Blood Donation: Queer Men Still Facing Restrictions

LGBTQIA2+ Blood Donation Advocates Underwhelmed by Recent Reforms

Despite facing blood shortages, blood donations are still uninclusive. Graphic Micha Paradis.

In April 2022, Canadian Blood Services announced it would remove its policy deferring sexually active, gay men from donating blood for three months from their last sexual encounter.

Instead, an individual risk-based screening was implemented in September 2022 and went into effect throughout Canada. Quebec was the last province to adopt this new policy. 

According to Laurent Paul Ménard, public relations director of Héma-Québec, “the objective is to maintain the same very high level of safety of blood products while being more inclusive.”

Héma-Quebec followed in CBS’ footsteps and, as of Oct. 2, 2022, switched to an individual risk-based evaluation that is to be filled out by every potential donor regardless of their sex, gender or sexual orientation.

“Eligibility for blood, platelets and plasma donations is now based on an individual at-risk behaviour evaluation rather than a population-based evaluation,” read Héma-Quebec’s website. “With this new approach, each person wishing to donate blood products, regardless of sex, gender or sexual orientation, is asked new questions aimed at at-risk sexual behaviours."

In contrast, the older model solely screened gay, trans and bi men, who were considered high-risk applicants. Agencies anticipated these populations to have higher rates of HIV, hepatitis B and C. 

The new screening asks potential donors if they have had a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners in the previous three months. If yes, they must declare if the sexual act was anal sex. If it was not, the donor is still free to donate as long as they qualify for other usual criteria. If the potential donor did partake in anal sex with one or more new partners, they are excluded from donating for another three months. 

However, if a donor has been with the same partner for longer than three months, they are permitted to donate—one of the first policies allowing men who have sex with men to donate blood while being sexually active since the 1970s.

Christopher Karas, an LGBTQIA2+ activist who is not only vocal about this topic, but also filed a human rights complaint against CBS in 2016 for their discriminatory policy, sees an error in CBS’ allegedly inclusive approach to its new evaluation process.

Karas' interest in blood donation inequality began in high school when he realized he could not donate blood. "I knew I wouldn't be able to do this thing that so many others do, and that helps people. I wanted to be able to do that, too," he said.

Karas recalled an early attempt to donate blood: "I went there, you know, prepared. I had my [negative STI] test results in hand, and that wasn't enough." 

The blood donation clinic worker gave him a pamphlet informing him why he was being turned away. At the time—2013 to 2016–the deferral period was set at five years, meaning Karas or any MSM could not have sex for an unbroken five years to be considered eligible.

"They've continued their decade-old policy just in a new form," said Karas. "It's not fair for them to just categorically exclude donors as they have, and they continue to do that."

Karas compared CBS’ new screening to the one he dealt with previously. He views them as pragmatically similar since those partaking in anal sex will have to remain abstinent for a deferral period—unless in a monogamous relationship—to be allowed to donate.

"Who knows how long it will take to have a full three months of abstinence?" added Karas.

He pointed out a margin of error, as the revised policy still restricts MSM who are not in a monogamous relationship from donating. Regardless if the questionnaire is presented to all potential donors, questions about anal sex continue to target the MSM community.

“My hope is that we do see the end of these policies,” Karas said. “I think there’s still potential for us to review alternatives.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 9, published January 10, 2023.