Across the UK, thousands of gay and bisexual men are willing and able to safely donate blood but the current policy prevents them from doing so.
The policy states men who have sex with men (MSM) cannot donate blood unless they abstain from having sex for three months; a restriction many gay and bisexual men have described as ‘ridiculous’, ‘outdated’, ’irrelevant’, ‘offensive’ and ‘sad’.
In order to take a stand against the policy, on November 23 UNILAD and Freedom To Donate opened The Illegal Blood Bank; a place where gay and bi men could go and donate a pint of blood in protest of the rules.
The event took place in London, and dozens of gay and bisexual men turned up to show their support for the campaign and their disdain for the current situation.
One donor, Kieron, believes the current legislation is ‘based on so many assumptions that just aren’t true anymore.’
Speaking to UNILAD, he continued:
To me, it’s nonsensical.
It’s completely unequal and it’s institutionalising the idea that the blood of men who have sex with men is somehow dirtier, not acceptable or just worse than everyone else’s blood, which is not the case.
Another donor, Luke, told UNILAD he’s ‘always wanted to give blood’ as his blood type is O negative, meaning he is a universal donor. Luke has given blood once in his life, before he became sexually active, but he’s been restricted from donating since.
Luke described the legislation as ‘unfair’ as he’s been in a relationship with the same man, who is now his husband, for 10 years.
Instead of simply overlooking every single man who has sex with men, UNILAD and Freedom To Donate are pushing for the introduction of an individualised risk assessment in blood donation; a form that every single blood donor has to fill out which focuses on individual behaviour rather than sexual orientation.
Luke is just one of the thousands of men who would appreciate this change in practice, as it would mean he could donate blood without having to stop having sex with his husband for three months.
Another person advocating for change is Lee, who also attended The Illegal Blood Bank.
Blood donation has always been common practice in Lee’s family, but he is unable to partake in the activity.
Lee told UNILAD:
Every single person in my family gives blood.
From being a little boy, going to the blood bank with my family was considered a Saturday or Sunday activity every six months or so – I never really thought anything of it.
I gave blood once when I became of age but then I got in a relationship with a man and realised that I could no longer give blood, and from then it just baffled me.
I’ve been in a relationship for three years with the same person. I just think it’s a shame. It’s an awful shame to miss out on a big amount of people who are willing to donate.
Lee went on to describe how the current UK blood donation policy has not only left him unable to join his family in donating, but it is also preventing him from fulfilling a promise to his grandfather, who donated so much blood throughout his life that he got a letter from the Queen.
I promised [my grandad] before he died that I would get a letter from the Queen as well, so I need this overturned quite quickly so I can get started.
Like Lee, a number of The Illegal Blood Bank attendees expressed their desire to contribute to the blood supply and help others, in the same way it has helped their loved ones in the past.
Luke explained how his cousin, who had leukaemia, was treated with blood transfusions, while other interviewees spoke of parents and grandparents who have benefited from the system.
Though there were some donors who had never been personally affected by blood donation, they were still keen to share their supply.
Kieron pointed out you ‘never know’ who might need it, saying:
I might need blood in future. It’s about being part of that system.
The Illegal Blood Bank attendee went on to share the opinions of a friend of his; a gay man who has received blood in the past and who expressed how ‘unfortunate’ it is that he couldn’t ‘give back into a system’ he had received from.
You can look at it as if you’re paying ahead a little bit, then when you, or a family member or friend needs blood it’s nice to be able to have paid into that and to feel part of that.
One common, overwhelming feeling at The Illegal Blood Bank was the joy donors got simply from being able to give their blood. Nothing collected on the day will be used for medical purposes, but the sheer act of being able to take part was clearly important to every single donor.
Luke described the process as ‘really rewarding’, while others said it was ‘wonderful’ and ‘satisfying’.
It’s such a great thing to be able to do. I feel great that I’ve done it today and I know my blood isn’t going into a system which is going to save someone, but I still feel great.
Even though the blood is not being given to others, The Illegal Blood Bank provided a way for MSM to feel part of the system; something many of them had never before been able to experience.
UNILAD spoke to one donor, Elliot, who felt excluded when some friends of his started a blood donation society at Durham University.
The society got really big and I was quite sad that I couldn’t join it.
I’m a healthy person, I lead a healthy lifestyle so there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to donate.
You see the NHS asking for donations, and you go to the website and want to get involved but you get turned away.
As a gay man, Elliot considered The Illegal Blood Bank to be a place where he was ‘considered the same as everyone else’. In comparison, he described the current policy as a ‘microaggression’, which makes gay and bisexual men feel different.
The sense of exclusion was reflected in the story of another donor, James, who attempted to give blood with his friends when he was a student at university. James was sexually active but he hadn’t come out to his friends yet, and when he went along with them to the blood bank he had no idea he would be turned away.
Recalling the situation, James told UNILAD:
I went with a friend, but I had to leave the nurse’s office and make up an excuse as to why I couldn’t give blood. It was humiliating at the time.
Before donating blood, The Illegal Blood Bank attendees filled out an individualised risk assessment form of the kind UNILAD and Freedom To Donate are hoping to introduce.
The form was praised by the donors, who explained that while it asked personal questions, they were ‘not too probing’, ‘conventional’ and ‘what you’d expect when you’re giving part of yourself away’.
Kieron described how the individualised risk assessment is particularly relevant in this day and age, when ‘people don’t conform to a specific label’.
It was completely based on me and not a label.
Why are we sticking to outdated terms when it’s about what you as an individual does, not what box you fall in to.
While only a limited number of gay and bisexual men could be seen at The Illegal Blood Bank, Freedom To Donate have set up a Pledge A Pint programme, which allows MSM to show they would give blood if they were legally able to.
Gay and bisexual men in the UK have pledged 3,176 pints of blood. That’s 3,176 people who are currently being overlooked, and who could go some way to meeting the 135,000 new donors needed each year to replace those who can no longer donate.
Dan Costen, of Freedom To Donate, told UNILAD the Pledge A Pint programme is ‘another way to show the strength and depth of this issue’.
We would encourage people to pledge a pint and show that they would donate if they could do so.
Donors repeatedly expressed their hope that everyone, including the government, will quickly come to accept the need for change.
As well as raising awareness for the amount of blood being overlooked by the policy, attendees hoped The Illegal Blood Bank will incite real change which will see the introduction of a ‘sensible policy that assesses risk and not sexuality’.
Kieron summed up his hopes for the campaign with one word: equality.
There’s no other word for it, I hope I will be able to take part in an un-illegal blood bank in the future.
Hopefully ‘the future’ won’t be far away.
Help us end blood donation discrimination and support our campaign to overturn the outdated policy that prevents gay & bi men from donating blood.