United Kingdom And New Zealand Loosen Restrictions On Queer Men Donating Blood: Unravelling Complex History Or Fortifying Stigma?

On Monday, 14 December 2020, the United Kingdom and New Zealand announced new rules regarding blood donor eligibility, including looser rules for men who have sex with men (MSM). In both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the new rules represent a shift toward behaviour-based policies, rather than identity-based policies. While some view this as cause for celebration, others feel the new rules only reinforce the stigma that surrounds male homosexuality.

Britain previously had a three-month waiting period for men who had engaged in homosexual relations. This prohibited even men in longterm homosexual relationships from being able to give blood. Under the new behaviour-based policy, anyone of either sex who has engaged in anal sex with multiple partners or a new partner will be unable to donate blood. In New Zealand, the celibacy period for MSM was cut from a year to three months. In both nations, the change means that men in longterm homosexual relationships can donate blood without waiting period. The U.K. and New Zealand are following the lead of the United States and Australia in this decision. The U.S. reduced its waiting period from a year to three months in April 2020. Australia announced it would also reduce the waiting period from a year to three months in April, although the change will not actually apply in the country until 31 January 2021.

The previous rules that disproportionately stigmatized MSM have been brought under scrutiny because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has caused a surge in the need for blood donations. Lockdowns have made it more difficult for potential donors to access donation centres. Additionally, blood that tests positive for COVID-19 antibodies is currently being used as part of a treatment plan for those suffering with the virus. “Plasma from whole blood donations that test positive for COVID-19 antibodies may now help current coronavirus patients in need of convalescent plasma transfusions,” states the American Red Cross.

Restrictions on MSM donating blood were imposed during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The measures targeted populations who were at a high-risk for HIV contraction—mainly MSM and IV drug users. Many decades later, the heavy restrictions remained in practice, until the need for blood galvanized their removal. The measures disproportionately stigmatized MSM by placing restrictions on them without medical basis. An example of one such measure without medical basis being that longterm monogamous MSM were prohibited from donating. Another such measure is that MSM who know their status (as HIV negative) were nevertheless prohibited from donating blood. LGBTQ+ advocates point out that the new, looser, regulations play into respectability politics without removing the stigma around male homosexuality.

The recent reversals of these restrictions highlight what was clear from the beginning: that the past regulations were based more so in homophobia and fear than they were in medical fact. Nations are now calling upon a population they previously treated as invisible.

Jaclyn Pahl