The Legacy of AIDS: End the Blood Ban by Zach F

Paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan once wrote, rather gloatingly, “the poor homosexuals- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”[1]That retribution? AIDS. Buchanan’s bigoted views of sexual orientation and an epidemic so destructive that its’ legacy and effects are still VERY much engrained in the collective conscience and lives of an entire community of people, are emblematic of an unfounded ignorance and fear all too prevalent at a time when action and support were desperately needed.

 The equation of men having sex with other men and AIDS is decades old. AIDS was introduced to the world as a “gay cancer” and rapidly became the “gay plague.” Knowledge and support were replaced by misinformation and abandonment. The thought that AIDS could be found outside the Queer community was an impossibility. AIDS was a disease that only affected men who had sex with other men (homosexuals and bisexuals). So permeated was this misinformation, that police officers “had to don masks and gloves when dealing with homosexual lawbreakers” for fear of spreading this new “cancer” and landlords “had to” evict those infected from their properties.[2]Subsequently, to Buchanan and his comrades, homosexuals were no longer simply a moral menace; they were now a public health one as well. Our community was no longer a moral corruptor; we were now corruptors of the body. We alone were responsible for the creation and transmission of a violent and lethal new plague. 

It would take almost two decades for this plague to be “controlled” both medically and narratively. In Canada alone, from the early days of this epidemic (1981) to 2014, HIV/AIDS would cause the death of 26,000 people.[3]For perspective, that figure accounts for more than 50% of Canadian casualties during the Second World War. Individuals who survived these dark days talk of losing entire friend groups before effective treatment became available. For a very long time, a “positive” diagnosis was a death sentence. These were dangerous and frightening times for gay and bisexual men. Despite this, the Queer community during the 1980s and 1990s is truly something to be marvelled. “Gay men stared their mortality in the face, concluded that they had little to lose, that silence equalled death and they made a giant collective leap out of the closet.”[4]The world could no longer ignore and discredit our existence. The movement fought back, took control of public discussion and made their voices heard. It seems quite twisted to list positive or strengthening consequences from such a destructive and traumatic reality, but such is our strength and history.

Fear is a powerful thing indeed. The stigma of HIV/AIDS continues to loom over the Queer community (gay and bisexual men in particular) like a thunderstorm. The equation of AIDS = Gay may not be as pervasive and widespread as it once was, science has progressed to disprove the myth, but its’ whispers remain in the corners of the Canadian psyche. Ironically, science is currently being used to solidify the legacy of this equation in a very specific and impactful area. In May 2019, the Canadian Minister of Health announced that Health Canada had approved a request to reduce the deferral period for blood donations from men who have sex with other men (MSM) from one year to three months.[5]This latest amendment to these regulations is the last in a long line of change. Until 2013, MSM donors who had engaged in sexual activity after 1977 would never be able to donate blood; a lifetime deferral period (ban) on the blood of gay and bisexual men with active sex lives. In 2013, the deferral period was reduced to five years and then finally to one year in 2016. [6]The Minister’s statement takes a joyful, “tap on the back” tone. Look at us! Your federal government is a great equalizer, a force of liberation and emancipation! The reality of this three-month ban is that it continues to propagate the stigma and myths that were so very characteristic of my community in the heart of the AIDS epidemic. 

The Canadian Blood Services website allows one to determine their eligibility for blood donations. Under the subtitle “HIV/AIDS,” it outlines activities that put individuals at high risk of acquiring the disease. Included, are people who have taken money or drugs for sex since 1977, a person who has used intravenous street drugs, and finally, an entire paragraph on MSM, which states: “learn more about our policy on HIV/AIDS risk-related activities reading our Men Who Have Sex with Men info page.”[7]Omitting the complete disregard for the validity of safe and consensual sex work, and the typo in the phrase, the website makes a direct connection between HIV/AIDS and MSM. Why is the default: AIDS = Gay men? Enter the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and the homophobic rhetoric it fostered, stage right. 

