Rainbow Blood Donor Clinic

UPDATE: June, 2015

Because of the work I put into the Rainbow Clinic, NetCAD has nominated for an award.  I was selected, and am to represent BC and Yukon at the Honouring Our Lifeblood even in Ottawa!  I feel very honoured :)

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UPDATE: April 27th, 2015

I went back to NetCAD today to do my usual donation, my 13th donation to be exact.  While I was there, I was informed that donors have continued to come in because of seeing the Rainbow Donor Clinic in the media, and that “everyone has been very lovely.”  Several people have since returned for their 2nd donations, which is great to hear.  The community has been engaged.

My Grindr profile continues to say “I donate blood at Canadian Blood Services’ research lab, NetCAD. Ask me more.”  This continues to be polarizing.  As I was sitting in the clinic today, someone was messaging me about the discrimination based on orientation, that CBS must “do some grovelling” and that the community must defend itself.  He goes on to say that my “passivity is the death knell for gay culture.” – As you can see, some people still choose to sit in anger and frustration… others have shifted perspectives, made acknowledgements and started to do what they can while waiting.  You cannot win them all.  Viewing this campaign as “passive” is blatant ignorance.  This, my friends, is “action.”

Coincidentally, as I was waiting to donate at the clinic, a Thank You letter arrived for me.  No need to mail it to me, I was right there! Perfect timing.  This letter comes from the CEO of Canadian Blood Services, Graham Sher, and the Chief Medical & Scientific Officer, Dana Divine.  This is what it says:

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To me, this Donor Clinic was, and continues to be, a success.  I am super grateful for the support and the response.  If you have not yet done so, book an appointment to donate at NetCAD.  It all starts with research and development.

Thanks.

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Original Post:

Why a Rainbow Blood Donor Clinic?  The common question that people keep asking me.  I hope that here I will be able to clarify my reasons and articulate my intent.  Each journalist I have spoken with has reduced my story to a meagre selection of quotes, scattering them amongst his or her article or broadcast.  I do not think anyone has heard, thoroughly, what it is that has driven me to initiate yesterday’s event.  Here we go:

  1. I got tired of hearing “I cannot donate blood because I am gay.” –  Ok, so this is a blatant misunderstanding.  Not once does Canadian Blood Services (CBS) say, “We will not take blood from anyone who identifies as gay.”  One’s identity is very different from his or her activities or behaviours.  You are not deferred from giving blood because you are gay, you are deferred because you are, probably, a man who has had sex with another man (MSM) in the last 5 years.  This, to me, is an important distinction. Conflating identity and deferral is misleading.  A man who identifies as “straight,” and who has sex with another man at least once in the last 5 years, would also be deferred.  In fact, currently there are men who identify as “gay” and are currently contributing to the blood pool that is used for transfusion.  Bottom line, gay men ARE able to donate blood, however, they may be deferred for a number of reasons based on the level of risk within their life.
  2. I wanted to create a space for dialogue, fact-finding and the clarification of misunderstandings. – It is time to change the dialogue.  There are many upset people in the gay community and whenever this conversation rises it is clear to me that resentment and anger are major players.  I have held onto that anger myself, for many years – I get it.  I also hear A LOT of questions, often weighted in passion and emotion, about the MSM policy, why it isn’t changing, why heterosexual anal sex isn’t grounds for deferral, why it isn’t based on science, why monogamous gay couples are ineligible, and on and on. This event provided a unique opportunity to be in the company of blood scientists, members of the blood recipient groups, CBS staff from Ottawa and Vancouver and other LGBTQ community members.  It allowed a space to directly ask these important questions to the men and women with the answers.  If you had a problem or a complaint… you had the chance to bring it forward.  Stewing in it, and perpetuating anger and misunderstandings, it not at all helpful.
  3. I thought that men who are deferred should learn about other ways that they can save lives, in the meantime. – It is my belief that the conversation around the MSM policy controversy has reached saturation.  This is a global conversation, and an international concern.  Health Canada and CBS are more than aware of the need to reevaluate the policy, and CBS is in the process of compiling data since the 2013 Policy Change, when we moved from a lifetime deferral to a 5 year abstinence restriction. So, until we go back to the drawing board, what can we do today? How can we be helpful today, while waiting for tomorrow’s possibilities? This is a driving force that brings me to NetCAD to donate.  Donations that are given at NetCAD are used for research and development and this has the potential to save millions of lives through some advancement in blood science.  You never know.  Also, MSM men are still able to participate in CBS’s OneMatch program, in fact, yesterday I provided my DNA to CBS and am now a potential stem cell donor for someone who may need it.  DNA matches are not as easy to come by as one’s type of blood, and it is important to continue growing the DNA donor bank.
  4. I wanted to show Health Canada and CBS that we, the gay, MSM community, are healthy and interested in giving back to our communities by making blood donations. –  I wanted to make it clear that we are here, ready and willing.  I feel that it is important to emphasize our utility.
  5. I wanted to tackle an old issue in a new way, and, in the long run, affecting changes in the Policy. – I am not fond of the current MSM policy, and trust me when I say I have my complaints; I feel that the whole approach to screening and deferrals should be adjusted.  I, along with many of the deferred men, want this policy out the window.  While I understand the policy, its history, its necessity and its gravity for recipients, it is very clear to me that it is insufficient.  Learning about science and research projects, talking with others, and doing whatever else I have said thus far is not targeting the MSM Policy directly, but it is making people talk, it is showing our interest and it is beginning to rebuild the tattered relationship that exists between CBS and many gay men, and this, readers, may alter or impact policy at a national level.    

