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'Donating blood can save someone's life' – Highland LGBTQ+ magazine editor encourages gay and bisexual men to give blood after rule change

By Andrew Henderson

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For a long time, gay and bisexual men were not legally allowed to give blood.

The rules around men who have sex with men donating blood have changed several times throughout the last 40 years or so. Picture: James Mackenzie
The rules around men who have sex with men donating blood have changed several times throughout the last 40 years or so. Picture: James Mackenzie

In 1980, with the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis, all men who have sex with men were placed under a lifetime ban from donating blood in the United Kingdom – a total ban that lasted in England, Wales and Scotland until 2011.

At that point – and in 2016 in Northern Ireland – the lifetime ban was replaced. Instead of the blanket restriction, men who have sex with men had to wait for one year after being sexually active.

Still, decades on from the height of the HIV crisis, the restrictions were met with criticism due to the different standards gay couples and straight couples were being held to.

For some who had been donating blood before the 1980 ban, like Highland LGBTQ+ magazine UnDividing Lines editor Kevin Crowe, it was an inconsistency that became increasingly glaring as time went on.

"I began donating blood in the late 1960s," Crowe recalled.

"I was a member of the engineering trade union at the time and a friend I met at a union branch meeting donated blood and suggested I do the same. Despite hating needles, it seemed like the right thing to do.

"I worked as a labourer in a foundry at the time, and I'd seen someone rushed to hospital after an accident. I was later told a blood transfusion saved his life.

"I was a bit nervous the first time, but the process was easy and I got in the habit of donating blood every six months. I moved around a lot when I was young and I actually made friends through meeting people when donating blood.

"At first (the ban) wasn't an issue. Given that gay and bisexual men were one of the groups that were initially most affected, it was probably a sensible precaution at the time.

"In the late 1980s I became involved in voluntary HIV/AIDS work in both educational and caring settings, later being employed by social service departments. The more we began to know about transmission, the clearer it became that it wasn't being gay or straight that created the risk, but the sort of behaviour people were engaged in.

"Heterosexuals who had unprotected sex were also capable of passing on HIV or becoming infected themselves. At a time when prejudice and discrimination against gay men was increasing as a result of 'gay plague' headlines and with the UK government introducing Section 28, it seemed to many of us that the ban on us donating blood was another example of institutional homophobia. However, at the time we had more urgent things to campaign about.

"It really struck home when I began a monogamous relationship in 1990 – a relationship that continues to this day.

"It annoyed me that whereas even the most promiscuous heterosexual could still donate blood, gay men in monogamous relationships were still banned. As over time, we knew ever more about HIV and as effective treatments were developed, this ban seemed even more ridiculous."

Finally, the rules for men who have sex with men were brought in line with every other donor in 2021.

Although some restrictions remain in place for those on certain types of medication, now they can donate blood without any waiting periods – provided that they, like every donor, are monogamous, practice safe sex and are completely honest on the registration forms.

For Crowe, it has come too late. Illness and the treatment he requires disqualifies him from donating now, but he would encourage other gay and bisexual men who can donate blood to do so.

Author and UnDividing Lines editor Kevin Crowe.
Author and UnDividing Lines editor Kevin Crowe.

"By the time the rules were changed again, I was unable to donate blood because of medication I was on for a number of health issues," Crowe said.

"Although a bit frustrating, it wasn't really an issue for me as being unable to donate blood now had nothing to do with my sexuality and there were sound medical reasons why my blood could not be used.

"I am just pleased that people's sexuality is no longer a bar to donating blood and I would encourage anyone who can to do so.

"There is a shortage of blood for transfusions and donating blood can save someone's life, it could even at some stage save the life of the donor. Just imagine a loved one dying in a hospital bed because of the lack of blood then get yourself to the nearest donation centre!"

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