The rainbow flag flies high on Canada’s parliament hill during the country’s first recognized pride month. Photography by Torbakhopper, Flickr.

*UPDATE: Health Canada has just released a statement saying that the five-year deferral period has been reduced to a one-year deferral period. This news does not change the validity of the information gathered below, nor does it change the angle of this feature article.

The bulk of the story

Over 1.5 million Canadian men could be banned from donating blood for at least one five-year period over the course of their life.

Sunday, June 12, marked the largest mass shooting in American history, and it targeted the LGBTQ+ minority group in an environment normally free from judgment and stigma­–at Pulse nightclub, in Orlando, FL.

OneBlood (@my1blood) tweeted Sunday that all FDA guidelines remain in effect for donations. That comment was referring to the ban restricting, what are known as men that have sex with men (MSM), from donating blood unless they have abstained from same-sex copulation for a full calendar year.

A minority group lost up to 49 people in what was known to be a safe environment and 53 others were injured. Here lies the subject of discussion: a large portion of this group (the men) cannot even step forward to help members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Canadian men that are part of the LGBTQ+ community face even stricter donation guidelines than their American counterparts. As of 2013, Canadian MSMs can donate blood so long as they have abstained from same-sex copulation for five consecutive years. This same rule applies to women that have had sexual encounters with an MSM. Many Canadians continue to be under the impression that MSMs still pose a reasonable risk that merits this form of institutionalized discrimination.

A 2014 study by Juliet Richters, PhD, found that 9 per cent of men reported having had attraction or a sexual experience with the same sex. If roughly 9 per cent of Canada’s male population, of 17.8 million men, has engaged in a same-sex experience, it follows that Health Canada would be restricting 1.5 million men from donating blood at some point in their life for potentially being one of the 37,230 that tested HIV positive.

The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) and Héma-Québec seem to think that the five-year deferral period is unreasonable because they have issued an appeal to Health Canada. Their appeal proposes to reduce the deferral period from five years to one.

Health Canada spoke to REglam in a recent email exchange saying, “A regulatory decision from Health Canada is expected over the summer 2016.”

Many Canadians are upset by the idea of Health Canada proposing any deferral period for particular social groups–even high-risk populations. It is important to thoroughly research how high the risk really is. Health Canada stated that it would need scientific data to support any further changes.

“Should submissions be received to change the deferral further, they would have to contain scientific data from studies that support the safety of the proposed changes and must demonstrate that the proposed change will not compromise the safety of the blood system.”

REglam also spoke with Chris Thomas, the communications coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). He told us what ACT aims to accomplish.

“Our mission is to reduce new HIV infections in Toronto and promote the independence, dignity and health of people living with HIV and AIDS as well as those with increased risk.”

Though ACT’s mission is to limit the spread of HIV, Thomas spoke out against any deferral period; saying,

“The push towards limiting the five-year deferral period to one year misses the point a little bit–which is the systematic exclusion of groups of people. We are a little concerned that there isn’t a more emphatic push from our government.”

When asked why he was in favour of not having a deferral period, considering that MSM are still considered “high-risk,” Thomas stated: “Our diagnostic technology, for HIV, has improved drastically. Each year, there tends to be a break through in observing HIV–more specifically antibody detection tests. We are able to detect it earlier and earlier. The twelve months are a little arbitrary. Certainly, the science suggests a much shorter period.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, with the help of antibody tests, most cases of HIV can be effectively detected within 3 to 12 weeks of infection. Besides, CBS’s website states that every unit of blood undergoes extensive laboratory testing.

The five-year deferral period thus seems to be grossly disproportionate and many even say discriminatory.

“I think the delay is due to the decision-making coming from a place of fear. There is an aversion to full inclusion. Historically, groups like ACT, that have been involved in HIV for over 30 years, are well aware of complicated histories between blood donation and HIV and how it intersected with gay men,” Thomas said.

 

History 101: HIV vs. LGBTQ+ Men

The possible transmission of HIV must not be taken lightly, but it should be put into perspective. To begin, it must be stated that MSMs have the highest risk of having HIV and the number keeps growing.

In the 1970s, the Canadian Red Cross was Canada’s longstanding blood supplier. Come the late 70s, thousands of people found themselves contaminated with Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. The outbreak reached its peak in the mid 80s. This was due to insufficient blood screening and donations gathered from high-risk populations–such as gay men.

