My blood type is MSM – RVA artist aims to highlight blood donation stigma on gay men
Across the country on December 21, 2015, gay and bisexual men woke up to the news that the Food and Drug Administration had lifted a longtime ban on blood donation from men who have sex with men (MSM). However, that excitement was short-lived. The retracted ban came with a restriction: MSMs would have to be celibate for a twelve-month period prior to donation.
The barring of MSMs from donating blood had been in place since 1983 when the FDA instituted a ban to prevent patients receiving transfusions from contracting HIV. However, many activists and self-described MSMs feel that strides have been made in the 33 years since and the continued restrictions are unnecessary. One such individual is recent VCU graduate Connor Shumaker.
Shumaker is a former VCU Arts student who specialized in textile work. As part of one of his final projects, Shumaker created a series entitled “Twelve Months,” inspired by his personal experiences with blood donation.
“The FDA and big organizations like that follow social norms and being homophobic seems to be a social norm at this point,” Shumaker stated.
Initially, the project consisted of a sports bra and jockstrap with the words “Twelve Months” on the bands, a coat lined with a pattern resembling red blood cells, and a modified chair.
The chair contained an open drawer on the side to store the bra and jockstrap. When the coat was draped on the back of the chair, one’s eyes were immediately drawn to the words written on the seat: “On December 21, 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration changed the blood donation criteria for men who have sex with men (MSM) from a lifetime deferral to a one-year deferral. In short, the lifetime ban has been lifted — as long as these men are celibate for a twelve-month period before donating.”
“As an artist, I think we should talk about things that are important to us and that affect our lives,” Shumaker explained. “The FDA saying that we have to wait twelve months after having sex to donate blood is just another way to shame us, another way to shame queer sexuality.”
The response to Shumaker’s first project was largely positive, and helped to inform others about the inequality being perpetuated by the FDA.
“A lot of queer men that I talk to don’t know that they can’t donate blood,” Shumaker highlighted. “A lot of my straight peers didn’t know either because this isn’t an issue that affects them directly.”
Shumaker didn’t stop with the chair and despite graduating, he continued this work with a second project. This ongoing project involves what is essentially a lab coat covered in patches that resemble blood bags with each bag containing a portrait of an MSM and the words “The Blood Type is MSM”.
The portraits are all volunteers who offered their faces to support the cause. So far Shumaker has made 36 patches, enough to create a substantially larger lab coat. Though big already, Shumaker has no plans to stop the coat’s growth.
“I would like to continue going. I think the coat needs to continue growing.”
Recently, Shumaker has been taking the portraits and reprinting them onto canvas and turning them into bean bags that resemble bags of blood. One side of the bag is a portrait of the queer man, and the other contains the Virginia Blood Drive’s Slogan “Someone’s Life Depends on You” as well as “Find Us at MSM Red Cross.”
“Each one is going to weigh the same as a pint of blood and to be able to see a whole pile of these blood bags — these men — I think will be impactful,” declared Shumaker.
In the wake of the Pulse shooting this past summer, gay men in Orlando were still prevented from donating despite the intense need. Shumaker saw the shooting as a direct attack on his community and the continued ban on blood donation further outraged Shumaker and made his project all the more relevant.
“Since the shooting, I’ve seen a lot more articles being shared about the FDA’s criteria for MSMs and people are outraged,” Shumaker asserted. “With it still being in place after something like this, that we can’t even help our community, [it] hurts.”
While there’s an emotional history behind MSM blood donation, there’s also a practical reason for the restriction.
The FDA requires a twelve month deferral period for donating for those who leave the country and for people who get tattoos as well. This is done in accordance with the precautionary principle to make sure the donated blood is free of disease of pathogen.
“If there’s any risk that something bad can happen from a unit of blood, we’re going to take the most conservative approach we can,” explained Susan Roseff, MD, a VCU Professor of Pathology as well as a board member of the Association of Blood Banks. “So if the ban changed and someone contracted HIV and it turned out the donor was someone who fell into a high-risk category, there would be an outcry and the ban would probably come back more severe.”
People deemed to be at high-risk for infection are given a year deferral period even though for many of the viruses, such as HIV, the window of infection is much shorter.
“The window period is closer to ten days, but that’s an average window period. There’s still concern that they’ll have people whose biology is not the average,” Roseff clarified. “There’s so much concern and history in how the blood manufacturers reacted to HIV. There was a lot of blame and concern that the blood industry was not conservative enough.”
Another contributing factor to the deferral length is the window of accuracy for serological testing. The FDA requires all blood they receive be tested via an ELISA test which identifies the HIV antibody or antigen created as part of the immune response. Serological tests are a less sensitive but cheaper method of detecting HIV as opposed to the more accurate nucleic acid tests, which can detect HIV within ten days of contraction.
According to Roseff, the expense of nucleic acid tests has prevented many smaller donation centers from acquiring the systems.
“They’re [The FDA] looking at window not from the nucleic acid test, which is ten days, but from the serologic test which is much longer,” Roseff interpreted. “However, it’s still not a year.”
Roseff, who was against the lifetime ban on MSMs, believes that the deferral period is a step in the right direction and with further research, the twelve months would likely be shortened.
The FDA recently announced plans to reevaluate its ban on MSM donation and put out a call for public comment on the issue. The forum for public comment will close on November 25, 2016, and its presumed the FDA will announce any revisions to their policy soon afterward.
Tyler Hammel is a college student who has an unhealthy obsession with comic books. He’s a proud cinephile, owning a sizable film collection that lets you know he doesn't have any friends. An aspiring filmmaker, Tyler currently works with the VCU student organization The Horn RVA, a group of like-minded video journalists with a passion for Richmond based music. When not crafting his own bio Tyler can be found misusing commas,
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