Motivation of Canadian Blood Services' olive branch to Calgary gay community questioned
Agency’s first appearance at Calgary Pride hopes to generate conversations but donation ban still contentious
Canadian Blood Services (CBS) says its first ever participation at Calgary Pride is meant to start a conversation and reduce misunderstandings of its policy prohibiting sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood.
But a sexual health worker says without changes to that policy, the gesture is lip service at best.
A Calgary spokesperson says while CBS has participated in Pride events in other cities, this will be a first for Calgary Pride and it's about starting a dialogue.
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"We really wanted to have the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with individuals about our current policy, answer any questions they may have and clear up any misconceptions they may have about that as well," Susan Matsumoto told CBC News Thursday.
Canadian Blood Services currently will not accept blood from a man who has had sex with another man in the last year. That policy went into effect in June 2016. Prior to that, a five-year deferral period had been in place since 2013 and for 35 years before that, the ban was permanent, without any deferral period.
CBS, which takes guidance from Health Canada, says the ban is justified based on science, and an Ontario Superior Court ruling backed that up in 2010.
"Men who have sex with men account for the largest proportion of new HIV infections reported in Canada," the agency has said.
Matsumoto says donation eligibility is focused on groups of people, not individuals, and men who have sex with men are only one group.
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"We are constantly evaluating our eligibility criteria, so for instance, if you spent a certain time in Great Britain you wouldn't be eligible. We do have to look at groups of people when we look at our screening criteria," she explained.
That, however, is cold comfort to a Calgary sexual health worker.
"I feel like it's discrimination because no other community is subjected to that and if someone is donating blood, that blood is going to be screened to ensure that it is safe for people to use, regardless of who the person is donating it, regardless of their race, gender, orientation," said Blake Spence, a program manager with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.
"I think everyone should be treated equally and one community is not being treated equally when it comes to blood donations and that is discrimination."
Spence says the presence of CBS's booths in the marketplace section of Calgary Pride's Pride in the Park event on Sunday raises questions that may be uncomfortable.
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"I am curious as to what their motivation is," he said.
"Because I imagine they are going to be met with some hostility by some folks in the community, that would be my guess. If they just want to give it lip service … well, you can give something lip service but your actions actually show that you are doing something and right now I feel like their actions are not showing that they are supporting the community."
Matsumoto, meanwhile, says federal funds have been made available for research through grants to interested organizations and that could lead to a change in policy.
"We are hoping to have information where we can further advance our current policy around men who have sex with men and looking at alternate approaches of how we screen," Matsumoto said.
But until that time, Spence says the existing policy will continue to stigmatize the gay community.
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"I see that there is a need for blood services and every time I see an ad pop up, it triggers something in me," he said.
"You know what? I would love to [donate], but I am not allowed based upon who I am. I would guess that many other people share that same sentiment and it feels that we are being targeted or discriminated against based upon assumptions, based upon stigma. That really doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
With files from CBC's Kate Adach