Health Canada issued a ban, in 1985, preventing MSMs from donating blood. Given the health sector’s inability to treat HIV, and given that LGBTQ+ men were at high risk of getting the virus, most people were in accordance with the decision–even MSMs. By 1997, the Krever Inquiry was tabled in the House of Commons. It offered compensation to those infected and demanded that two arms-length government organizations be created: one for Quebec, Héma-Québec ; and one for the rest of Canada, the Canadian Blood Services.

CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information, affirms that there are 75,500 Canadians that tested positive for HIV out of a population of 35 million. That means that roughly 0.2 per cent of the population has been diagnosed with HIV. This figure is not meant to belittle the gravity of HIV, but it is meant to put things into perspective.

Once again, according to CATIE, roughly 50 per cent of the 75,500 people that tested HIV positive are MSM. That represents a pool of 37,230 men. Still, 31 per cent of people are infected through heterosexual sex–or rather, 23,700 people.

Most recently, the Forum Research poll conducted by the National Post showed that only 5 per cent of Canada’s population identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. With that said, most sociologists and gender theorists would agree that the widely spread 10 per cent statistic is more accurate. The idea that 10 per cent of the world’s population is queer dates back to Alfred Kinsey’s survey in the 1940s.

In 2010, The Williams Institute, UCLA, also found that one in eight LGBTQ+ people had never told anyone about their sexual orientation, and one third have never come out at their place of work.

Hence, the stigma surrounding sexual deviance from traditional gender norms is still great enough to make people feel unable to affirm their sexual identities. Many people could also have withheld this information from the survey. A generalized nation-wide survey can only tell us so much about an issue. Sociologists, gender theorists and other PhDs usually offer much more realistic and thoroughly researched data.

 

Understanding a changing social environment

In 1994, a Colombia PhD graduate–Robert T. Michael–published Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. His finding was that 100 per cent of the homosexual couples that he had surveyed had experienced infidelity within the first five years of their relationship. After extensive research, it could be argued that his sampling was improperly done. When surveying a group of people, one must aim to gather representative figures for diversity and intersecting identities (such as belonging to other minority groups). Michael’s sample group was rather small, less than 3,500 people surveyed in the U.S., and most likely did not take into account social class, environment and other such factors.

For instance, if a sample group is made up of 3,500 club-goers, it is not representative of the interests of all those that do not participate in the LGBTQ+ nightclub scene.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic blew up in North America through the 1980s. At that time, the LGBTQ+ community usually kept their preferences quite secretive out of a fear of stigma and discrimination. These feelings of insecurity often breed instability in close relationships. Many turned to subcultures, such as raves, for feelings of inclusion. The rave subculture, for instance, often had rights of passage such as drug use or orgies and led to the overwhelming stereotype that promiscuity is synonymous with the community.

The Alfred Adler Institute of Milan published a study by Roberto Callina in 2015. In inflated words, it essentially states that promiscuity in LGBTQ+ male culture has acted as a form of validation to ease feelings of inadequacy due to alienation–often encountered during adolescence.

“The attempt to maintain and/or restore the internal cohesion of an unhealthy self is expressed in a compulsive and frantic search for confirmation of value in the sexual sphere.”

The social environment surrounding the LGBTQ+ community has changed drastically since the 90s. Since July 20, 2005, LGBTQ+ marriage is legal in Canada. Civil unions are recognized, and brave people can therefore step forward and break the stigma surrounding traditional gender norms. Two men, two women, or anyone in between can fully commit to one another under a civil union–a protection, a guarantee. That was not meant to imply that monogamy is the better choice, but it does make monogamy a legally and emotionally compelling option for members the LGBTQ+ community.

In fact, Statistics Canada shows that the rate of same-sex couples has risen 42.4% between 2006 and 2011. They further state that married couples represent 3 in 10 of Canada’s same-sex couples in 2011. The number nearly doubled since 2006. More so, 25 per cent is the figure that represents the same-sex married couples, aged 15 to 34, in the context of the LGBTQ+ community. Heterosexual married couples only represent 17.5 per cent of all heterosexual couples of the same age bracket.

Alliant International University, in San Francisco, released statistics, in 2010, stating that 59 per cent of gay men have cheated while in a monogamous relationship. That being said, the Associated Press’ Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, published in 2015, states that 57 per cent of heterosexual men had cheated in their monogamous relationships.

With such comparable statistics, many are left feeling that any deferral period for blood donation constitutes discrimination.

 

Interviewee: Chris Thomas, Communications coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Toronto (@ACToronto)

Interviewed by: Joshua Soucie | Check him out on Instagram: @JoshuaSoucie.

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