Canadian Blood Services apologizes to LGBTQ+ groups for donation ban

Canadian Blood Services apologizes to LGBTQ+ groups for donation ban
Canadian Blood Services says it has issued an apology to LGBTQ+ groups for a past policy that banned gay and bisexual men from donating blood. A blood donor clinic pictured at a shopping mall in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 27, 2020.

Canadian Blood Services says it has apologized to LGBTQ+ groups for a past policy that banned gay and bisexual men from donating blood.

The ban was in place until 2022, when it was replaced by new rules under which all donors are asked the same questions about their sexual behaviour.

The blood-donor service said CEO Graham Sher apologized to LGBTQ+ community members in person at an event in Ottawa Friday morning.

Sher said in a release the group regrets that the policy contributed to discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and HIV stigma.

At an afternoon press conference, Sher said the apology was directed at those who were prevented from donating, the broader LGBTQ+ community, and Canadian Blood Services employees, including those who were put in a position of having to defend the policy to their own communities.

“This is something that we at Canadian Blood Services have been working toward for many years now, and one that many within the (LGBTQ+) community have been waiting for for a long time,” he said.

Egale Canada, which was part of the Canadian Blood Services LGBTQ+ advisory committee, said Friday the apology was a historic moment, but also long overdue.

The group said in a press release the policy “arose out of the fear and scientific ignorance that predominated during the tragic AIDS epidemic and the associated tainted blood crisis of the 1980s.”

“Egale has long been declaring that this is wrong, and advocating for the acknowledgment that a person’s identity does not put them at any greater risk for a sexually transmitted infection, rather, it is their behaviour that determines their risk.”

Sher said about 100 people were at the event to see the apology in-person, including members of the organization’s LGBTQ+ advisory committee.

A spokesperson said those who attended included representatives from municipal Pride organizations, national LGBTQ+ employment networks, organizations focused on HIV/AIDS and health-care centres for trans and gender-diverse people.

SEE ALSO: Health Canada approves nationwide removal of blood donor ban sparked by mad cow fears

The federal Liberal government first promised to lift the ban during the 2015 election campaign, but it took years and $5-million worth of research before the new policy was recommended to Health Canada.

Initial changes to the policy allowed men who have sex with men to give blood if they had not been sexually active for a period of time — starting with five years, then gradually reducing to three months. The policy was scrapped entirely in 2022.

Under its current policy, the organization asks all donors if they have had new or multiple sexual partners within the last three months. Those who report having anal sex with a new partner or multiple sexual partners must wait three months before donating.

Advocates say the new rules are still discriminatory.

Christopher Karas, who is challenging the current policy at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, said while it is now “somewhat gender-neutral,” it still has an adverse effect on men who have sex with men.

Egale agreed the policy has an “ongoing disproportionate impact on queer men.”

At the time of the apology Friday, Karas said he was in a conference call regarding his ongoing challenge of Health Canada and the current policy. It’s an experience he described as “bittersweet.”

He said the rules should apply to all donors the same way, meaning that anyone who has had sex with two or more partners is blocked from donating for three months. “And of course for that to evolve according to the science on that question.”

Egale said there are also other areas for improvement, including on policies requiring nonbinary donors to register as either male or female, and requiring individuals who use PrEP medication to wait four months before donating. PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection.

Sher said there is research underway to try to understand the pharmacology of PrEP and the ability of tests to detect HIV in donors who are taking the medication.

He also said the organization is working on a number of initiatives to address barriers faced by “some trans individuals who currently can’t give because our systems aren’t optimized yet.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2014.

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