At the blood drive on Wednesday afternoon, students were invited to sign a petition in protest of an FDA ban prohibiting sexually active gay men from donating blood. The event was Bowdoin’s first-ever “sponsor” blood drive, in which students had the option of donating 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—have been 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 sign saying that my friend is not able to donate blood today, so I am donating for them,” said Townsend.
Only three people filled out the slips saying that they were giving blood in someone’s honor, but Townsend expects wider participation at future blood drives.
“I think part of the reason we don’t have more is just that people don’t know about it,” said Townsend.
The organizers also distributed a petition, authored by BQSA President Simon Bordwin ’13, imploring the FDA to overturn the ban.
Although not many students participated in the sponsor aspect of the drive, the petition did receive support.
“It’s important to have people understand that this is an FDA ban, not a Red Cross ban,” said Hirschfeld.
According to Townsend, the members of the Red Cross at Wednesday’s drive encouraged both the petition and the sponsor drive.
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 demographic. At the time, there was no test that accurately screened blood for HIV. To compensate, 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.
Hirschfeld said that she started thinking about the ban over the summer, and decided that she wanted to do something to change it without impeding the Red Cross’s initiatives.
“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 similar sponsor drive held at Middlebury College. When Hirschfeld presented the idea to Townsend and Escudero, they decided to adopt the practice at Bowdoin.
Jeff Manassero of U.C. Berkeley, organized the first such 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 recalled an on-campus forum on the issue two years ago, at which Red Cross representatives spoke to an audience of mostly gay men.
The discussion impressed on Bordwin 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 in Smith Union. 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 it was a good idea to talk to the group.
“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.”