From the Archives: The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Bad Blood
This essay was originally published at The Rumpus on April 30, 2017.
Sophomore year of college, on my school’s monthly blood drive day, I was seduced by a sign outside of a Big Red Bus that decreed, “You can be a hero! Donate blood and save three lives today!” The sign was written with hot pink dry eraser marker in cheery, swirly letters as if advertising today’s lunch special: Destiny. Of course. I have always known that I’m destined for greatness—a triumph so epic you could hear my name drifting in the winds if you simply stood still and tuned your ears to history: Edgar Gomez is a hero. Or maybe: Edgar Gomez, the hero. Whichever is easier on the winds.
I had skipped breakfast that morning and wondered if they were offering anything more substantial. On the back, in case being a hero three times over wasn’t enough of a draw, the sign continued: “Free small pizza and movie ticket with every donation.” A small price to pay to save three lives.
Giddy at the arrival of my big break, I climbed aboard the bloodmobile, vibrating with the knowledge that this was finally my chance to prove to everyone what has been so obvious to me my whole life. I had been waiting for a sign for so long, and here it was at last, so satisfyingly literal. Inside, I was promptly greeted by the check-in nurse in the customary heroic way.
“We don’t have time for you,” she said, shifting her eyes to the packed bench where a queue of students sat waiting to be harvested. I stared at her blankly, my mouth struggling to find the words that would communicate to her how vital it was that I be allowed in, that this wasn’t just about donating blood, that this was larger than the both of us, her rejection could very well likely forever alter the fabric of history and space and time.
“I have time,” I said.
“Okay,” she shrugged. “You can wait if you want.” At that, she turned and disappeared behind a thin screen door. Another nurse motioned to a rack on the wall stacked with clipboards.
“Fill out one of those,” she said, gesturing with a Ziploc bag stuffed with a foam rubber ducky. “Try to be as honest as possible. Oh, and fill the boxes out completely,” she added as an afterthought. “The machine doesn’t recognize partially filled out boxes.”
On a nearby donor bed, a pale woman nodded off with her hand raised like she was asking a question in her sleep, a dark purple spot bleeding through the gauze where the needle had punctured her skin.
To give blood in the United States today is like joining an elite, profoundly uncool, hyper-exclusive club. If you are under seventeen years old, depending on the state, you must have your parents’ permission. There are cruel limitations as to where and when you may have travelled. For example, you may not have spent more than five years at the Sorbonne in Paris getting your doctorate degree about French movies about trains. You may not have had a tattoo done within the past twelve months, even of a really tough looking anchor on your chest. You must weigh a minimum of 110 lbs. As per American Red Cross eligibility requirements, there is no upper weight limit for donors “as long as your weight is not higher than the weight limit of the donor bed/lounge you are using.” To give blood, you must be able to fit on a donor bed. Add to the reasons you might be denied at a blood donor center: the summer you spent in Ireland in 1993 looking for Bono, the lip piercing you got after your last break up two months ago because you desperately needed change, the pill you took this morning.
I scanned through my donor questionnaire, making sure to answer each question as honestly as possible.
“Feeling healthy and well today?” There was no box for “Sometimes I feel like I died 400 years ago and every now and then my right arm has a strange spasm which makes me suspect that I may be a demon who took over some poor kid’s body and he’s desperately trying to get out one limb at a time,” so I shaded in the box for “Yes.”
“Have you taken anything with aspirin in it within the last twenty-four hours?” No. Demons don’t need medicine.
These requirements are not particularly stringent, yet still only an estimated 38 percent of the population is eligible to donate. Of that, less than ten percent actually do, and that is in part because to give blood in the United States today, you must answer the question: “From 1977 to the present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?”
I was wearing cut-off jean shorts, an extra small plain white tee that bordered dangerously with crop top territory, and dollar store glittery nail polish chipping at the edges. No, I decided, my pencil carefully outlining the box, thoroughly shading it in so the machine would have no trouble understanding. Not even once.
On paper, I know why gay men are not eligible to donate blood. The rationale for these regulations is straightforward. Aside from making sure we don’t find thumbs in our chicken nuggets, it is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration to minimize the threat of the public contracting through blood transfusions infectious diseases such as human deficiency viruses or hepatitis. Men who have sex with men are the population most heavily affected by HIV infection. Among the nearly 50,000 new cases of FDA reported by the Center for Disease Control in 2012, more than 30,000 were transmitted from male-to-male sexual contact. In order to keep as few contaminated donations from entering the national blood supply as possible, several safeguards have been set in place, from rigorously testing donations for everything from syphilis to West Nile Virus, and beginning with the initial donor screening process, which takes the form of a mini-physical and a questionnaire that is designed to weed out potential risks.
