At the first blood drive of the year tomorrow afternoon, students will be invited to sign a petition in protest of an FDA ban prohibiting sexually active gay men from donating blood. The event is Bowdoin's first-ever “sponsor” blood drive, during which students will be able to donate in honor of someone who is prevented from giving blood under the ban.
The student organizers of the blood drive—seniors Jimena Escudero, Kerry Townsend and Sarah Hirschfeld—are working in conjunction with the Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance (BQSA) to raise awareness and speak out against the ban.
“There is a sheet that you would signing saying that my friend is not able to donate blood today, so I am donating for them,” said Townsend.
The organizers will distribute the petition, authored by BQSA Co-President Simon Bordwin ’13, which implores the FDA to overturn the ban.
“It’s important to have people understand that this is an FDA ban, not a Red Cross ban,” said Hirschfeld.
The FDA has prevented sexually active gay men from donating blood since 1983, when HIV was widely believed to be a disease unique to that population. At the time, there was no test that accurately screened blood for HIV. Instead, the FDA introduced a screening question asking potential male donors if they had ever had sex with men.
“Most people in general don’t know that this ban exists, which I think is really problematic,” said Bordwin. “It feels discriminatory for no reason, or for a dated reason.”
Hirschfeld said that she started thinking about the ban over the summer, and decided that she wanted to do something about the ban while still helping the Red Cross collect as much blood as possible.
“I found that a lot of schools were doing boycotts of blood drives,” she said, “and I knew that was definitely not something I wanted to do. I wanted to have some sort of positive activism.”
Hirschfeld spoke to Kate Stern, director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, and Stern sent her information about a sponsor drive held at Middlebury College. When Hirschfeld presented the idea to Townsend and Escudero, they decided to adopt the idea of a petition at Bowdoin.
Although Hirschfeld got the idea from the event at Middlebury, Jeff Manassero of U.C. Berkeley organized the first sponsor blood drive in April 2007. Middlebury’s first sponsor blood drive followed in March 2008.
The FDA ban has been a controversial topic at Bowdoin in the past. Bordwin said that he attended a forum on the issue two years ago featuring Red Cross representatives. Bordwin said that the audience was mostly made up of gay men.
“It was really informative,” he said, “and also illuminating on the fact that the rationale behind the ban is very dated.”
Although the panel did help to demystify the prohibition, Bordwin said that some attendees were not happy with the way the forum was handled.
“There were a lot of people who left feeling angry,” he said, “because the meeting didn’t really provide any way to move forward. It was just kind of like, this sucks.”
In response, two frustrated individuals put up posters protesting the FDA ban. Townsend was running the blood drive when that occurred.
“There were some posters put up saying ‘donate heterosexual blood,’” she said. “Obviously, that upset a lot of the people from the Red Cross working here.”
In response to those posters, Townsend said that she and Escudero met with members of BQSA. Although the students who put up the posters did not do so through the BQSA, Townsend said that she thought the group would be a good outlet for conversation.
“We talked to them about the ban and clarified that it’s not the Red Cross [that set the ban], it’s the FDA,” she said.
Townsend said that because they started organizing late, they were not able to publicize sponsorship during this first blood drive. She said that they hope to reach a wider group of students during the next drive in November.
“This is really just a stepping off point,” she said. “Instead of being quiet about it like we have been in the past, we wanted to get our voices out.”