New blood donation policy still targets queer men and trans women, advocates argue

Many members of Canada’s LGBTQ2S + community celebrated when Health Canada announced that it would finally be ending the nation’s discriminatory ban on donations from men who have sex with men. Christopher Karas felt only sadness and exhaustion.

“I felt so tired, I cried,” recalled Karas, who brought a human rights complaint against Health Canada in 2016, alleging that the ban discriminated against queer men like him based on sexual orientation.

When Karas first made his complaint to the Human Rights Commission in 2016, the period for which gay men were required to be celibate before donating blood was one year. With the new policy, that time has been reduced to three months.

“It’s just taken such a toll on me, taking so much of my strength,” Karas explained. “And we still don’t have the end of the policy, the policy still will continue.”

“I was hoping they would finally end the policy, as they had promised many times before, but again, they failed to do that,” Karas said. “They failed to keep their promise.”

Even with the new change in policy, Karas himself would still be barred from donating blood for being a sexually active gay man.

Even worse, Karas argues, rather than ending the discrimination, the new policy is more egregious than it was before, as the new questionnaire for would-be donors is more invasive and makes queer sex seem inherently suspect.

“This new policy is now blatantly saying that queer sex is wrong,” Karas said. “That [queer sex] is the reason why you should be excluded, why you should be treated differently. ”

Anal intercourse has higher HIV risk: Health Canada

Under the new policy, gay and bisexual men and transgender women will still be barred from donating blood, simply for being sexually active and queer, regardless of their medical history or safe sex practices.

When contacted by The Hill Times for an explanation of the scientific basis behind the new policy and donor questionnaire, and the timeline for further changes to the policy, Health Canada wrote that “some sexual behaviors carry a much higher risk of HIV transmission than others.”

“Many studies have looked at HIV trends across all individuals (including heterosexual and LGBTQ2S + groups) and have consistently reported that anal intercourse carries a higher risk of HIV transmission when compared to other sexual behaviors such as vaginal and oral intercourse,” the statement continued. “The new risk ‑ based sexual behavior ‑ screening questions have been informed by the latest scientific research. The questions have been shown to successfully screen out potential donors who have an increased risk for transmission of HIV. ”

Canadian Blood Services did not respond by publishing deadline.

Karas argued that Canadian Blood Services, was “trans-misogynistic” since CBS still categorizes transgender donors by their gender assigned at birth.

In comparison, individuals who practice vaginal sex with a new partner or multiple partners will be allowed to donate, while individuals who practice anal sex — under the same conditions — will not be able to donate.

“They’ve only made a change in the language, a change in form in how they target us,” Karas said.

Karas’ lawyer, Gregory Ko, a partner with the Toronto firm Kastner Lam who represented Karas during his human rights complaint, argues that the new policy still maintains a distinction based on sexual orientation.

“The policy also excludes a number of gay, bisexual and queer men who engage in safe sexual practices, such as [wearing] a condom or the use of prophylactics, who likely pose no further risk to the blood supply, given the rigorous testing undertaken for all blood donations, ”Ko added.

‘Vast majority’ of queer men and trans women still barred from donating, advocates

The new policy has been championed by Liberals and members of the LGBTQ2S + community. In an April 28 press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the move a “significant milestone for moving forward on both the safety of our blood supply, but also, non-discriminatory blood practices.”

Flanked by Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos (Quebec, Que), and gay and lesbian-identifying Liberal MPs including Randy Boissonnault (Edmonton Center, Alta.) And Robert Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.), Trudeau said the decision was based on a “thorough assessment of evidence,” but that the move had been a “long time coming.”

Minister of Tourism Randy Boissonnault speaks at a press conference in West Block on April 28, 2022, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Health Canada’s approval of a Canadian Blood Services’ policy change to eliminate the three-month donor deferral period for gay and bisexual men and other LGBTQ2S + community members. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

Dane Griffiths, the director of the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance (GMSH), said the new policy will still discriminate against the “vast majority of gay and bisexual men” who will still not be able to donate, as well as further increasing the stigma surrounding queer sex, specifically regarding HIV / AIDS.

“The community was told that this was going to be an evidence-based policy shift, but there are several areas in which that isn’t the case,” Griffiths explained.

The GMSH is an organization that works in community-based HIV prevention, treatment and care, as well as educational work across the province, informing citizens about the current realities of HIV for gay and bisexual men.

“We promote the use of tools that have gone a long way in ensuring the health of people living with HIV and in preventing HIV in our communities,” Griffiths said. “And this policy completely ignores all of those advancements.”

Griffiths said he also found the comments from CBS regarding the use of PrEP “disturbing” as it implied that men who took the drug used to prevent the sexual transmission of the HIV virus were instead at a greater potential to spread the virus through their donations.

“It undermines several years of significant work to address HIV in a community that is still very disproportionately impacted.”

While Griffiths said that the initial announcement of the new policy may have seemed encouraging, creating headlines and allowing the Liberals to claim they had finally kept their election promise from 2016, the “devil is always in the details.”

“Initially we saw a lot of folks giving a lot of praise for the changes, but now ourselves and many folks in the community are asking, ‘what’s the next phase?'” Griffiths said. “Is this really it?”

One of the first to criticize the government’s new policy was Conservative MP Eric Duncan (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Ont.), Who had been a vocal opponent of the ban and critic of the government’s delays in taking the action, and who is gay.

He said he is also curious about what comes next, and if the Liberals truly believe that the job is done.

“What continues to frustrate me is the overly bureaucratic and slow-as-molasses approach, from start to conclusion, of some of these fundamental questions,” Duncan said. “These aren’t new questions, but there’s no timelines, no details, and no plans on how they’re going to address some of these outstanding questions.”

Duncan added that Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services have known for several years about those questions, including around how to deal with potential donors who are HIV positive but have undetectable viral loads, or those who are sexually active but are using PrEP, a form of medication that can prevent the transmission of HIV if used properly.

“Where’s the research? Where’s the timing for the next steps? What further research can be done to lower the waiting period? ” Duncan added, referring to the difference between the nine-15 days before the HIV is detectable after infection, and the 30-day waiting period queer men and trans women still need to wait before donating blood after sexual intercourse.

‘Important step for inclusivity,’ but fight against discrimination ‘not over’

In a statement to The Hill Times in response to the criticisms of the new donation questionnaire, Boissonnault said that the new policy means that “people like me, like my partner David, like other people in our social circle, are all now able to contribute as community members and fellow citizens in an intimate and vital public health effort.”

“Let me be even more clear, though — this does not mean we have finished the fight against discrimination of any kind. LGBTQ2S + communities continue to face greater health precarity, including access and treatment, and stigma continues to negatively impact individuals living with HIV or AIDS, ”Boissonnault added. “Our government remains committed to supporting blood and plasma donation policies in Canada that are safe, non-discriminatory and scientifically based.”

[email protected]

The Hill Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.