I really love giving blood. It’s probably a weird combination of the pain kink, the attention-whoriness and the lapsed-Catholic guilt, but I’ve always been obsessed with the totally slacktivist idea of helping a complete stranger with something my body is perfectly happy producing on its own.
When I was younger, I thought it was very glam that my mom, who has type O-positive blood (also known as the “universal donor”), would actually get calls from the American Red Cross asking her to come in and give a pint. By the time I got to 16, I’d forge my parents’ signatures on permission forms so I could skip calculus, recline in a creepy dentist-chair and squeeze a rubber ball for 15 minutes. I’d return to class like a consumptive Victorian hero, swanning behind my desk and propping my chin up on one hand to stare into the middle distance.
“Did it hurt?” my more timid friends would ask, laying gentle hands on my new “Don’t be a Chicken: Give Blood” T-shirt.
“A little,” I’d sigh, covering their hand with my own. “But it was for a good cause, you know?”
Of course, there was drama. As a vegan, I’m often too borderline anemic to risk sacrificing a whole pint of the good stuff. My penchant for sticking needles in my sensitive areas often sets me back by months at a time. And, most problematically, I’m a big old slut.
The Department of Health-sanctioned questionnaire doesn’t ask that question, of course. What it does ask, though, is whether you have had “sexual contact” (a phrase that always makes me think of freeze tag) with anyone who has hepatitis or HIV, or whether you have taken money or drugs in exchange for sex. When I was a 16-year-old Captain of the Mathletes, these questions were a no-brainer.
But as I got older (and gayer), I started getting mighty uncomfortable with some of them. Namely, the question that goes, “In the past 12 months, have you had sexual contact with a male who has ever had sexual contact with another male?” To me, even at 18, that sounded a lot like a mighty problematic insinuation. At that point, though, it seemed like a moot point: I was pretty sure the answer to that question was a no.
Except that…well, it wasn’t. When I started sleeping with my Best Dude Friend our sophomore year of college, he was still knee-deep in the muck of a sexual identity crisis. For Finn, this meant letting me have all the Pansexual Glory even as he covertly offered his dick up for blow job practice from the few deeply closeted frat guys he’d caught making eyes at him in the stacks.
Aside from sounding like the plot of a YA coming-of-age novel where my best friend is the villain, this also put me at risk for some minorly skeevy stuff. I knew he and I weren’t monogamous, but I also knew that I was the type of person who insisted on two forms of contraception every time we did the deed for the first year of the “benefits” portion of our friendship. Call me prejudiced, but I’m pretty sure a frat guy who’s so afraid of coming out to his bros that he blows his library-crush in a cul-de-sac two miles from campus isn’t going to stop for a chat about the various risk factors of unprotected oral.
Admittedly, it’s damn hard to catch anything nastier than a case of the herp from lying back and letting someone go to town on you, but still. Come on, man! At least give me a heads-up!
When Finn did tell me that he’d been a proud citizen of Queerville for years, I mostly felt annoyed that he hadn’t told me immediately upon meeting me. We pretty much share a direct mental pipeline, so I was hurt that he’d felt like he had to shoulder this Big Gay Secret all by his lonesome. The man cried when he met Sondheim, for godssake. It’s not like I was all that shocked.
It was only when I went back to the Red Cross on our next winter break that some of the other implications of Finn’s confession set in. I happily started to fill out the questionnaire, ready to smugly report that no, I did not have babeseiosis. But when I got to that one question, I stalled.
“Um,” I said to the nurse. ”What exactly counts as sexual contact?”
“Oral, genital or anal contact with someone else’s genitals,” she recited robotically. Balls.
“OHHH,” I said, like I’d been really confused. “That makes sense!” Then I marked “No,” with a flourish and sat back to get my free T-shirt.
Okay, look. I read the same Chicken Soup for the Soul story about the girl whose brother got an HIV-laden blood transfusion as everybody else did. I felt a little guilty. But hear me out. For one thing, I reasoned with myself, I’d been lying inadvertently to the good old ARC for years. Best Dude Friend had been playing around with guys since high school, and the world hadn’t crumbled yet. Plus, HIV detection abilities have skyrocketed since the 1970s. It’s not like checking “No” on a form automatically got me a free pass into someone’s hospital room (I would hope). [I interned in the PR department of a blood bank in high school. They use the NAT test, which can catch an HIV infection within 11 days of contraction. ]
More importantly, Finn’s behavior wasn’t risky because he was screwing a guy. It was risky because he was being a fucking idiot about it. And the fact that there is no single question about having heterosexual unprotected sex says a lot about the comfort that Americans continue to take in stereotypes long after they stop being relevant.
Finn certainly wasn’t the only guy I was sleeping with. Yes, I used condoms religiously, but I’d also had a few nasty incidents involving brown-out drinking and the use of ensuing fuzz to get naked with randos.
My HIV factor was way higher from the Irish guy I had Red-Bull-and-vodka-fueled sex with before Pride 2011 than from Finn’s occasional Sigma Chi dalliances. But as long as all those questionable-condom instances were between hot-blooded heteros and me, the Red Cross seemed perfectly happy to give me a free orange juice and send me on my way. Which, frankly, is bullshit.
Luckily, the Department of Health and Human Services seems to be starting to agree. Now that blood donations throughout the country are waning, they’re conveniently remembering that a hell of a lot of gay men are managing to take adequate precautions to protect themselves against HIV transmission these days. By rescinding the rule, the DHHS would be opening up the door to a giant pool (one representative is quoted as saying 55,000) of guys who just want to help out the cause.
For me, it all goes back to that easy activism. Blood donation should be, at its foundation, an eminently selfless act. But it’s also an incredibly intimate one. It gives you the opportunity to connect with a stranger at a literally cellular level, the kind of relationship normally shared only by sexual partners or family members. It’s a piece of everyday heroism, a mitzvah that my Jewish friends talk about in the same breath as helping old women with their groceries or taking off after a lost dog. It feels good -- in a sick, Mercedes Lackey kind of way -- to watch your life-force drain from your veins to be given to someone in need.
When the DHHS denied a whole group of people from accessing that activism, they were effectively cutting them off from this strange community. Apparently, to receive no donations at all would be better than getting any “tainted” blood. For years, society saw men who had sex with men as inherently promiscuous. HIV, I imagine, was the price they felt that older gays paid for their bacchanalian 20s. The homosexuals were poisoning the blood supply, and even dying straight Americans wanted no part of it. Anyone else spotting any metaphors here?
I know a lot of my gay friends aren’t exactly planning on flocking back to blood drives with open arms anytime soon. The fact is, though, that this is a good thing. It shows that some of Americans’ curmudgeonliest institutions are finally conceding that maybe, maybe, their reactions to the historical events of 40 years ago might not be the most rational or practical ones.
After all, at the end of the day, everybody just wants to do a good deed and get their damn T-shirt. No matter whom they’ve played genital freeze tag with.