Students demonstrate at Red Cross Blood Drive

Last Wednesday October 3rd, several Middlebury students arrived at an American Red Cross Blood Drive sponsored by Atwater Commons with a different agenda than simply giving blood. They wanted to take action in solidarity with those denied the right to give blood because of what many regard as an antiquated FDA policy that indefinitely forbids men who had had sexual contact with men, with someone who has paid for sex, or even with someone born in Africa to give blood.

An Outdated Policy?

This FDA policy is in place to guard against the risk of transmitting HIV virus to blood transfusion recipients. But many experts point out that all transfused blood in America goes through rigorous testing for HIV that is almost completely accurate now thanks to developments in science and technology in the past decades.

Furthermore, the questions asked of donors before they donate blood equate identity categories with high risk sexual behaviors without any direct questioning of actual sexual behavior. For example, a heterosexual male who has frequent unprotected sex with multiple women is able to donate blood without any question. But a gay male in a lifelong  monogamous relationship who always uses protection is not allowed to donate blood because of “high risk” sexual behavior.

This policy has been more widely discussed recently with reports of shortages in blood reserves around the country. Politicians, universities, and even the American Red Cross have called for a reform of the FDA policy.

Middlebury alum Tara Sun Vanacore ’06  wrote an article about this policy that was published last week in the Atlantic magazine. It includes references to action taken by Middlebury students in 2008.

Students Make a Statement

As seen in the video above, individuals at Wednesday’s blood drive, including Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13 and Zac Lounsbury ‘15.5, made a statement by trying to give blood while admitting to having had various kinds of sexual interactions with other males. Some, including Koplinka-Loehr, decided to dress in drag to see if and how that would impact the treatment they received from Red Cross employees. In the end, after discussing the nature of their sexual encounters, some, like Koplinka-Loehr, were allowed to give blood while others, like Lounsbury, were refused indefinitely for their “high risk sexual behavior.”

Although Koplinka-Loehr and others received strange looks in their drag, they were met mostly with respect and gratefulness for offering to donate their blood by everyone working and volunteering at the blood drive.

Buckets of symbolic blood left outside President Leibowitz’s office on the third floor of Old Chapel.

According to Jay Saper ’13, “Even the Red Cross workers and Atwater Commons volunteers present agreed that these policies are inappropriate and lessened the success of blood drives across the country.”

Taking it to Old Chapel

Simultaneously,  Saper and Melian Radu ’13 carried out another action against the FDA policy, called “Blood Dumps,” to pressure the institution of Middlebury to join in the calls for a reformed FDA policy. Those who were denied the right to donate blood and others who supported them symbolically dumped red-dyed water into buckets that Saper and Radu set up in front of signs that described who was discriminated against by the FDA policy.

Organizers then took the buckets of fake “wasted” blood and brought them to Middlebury President Ron Leibowitz’s office hours  where they discussed the FDA policy. According to Saper, Leibowitz agreed with the need for changes in the policy and was receptive to the idea of sending a letter to the FDA commissioner advocating for the reevaluation of the policy with the intent to eliminate any discriminatory practices.

Saper said of the action, “With our ‘blood dump,’ we were making clear what for too long has been swept under the rug: these bans hurt people—donors and recipients. We just want more successful blood drives, and think that Middlebury has a responsibility to leverage its weight nationally by taking a firm and public stance against discrimination and for scientifically backed policies that ensure everyone’s safety and health.”

Saper and Radu encourage people to send an email to Ron Leibowitz urging him to follow through in sending a letter to the FDA.

Note: the posters hung around campus that say, “Fags hate the Red Cross! Kick them off your campus,” are in no way related or connected to the demonstrations described above.

Readers, what do you think of the FDA’s policy? What action do you think Middlebury should take to address the policy, or should it take any action at all? What do you think of the various demonstrations organized and carried our by Midd students surrounding the blood drive and the FDA policy?

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7 thoughts on “Students demonstrate at Red Cross Blood Drive

  1. I’m continually surprised at how many people are completely unaware of this policy. People always think the reason I don’t donate blood is all the time I’ve spent living in China, so that has actually become a good talking point for educating them on this.

    I’d be curious to know exactly why the FDA hasn’t made any screening adjustments though. Lack of funding? Too much red tape? Actual bigotry? Might help pinpoint where to put pressure for change.

    • I refuse to donate blood until the Red Cross changes its policies on allowing men who have had sexual contact with men to donate, and I know a fair number of others who hold the same position. It’s a personal principle, but not a judgement of those who do decide to donate.

  2. My name is Leigh, and I work for the American Red Cross Blood Services; in fact, I was at this very blood drive.

    It is admirable that students take a stand for what is obviously wrong… the rule that males who have had sexual contact with other males is, as you’ve said, antiquated. The FDA seriously needs to update its policies regarding who should be allowed to donate blood. As I understand it, the ARC petitions the FDA annually to allow male donors who have had sexual contact with other males to donate.

    In the video, however, I do feel that there was one inaccuracy that I need to point out, regarding “sexual contact with anyone who was born in or lived in Africa”…it no longer is a question that is asked during the screening. True, it USED to be, but no longer.

    Keep pressuring the FDA to change it’s policies. Be strong, be focused, and be respectful.

  3. Although I do not entirely agree with the means that this protest has been implemented, I AM GLAD to see that this outdated policy is being scrutinized.

    I have been here for almost 4 years now and I have been unable to donate my flawless blood every single time just because I am from Europe. And ironically, I came here from Red Cross Nordic United World College. Why isn’t there a way to be a trusted global citizen who lives outside of his own country but complies with all other FDA’s nuances?

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