For over forty years, the Canadian Federation of Students has connected community builders, student organizers, and grassroots activists around issues that matter the most to students — from calls for free, high-quality, and accessible tuition to building a culture of consent on campuses, and the fight for international students’ and Indigenous learners’ rights. This Pride Month, we’re taking a measured look at Canada’s new blood donation policy and what changes it has in store for the queer and trans communities.
Every minute of every day, someone in Canada depends on life-saving blood. Unfortunately, blood donation has taken an enormous hit amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting countries around the world to pass new legislation for more inclusive and diverse blood supplies. In April 2022, Canada followed suit, announcing a revision to its blood donor screening policy. This new change attempts to take sexual orientation out of the equation and instead focuses on high-risk sexual behaviour.
A history of resistance
Due to growing fears at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1992, Canadian Blood Services (CBS, then the Canadian Red Cross) mandated a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), which also disproportionately impacted the Two-Spirit and trans communities. This continued until 2013, at which point the ban shifted to deferral periods, which have since changed in length.
Throughout this period, students have played a significant role in advocating for queer issues in Canada. In a tweet from former student activist Shannon Salisbury, she recalled her time as a Carleton University student in 1996, where she led an on-campus protest against the blood donation ban. Many years later, Carleton students continue to debate on the issue, with a student association vote in 2012 to uphold the ban on blood clinics on campus that forbid gay men from donating.
In 2015, the newly elected Liberal Government expressed its commitment to finally ending this practice. The same year, the Canadian Federation of Students coordinated consultations with Canadian Blood Services to discuss the shortcomings of the screening procedure, stating that it should be based on behaviours that are scientifically proven to be high-risk for transmitting blood-borne pathogens and not on stereotypes of queer and trans people.
Seven years, $5 million, and countless studies later, beginning September 30, 2022, the new policy will introduce a “sexual behaviour-based donor-screening questionnaire that will apply to all blood and plasma donors.” If an individual’s behaviour is flagged as high-risk, they will be subjected to a three-month deferral period where they must refrain from such behaviour before being allowed to donate.
What does this mean for queer communities?
In a statement from the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance, the organization calls attention to the “inherent bias” in the questionnaire. While the new policy does not explicitly forbid gay or bisexual sex, sex acts typically linked to gay, bisexual, Two-Spirit, and trans folks are still categorized as high-risk behaviour.
For racialized and underrepresented groups, the new policy once again falls short. Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, blood donation expert and James R. Johnston, Chair in Black Canadian Studies in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University, agrees that the announcement is long overdue.
Pride Month is about joy and resistance
We must celebrate small victories with continued organizing and recognition for the movements that got us here. In a statement from the All Blood is Equal Coalition, the campaign pointed to the work of “Activists, 2SLGBTQ+ organizations, students’ unions and labour unions [who] have long advocated an end to this discriminatory ban.”
Echoing the call from 2SLGBTQ+ activists and organizations for CBS to forefront safe sex practices in its screening policy, the Canadian Federation of Students also calls on CBS to coordinate diverse community consultations of those who have been historically barred from donating blood.
With these changes, Canada’s blood system will be safer, more responsive to potential infections, and draw on a larger pool of donors. And with many students back to in-person classes, they’ll once again have the opportunity to donate to campus blood donation labs. Because really — strengthening Canada’s lifeline shouldn’t be this hard.