Heavy Cross to Bear for Gay Donors

Political activism is often a thankless task. It’s worse when the cause is not just controversial, but shrouded in stigma and shame. Yes, a lot of hard work goes into raising cash for breast cancer research or to send disabled athletes to Beijing, but at least it’s easy to ask your colleagues and friends to donate, and to get VIPs to sign on as patrons to the cause.

Michael Cain is a 26 year-old gay man living in Tasmania who has stuck his head above the parapet to make a stand on an issue of equity and justice. But the battle Cain’s picked is one that not only opens him to scorn and aggression because it reveals his sexual orientation, but of accusations that he is putting his own interests ahead of the public good.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2005, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service refused Michael Cain’s offer to donate blood because he has sex with men. Cain thinks the grounds for this refusal amount to unjust discrimination, and he has taken his case to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. The question he wants the Red Cross to answer is simple. Why, given that he practises safe sex, won’t they let him donate, when the Red Cross leaves the welcome light on for donors who are sexually promiscuous and never come within coo-ee of a condom, as long as they are straight.

It doesn’t make sense. Australia is widely acknowledged as having one of the most intelligent and effective public health strategies to combat the spread of the virus in the world. At the core of our policies is a consistent and clear message about safe sex.

The risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS through the blood supply is negligible, thanks to tests able to determine whether the virus is present. To guard against the teeny, tiny risk that human error could see infected blood mistakenly released into the blood supply, the Red Cross tries to stop donors at risk of HIV/AIDS from holding out their arm in the first place.

Well and good, but the question is: who is at risk of catching HIV/AIDS?

What public health experts have been telling us since the 1980s is that those who have unsafe sex are at risk. What Cain wants the Red Cross to do is screen out only those donors who practice unsafe sex, regardless of the gender of their sexual partners.

In a happy coincidence, screening policies based on the riskiness of sexual activity are both discrimination-free and effective. When Italy switched from a screening policy based on the gender of the sexual partner to one focused on risky behaviours, their transmission rates of HIV through blood donation fell.

Using figures provided by one of the Red Cross’s own witnesses, Cain’s legal team have shown that an Australian donor policy based on safety of sexual activity would see an HIV positive donation from a gay man slip through donor screening and clinical testing once every 5769 years. In other words, never.

Discrimination on the basis of characteristics over which we have no control, and which do not impact on our capacity to do the job, is always wrong. The law does not, and should not, allow it.

The fact that when it comes to blood donation, doing the right thing may make the blood supply safer, and more safe blood available, means change can’t come soon enough.

Publication history

Heavy Cross to Bear for Gay Donors   Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)