As a gay man, I couldn't donate blood – until lockdown

I’m 25 and I’ve just given blood for the very first time.

But that’s not to say that I’ve never wanted to give blood in the past. It’s because, as a sexually active gay man, it’s illegal for me to do so – until my circumstances recently changed.

On the way to the clinic, I was a strange sort of nervous because it was a completely unfamiliar experience. Like the first day of a new job.

Arriving on the dot to help social distance between donors, I was screened for coronavirus and led through to the big donation room.

Handed a question sheet and an information brochure, I ticked off the questions as I waited. During my pre-donation assessment, the ‘donor helper’ and I ran through all of my answers – investigating my medication, past operations and holidays.

We also had a deep dive into my coronavirus-enforced abstinence with my boyfriend. He’s 200 miles away and it’s been over three months since I last saw him.

This abstinence meant that I was now eligible to give blood.

According to the NHS website, ‘all men must wait three months after having oral or anal sex with another man before donating.’ This wait is to ‘reduce the risk of any very recently acquired infections not being detected on screening and further tests.’

This restriction is unfair and affects thousands of men like me across the country.

Straight people can largely shag whoever, whenever and still donate blood. However, if a gay, bisexual or queer man does the same, they must wait for three months.

I understand we’re at an increased risk of infection, but if the blood is screened anyway – which it is for syphilis, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Hepatitis E, HIV and first time donors Human T-lymphotropic virus – why the double-standard?

The LGBTQ+ community is more protected than ever from HIV. We have HIV prevention drugs like PrEP, which is a pill you can take to protect you from contracting HIV, and PEP, which is a drug you can take within 72 hours if you think you may have been exposed.

Should I want to donate outside the circumstance of social distancing, I’d be discriminated against just because I happen to sleep with a bloke. Who doesn’t love some systemic homophobia?

During my appointment, a nurse arrived to counsel me and even sympathised about the blood ban.

She said she often had to let other men know they aren’t eligible to donate because of the three-month blood ban. She also has friends who can’t donate for this reason.

The hour-long appointment itself was relatively painless. It only took around five minutes to fill up a pint of my blood and I was free to go.

Refreshments were flowing and there were smiling faces behind the PPE. The trademark care and compassion of the NHS.

Knowing all of this now, I wish I could donate again in the future, but I probably can’t. As soon as I see my boyfriend again as a result of the lockdown easing – and we, er, reconnect – I’ll become ineligible.

Donating blood seems the morally right thing to do – paying it forward in case I ever need blood.

I’ve wanted to donate in the past, having booked an appointment last year. I didn’t fully understand the ban at the time and wasn’t sure which types of sex it included. I read the NHS Blood website again carefully and realised I couldn’t donate, cancelling my appointment.

Asked why I cancelled, I explained I’m gay and realised I didn’t meet all the criteria. They understood and asked me to reconsider if I found I could give blood at a later date.

Some mates have asked why I’m donating when the system continues to discriminate against men who have sex with men.

My donation is a protest. I’ll give blood now because it means so much to me, but the Government must reassess the blood donation ban because it’s outdated and unfair.

Up until 2011, men who have sex with men were completely banned from giving blood. The rules were changed to include a year’s abstinence. Then in 2017, following campaigning from gay rights and health groups, it was reduced to three months.

There has been progress and it feels like the end is in sight. Research is ongoing to lift the ban completely with personal risk assessments about the individual blood donor, rather than entire sexualities.

Anyone currently able to donate, including those who otherwise couldn’t, should book an appointment. Let’s protest together and save a life in the process.

The three-month ban is as a reminder during Pride month that our work is not yet done.

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