Despite the dozens of tests performed on each unit of donated blood—to establish blood type and test for infectious diseases—the FDA stresses that these tests are not foolproof. However, to put your potential exposure into perspective, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), “your risk of getting HIV from a blood transfusion is lower than your risk of getting killed by lightning. Only about one in two million donations might carry HIV and transmit HIV if given to a patient.” Though the source of these infections are not always linked to gay men, it is the policy of blood centers, under current FDA regulation, to place all gay men who admit on their questionnaire to having had sexual contact with other men within the past twelve months on a one-year deferral list, which is a way to soften the reality that gay men are simply not permitted to donate. While ostensibly this is an improvement on their previous ban on gay men, it’s still less “come back next Wednesday,” more, “we’ll call you when you decide to move to the Andes, shave your head, and take a vow of celibacy.”
Besides the FDA’s implicit verdict that two gay men in a monogamous relationship pose the same threat to the national blood supply as a heroin addict, or the propaganda ingrained in children at birth that only gay people contract HIV when, according to the Center for Disease Control, most new HIV diagnoses in women are attributed to heterosexual sex, not to mention the outright homophobic logic couched in the idea that the nation cannot trust gay men to know their own status, the FDA fails to account for one crucial fact: I am a hero. I am special. I am destined for greatness.
How my greatness will manifest itself is unknown to me, a mystery that has filled every moment with a sense of sweet, mouthwatering opportunity. Even as a kid I knew the world needed me. Whenever I was out in public, I would openly exhibit my karate skills, demonstrating perfect horse stance for the passersby outside of the mall JC Penney’s, waiting for my choice sensei to pluck me from obscurity and launch my career as the martial arts champion of the galaxy. In my fantasy, I told myself he had only planned to stop by Yankee Candle to shop for candles for his dojo, a quiet masculine scent like Motor Oil or Sports Tears, yet seeing me and my ability to stand with my legs splayed and bent at the knees, my arms akimbo, my fists locked tight at my waist for over fifteen minutes while my mom perused the clearance racks inside, he would instinctively know, like a mother penguin can pick out her chick in a colony of thousands, that we were lost kin.
“Is it really you?” he would ask, recognizing something ancient and powerful within me. Without waiting for my answer he would sweep me away to someplace majestic where he would rededicate his life to teaching me how to snap two by fours in half with my palm. Initially, my mother would be devastated by my disappearance, throwing herself completely into her job at Starbucks where she would make crude drawings of my face with the foam in her customer’s lattes, but over time she would grow to accept it, knowing deep down that I was out there being the hero the world needed of me.
As a teen, I would stalk the aisles at my local bookstore with my eyes opened as wide as I could hoping that something would irritate them and I would be reduced to tears. Sobbing, I would sink myself into the nearest seat with an intellectual looking book, something like The Diary of Malcom X, and squint my eyes, letting the tears roll down my cheeks, imagining that an agent would see how emotionally raw and unguarded I am and, unable to control himself, yell, “Look everyone! It’s the next Nick Jonas! I have to sign him immediately!” I would be plucked from my humdrum life and become an overnight celebrity and an ambassador for UNICEF, traveling around the globe teaching children the value of environmental sustainability through interpretive dance.
“Life on land is finite!” I would shout into the crowd of kids gathered around to watch one of my performances in a remote village in Nicaragua. “Return to the sea is inevitable!” My work done, I would hop into the back seat of my Hummer limo and speed away to my next humanitarian destination, listening as the chorus of applause trailed off in the distance.
My blood pressure was too high. Classic superhero—always overachieving.
“It needs to be below one hundred for you to be eligible to donate,” reported the nurse taking my vitals. She had her hand wrapped around my thumb, squeezing it in a python grip so that my blood dripped onto a glass slide.
“One hundred and seventeen,” she droned, holding my limp hand like a jaded psychic fed up with telling her clients how old they would grow to be. I imagined her tracing her sage fingers down my palm, stopping dramatically to investigate a fine line.
“Just as I suspected!” she would announce, pulling me in with an all-knowing squint. “You were really good at basketball in a past life!” Then, rolling her eyes to the back of her head in a state of supernatural bliss: “Oh, and you’re totally gay.”
“Wait a little while and we’ll test you again,” she interrupted, throwing a glass of ice water on my fantasy and forcing me back to reality. Five minutes later, she tested my other thumb, pricking my finger with a medical tool that resembled a mechanical pencil. She squeezed more of my blood onto a fresh slide. Now it was too low, meaning that my blood pressure is in a constant state of flux between extremes.
