Things went wrong almost immediately.
It turns out things have changed in the ten years since I last gave blood, and not just in my life. My first task was to find the Cone ballroom in UNCG’s Elliott University Center. I’ve been here for a year and a half, but as a graduate student and instructor I rarely leave the humanities building except to visit the library.
So I’m already winded when I get to the sign-in table. “What time is your appointment?” Oh. I’m a walk-in. “Please sign in on the Rapid Pass website and we’ll get you right in.” Easier said than done, unfortunately: my phone doesn’t get signal indoors on campus.
I finally manage to get the page to load by leaning against a warm window so my phone can see the sky. The questions have changed in ten years. First, there’s the battery of COVID questions (I’m triple-vaxxed and had a mild case last month, so my immune system is locked down.) The next set of questions is where it gets awkward.
When I was donating blood regularly, around 2012, I was an undergrad at a small university in Alabama, and the Red Cross had no interest in gay men’s blood. The questions were amusingly, uselessly specific: have you had sex with another man, even once, since 1979? There were questions about IV drugs, sex work—anything associated in the public mind with HIV/AIDS.
As it happens, I could answer all the questions truthfully when I first started donating. I’d been out since I was 14 but hadn’t violated any of the Red Cross’s purity criteria. Then, after I graduated, I stopped having regular access to blood drives and, if I’m honest, I blocked the Red Cross’s number after one too many calls in a calendar week.
I like blood donation because it’s concrete. People need blood, I have blood, let me give them some blood. I want to contribute to the world, and I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. I’m best as a cog in an effective altruistic machine.
But men who have sex with men have always been a wrench in the blood donation machine, at least since the AIDS crisis hit the US in the early 1980s. I had friends who just lied when they answered the questionnaire. Believe it or not, gay and bisexual men are capable of sexual responsibility, and consistent STI screenings are often a part of that, along with condom use. If anything, we’re often much better informed about our HIV status than straight people.
This has been a point of controversy for decades, and the new questions reflect something that resembles progress: rather than “since 1979,” the questions now ask about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll “IN THE PAST THREE MONTHS” (capslock in original). We’re allowed to donate during dry spells, I suppose.
Another change is more frustrating: the list of medications that disqualify a donor now includes drugs used for HIV prevention, including PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis). These drugs were in the earliest stages of development when I first gave blood. They’re frankly revolutionary: PrEP is taken regularly and all but eliminates the risk of HIV transmission, while PEP is taken as an emergency measure after suspected exposure to HIV.
It’s interesting to think the Red Cross is actually punishing people who proactively work to prevent HIV infection. I personally don’t use PrEP—I was an early adopter, but when I aged off my parents’ insurance, my then-employer (Publix Supermarkets) refused to cover Truvada, and since I didn’t have $1500 per month lying around, I stopped my regimen.
I manage to answer all the questions and get signed in as these thoughts are percolating. There’s Marvin Gaye on the radio—the blood drive tradition of R&B classics hasn’t changed. As I’m getting my pulse taken and my iron levels checked, the Red Cross employee asks me a series of questions in the rapid-fire style of someone who does this dozens of times a day. In the time since I answered the questionnaire, have I contracted COVID or had sex? No, not in the time it took me to walk across the Cone ballroom, I don’t think.
As I’m sitting on the donation table, she asks if I’m allergic to something I’ve never heard of. “No. Wait, are you going to ask about betadine, iodine and latex?” That’s something I always enjoyed. Every Red Cross worker would say it all in one breath, like a tiny poem. But it turns out enough people were allergic that they’ve switched to nitrile and the stuff she’s swabbing into the crook of my elbow.
I’m trying to read a Percy Jackson book while the blood bag fills. Another change over the past ten years: in my overtaxed thirties, I want nothing more than to read middle-grade adventure stories. But I’m not focusing well. I’m thinking about the spaces where we find ourselves useful, the spaces that queer and other marginalized people are excluded from. The bag also fills quite quickly, so I head to the snack table, my red bandage covering the very top of the dogwood branch tattooed on my right forearm. I used to worry that my rainbow patterned bracelets would “give me away,” but I have no idea if floral body art reads queer in the era of the manicured straight man.
I think giving blood is a pretty uncontroversially positive thing. I know people who won’t do it on principle, and I do get that giving up your literal life-blood to a homophobic organization doesn’t feel great. Still, people who need blood can’t help it if a crummy institution has cornered the market.
I also have no idea if writing about this is the sort of thing that could get me permanently deferred from donating. As I said, I want to be a useful cog, and that’s a mindset I’d like to encourage in others—decenter the ego and just be helpful. But I don’t have a solution to the problem, only this story, which is to say that I gave blood but I declined the t-shirt.