Why Me?  My story is like many.  I went to donate, I didn’t pass the questionnaire, and I was asked to leave.  I was not given any supportive information or provided other options; it was a feeling of shame and rejection. That was 12 years ago.  Since then I have written articles, participated in focus groups in Ottawa prior to the policy change and have deeply researched this policy within Canada but also in an international context.  This Rainbow Clinic is another stop on my journey towards donating blood for transfusion.

My involvement will not end here.  In discussions with many CBS staff yesterday, it became clear to me that I am now part of the history of the MSM Policy and will probably be part of the future of the MSM Policy. Changes do not happen over night, especially on a national level, when lives are at stake.

Responsibility must be taken by the MSM community. Something that I have begun to acknowledge is that over 50% of new HIV cases are within the gay community.  This is a very disproportionate number… Check out this article by Tristin Hopper for more details.  Someone once said to me, “You can’t bitch about that which you allow to happen,” and I believe that it holds true in this case.  Of course, I do not blame the community for the health disaster of the 80s; the history is beside the point.  I am talking about today and moving forward. The gay community must take steps to mitigate the high incidence of HIV.  What is being done on OUR side of the fence to ensure that HIV doesn’t spread further?  I believe that we, as a community in a high risk group, have a duty to ensure, as best we can, that our blood remains free from viruses.  We cannot complain about the policy but disregard the reason why.

How did the Rainbow Clinic turn out?  The day was a huge success!!  NetCAD hit record numbers of donations.  We had some people come with the sole intent to voice opinions and to ask questions, which is awesome! Others came in to learn and to show support or learn their blood types… donating isn’t for everyone, of course.  The whole day was busy and we had many engagements with CBS staff and NetCAD researchers.  People were walking in off the street to donate as well, and we had quite a line up at one point.  The food provided was delicious and, overall, it was a pleasure to spend the day at the clinic.  Surely many of us have a tender arm, but it is worth it!

It has been an incredible journey.  It is amazing to me that out of my fleeting idea, all of this has unfolded.  What if I never sent that original email to NetCAD proposing this collaboration? Let me tell you, I am so glad that I did. Being an active participant in something so unique and momentous will forever remain part of me.  I encourage you to take a stab at your fleeting thoughts, go for them, propose them… you never know how they will be received or where they may go.

I have to say, that Canadian Blood Services has been tremendously supportive of this venture.  Engaging the LGBTQ community was as important to them as it was to me; our interests aligned and we ended up organizing this incredible event.  Perspectives were changed, opinions were changed, information has been gained, and more netCAD donors have been gained.  This is great stuff!

Am I part of the problem?? Really!? I am surprised by some of the comments and opinions that have been thrust my way since this started rolling out.  Members of the gay community have been messaging me with some rather bold comments, suggesting that I am part of the problem and perpetuating homophobia and discrimination.  I imagine that this looks like I am “in bed with the enemy” because many folks are not fans of CBS.  The fact of the matter is, at least I am engaging and trying to do something.  Some people simply want to be angry or stir the pot; they get a sick kick from hoarding resentments.  To those people: “Carry on, for it will have no impact on me.  I know where my intent is, where my heart is, and where my courage is.”

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Here is a list of Media links, in the order in which they hit the public… This Rainbow Blood Clinic has blown the lid off of Canadian media.

January 19th – Vancouver Xtra. “Deferred from giving blood, gay men urged to donate to research” 

January 23rd – Yahoo News. “Vancouver clinic offers sexually active gay men a way to join the blood donor system”

January 27th – 24Hrs Vancouver. “Vancouver clinic encourages gay men to donate blood”

February 2nd – The Globe and Mail. “Vancouver clinic looks to recruit sexually active gay men for blood donations”

February 2nd – Global News. “Rainbow clinic encourages gay men to give blood”

February 3rd – ICI Radio-Canada. “Vancouver: la Societe canadienne du sang accepte les dons d’hommes gais aux fins de recherche”

February 3rd – Straight.com. “Gay men can donate blood for research at Rainbow Clinic”

February 3rd – CBC News BC. “Canadian Blood Services sets up ‘rainbow clinic’ to take donations from gay men”

February 3rd – CBC Radio. “Canadian Blood Services appeals to gay men”

February 3rd – Drex Live. “Soundcloud Clip: Drex Live Tuesday Feb 3 Hour 1 – 26 mins in”

February 4th – CBC Radio. “A 180 on blood donation policy”

February 4th – Huffington Post. “Canadian Blood Services sets up ‘rainbow clinic’ to take donations from gay men”

February 4th – CBC News. “CBC News Vancouver at 6 – 27minutes in”

February 8th – CBC Radio’s “The 180” – “A 180 on blood donation policy” 

April 7th – Outlook TV – “Outlook Channel on Youtube – 12 minutes in”

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