In my past, I have had this debate with classmates and friends numerous times. I would express my disdain and disappointment in my not being able to donate blood because of some decades-old stigma. In response, I encountered the time-honoured line “Well, is it not true that gays have HIV/AIDS more than straight people?” The reality is that this statement has been historically true. In 2017, 46.4% of newly reported adult cases of HIV/AIDS in Canada were indeed MSM. In comparison, 28.7% of cases were representative of heterosexual contact while 16.3% were individuals who inject drugs. [8]It greatly disturbs me that instead of including these alternate groups in conversations about the transmission of HIV/AIDS, the default remains the same as that present during the AIDS epidemic. Additionally, no one seems to be discussing the fact that because of this traumatic legacy, gay and bisexual men are more likely to be tested regularly.[9]Increased testing inevitably leads to greater awareness of one’s sexual health. Individuals of any sexual orientation who seldom get tested, or have never been tested, have absolutely no idea of their HIV status, rendering the required questionnaire completely useless. HIV-negative gay or bisexual men are increasingly using PrEP and more men living with HIV have undetectable viral loads. Undetectable really does mean Untransmittable, people. 

Perhaps the most important facet to this issue is the fact that Canadian Blood Services tests every single blood donation they receive! The contamination of the blood supply by any kind of contagion is, understandably, a fear and the reason for these rigorous testing processes. No one can deny the negative and potentially lethal consequences of such an occurrence. However, if every sample of blood is tested, why then the necessity for a three month deferral period for MSM? The answer is something called “the window period,” which refers to the time between donor exposure to HIV and the ability of a blood test to detect antibodies to the virus.[10]Many may think that this window period is the reason for a three-month deferral period, an assumption that would be false. The window period lasts approximately nine days, according to Canadian Blood Services. Seemingly, scientific capacity is limited in its ability to detect antibodies of HIV earlier than within a nine-day period. Until the window period is eliminated by scientific innovation, it may very well be necessary for a deferral period to exist. The issue with this thought is two-fold. First, is that deferral periods for HIV/AIDS are only imposed on MSM and not everyone with an active sex life, and second, that these deferral periods greatly exceed the nine-day window period.

While I may not be able to speak to this experience personally, I would be remiss not to mention Canadian Blood Services’ policies concerning the transgender community. The eligibility of these donors is dependent on whether or not each individual has undergone lower gender-affirming surgery. Individuals who have undergone surgery are deferred from donating blood for three months once the surgery is performed, at which point they will be “screened in their affirmed gender,” while those who have not are considered based only on their sex at birth.[11]Put simply, Canadian Blood Services does not take into account an individual’s gender identity unless their biology, specifically their genitals, match that identity. In 2018, Jack Biamonte, a transgender man, came face to face with these policies. Upon discovering Biamonte had not undergone the “required” surgery, staff informed him he would be forced to answer questions concerning pregnancies and sexual activity with men who had sex with other men, based on his sex at birth.[12]Similarly, transgender women blood donors who have not had lower gender-affirming surgery and are sexually active with a male partner are considered higher risks for HIV/AIDS transmission.[13]Canadian Blood Services thus force potential blood donors belonging to the transgender community into unnecessary, invasive and potentially dangerous situations.

Disease does not discriminate. The transmission of HIV/AIDS is NOT confined to men who have sex with men. The link between the archaic notion that men who have sex with other men are the only possible vehicles of HIV/AIDS transmission through sexual activity and the current deferral periods for blood donations is a direct result of the fear and misinformation that characterized the AIDS crisis. Under Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services current three-month deferral period, I am one of the thousands of Canadians who are unable to donate blood. Not because I am a sure risk of HIV/AIDS transmission, but because decades ago, people like Patrick Buchanan decided to victimize my community, one that was fighting to survive. It is time for an end to the blood ban.

Zach F. is an active community member and writer for the 16 Days Campaign by IIWR-Mb. 

If you are interested in getting involved – check out the NDP End the Blood Ban Petition and Unifor End the Blood Ban Petition. As well, share our calls to actions today on social media and donate to organizations working to support those living with HIV/AIDS such as the Canadian Aids Society.

[1]“The Gay Revolution, The Story of the Struggle”. Lillian Faderman. 2015. p.416

[2]Ibid, 416.


[4]“The Gay Revolution” p.440.