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An Outdated Policy?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.
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?