But as I sat in a makeshift Red Cross booth, answering questions that would determine my eligibility to donate, alarm at an emerging pattern crept over me. There were the usual health and travel-related queries: have you left the U.S. in the past twelve months; have you ever had Chagas's disease. Then came a disproportionate number of questions relating to potential HIV infection. After several inquiries about needle use and contact with potential HIV carriers, I was asked: had I ever had sexual intercourse with a man who has had sexual intercourse with another man, even once? Well, no, not that I know of. But then again, so what if I had? Would they turn me away on the spot? Should I have prepared an inventory of all past partners?
I had plenty of time to ponder these questions while sipping my orange juice and waiting for my blood bag to fill. As I sat there, needle in arm, images of the recent AIDS Quilt display on the National Mall drifted through my mind. I had visited the Quilt the week prior and helped fold the patchwork for the night. A young girl read the names of the deceased as I held the worn fabric in my hands -- silk, cotton, wool -- stitched thick with cloth flowers. This 5.4-ton piece of community folk art, the largest in the world, is a living testament to those who survived the years when AIDS was stigmatized and the infected were pariahs. More squares are added each year, thanks to the diligence of the Names Project.
Since 1983, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines have disqualified men who have ever had sex with men (MSM) from donating blood. The policy has been heavily criticized recently for misrepresenting 21st Century scientific realities; and the American Red Cross, alongside senators, universities and other organizations, have called for an updated policy that reflects the realities of modern science and technology.
In talking to friends about my experience, I learned of nation-wide efforts requesting that the FDA update the Red Cross questionnaire. Schools around the country have responded with petitions challenging the legality of the policy and calling on the FDA to change the policy's outdated origins so as to reflect modern science and medical literature on HIV. Both San Jose State University and Southern Oregon University have cancelled campus blood drives in protest. In an example of a collaborative move to influence the FDA, members of the Middlebury Open Queer Alliance engaged the Vermont Red Cross in an open forum in 2008. David Carmichael, head coordinator for the Vermont Red Cross, was a proponent of the forum, which attracted 200 students, faculty, staff, and administrators.
Intending to overcome the acrimony that deters potential donors, Ryan Tauriainen, then Middlebury Alliance president, "hoped the meeting would inspire cooperation between the Red Cross and Middlebury College in order to petition the FDA to rethink its discriminatory policy." Inspired by the University of California, Berkeley's "Sponsor Drive," Middlebury encouraged eligible donors to "sponsor" a gay student by giving blood in his name. Donors were asked to sign a petition to the FDA to lift the ban on MSM donations. The drive's success -- 55 students were sponsored and 140 people signed the petition -- speaks to the enthusiasm behind making the policy more inclusive. Tauriainen created a guide -- "The Middlebury Model: An Educated Approach to Protesting Blood Drives"-- that he hopes will encourage Red Cross-university partnerships across the country in an effort to eliminate the lifelong ban on MSM blood donations.