“You can go ahead and donate,” she concluded, then turned around to tune her radio dial until she landed on a breezy R&B station. She hovered there for a minute, mouthed along to a few words, and gave me a this-is-my–song look. Maybe my blood pressure would just even out.
According to the official American Red Cross website, the average process of giving blood, from arriving at your local Big Red Bus blood drive to stepping off with your complimentary cranberry juice cocktail and sugar cookie, takes approximately an hour and fifteen minutes. They also maintain that every two seconds, someone in the US needs blood, meaning that for the national blood supply to remain sustainable, in the amount of time it takes for one person to give blood, enough of the stuff must be collected nationwide to meet the demands of over one thousand people. The most alarming aspect of these figures? They get it. In a year, the American Red Cross and similar organizations collect 15.7 million donations in the US, over 700,000 more donations than needed. I imagine a nurse splayed out in a blood bank vault making blood snow angels with the amazing surplus of donations she collected that day, which is to say, they are very good at their jobs.
Why, then, are stories such as “The Nation Has a Major Blood Shortage” being relayed on major news outlets like ABC? One ominous headline from Wisconsin Public Radio’s website alerts: “Urgent Donations Encouraged As Nation Faces Looming Blood Shortage.” Another, from Georgia’s Albany Herald, reads: “American Red Cross facing possible emergency blood shortage.” These headlines stand in stark contrast to the Food and Drug Administration’s claims that “the blood supply in the US has been very stable.” So, which is it?
Technically, the FDA is not incorrect. The US blood supply is indeed stable. The catch: the blood supply is just about the only national resource that is, in fact, stable. With decreasing mortality rates, a rapidly growing population, and a rise in complex therapies such as cancer treatments and heart surgeries that require large amounts of blood, the public doesn’t need the blood supply to be stable, it needs it to flourish. This is because the national blood supply is constantly, literally, hemorrhaging. Not only are approximately 41,000 blood donations used every day, but donations are expiring. Red cell donations, for one, have a shelf life of forty-two days, so they must be perpetually collected for the supply to remain “stable,” which leaves the nation’s blood banks playing something like blood whack-a-mole. Every time they block one hole—the 41,000 donations needed each day, a new natural disaster that requires the acquisition and distribution of thousands of new donations—another emergency threatens to deplete their resources, which brings us to not-too-optimistic headlines like U-T San Diego’s “Local blood shortage worsens,” a close cousin of “Blood Good, Supply Bad.”
One by one, the donors in line in front of me were escorted to beds, plugged into blood sucking machines, and ejected back into the wild with a soft drink and their free loot. When it was finally my turn, I asked my nurse if I could have a juice.
“We have apple and orange,” she said, then, in a sudden, manic twist, added: “But we just got Pepsi and Mountain Dew!” She plugged me into her blood-bot and I lay back and drank my Pepsi in a napkin cozy, watching my blood travel through a silly straw into a bag on the floor as she explained the new donating procedure I had volunteered for.
“All we’re taking is your platelets,” she said.
I nodded in understanding. Of course. My platelets! Who needs those? I pictured a cabinet in my dining room full of fancy dishes, my platelets, withering away unused.
“The blood we extract today goes into this machine,” she continued. With her foot, she tapped what looked like a miniature crib on the floor rocking my blood back and forth, lulling it to sleep. “Once the machine is done separating your platelets, the rest of your blood will be returned back to you.”
I tried to hide my horror at this new revelation with my impression of an easygoing, I’m-not-freaking-out-at-all smile. Inside, I tried to process what she meant by your blood will be returned back to you. They were taking my blood out, sending it to a bag on the floor, then shoving it back in where it would touch all my important inside parts. This had to break the three-second rule.
Passing me my very own rubber ducky in a Ziploc bag, she instructed me to squeeze it every five seconds and left to help out other donors. Every few minutes she would come back, look at the bag that was slowly filling up with my blood, and ask, “ARE YOU OKAY?” as if she’d seen a spider crawl out of my veins, or just discovered that instead of blood, I was running on red Jello.
Ten minutes would go by and again I would be pulled out of my phone’s trance by a shadow hovering over me.
“YOU STILL OKAY?”
“Yes, thank you.”
I thought she might call an ambulance, but then I remembered that I was already in one.
After the procedure, I called my best friend, Arthur, and we drove to the pizza place twenty minutes away to redeem my free voucher. Over cheese slices and Coke, we played “Would You Rather?” It was the middle of the day so we had the restaurant all to ourselves, him in his Christina Aguilera t-shirt and me picking at my nail polish. A vaguely Italian song chimed in through the speakers. Would you rather have spaghetti fingers or always look like you just came back from a long, grueling run? Would you rather only be able to bathe in soup or be Osmosis from Osmosis Jones? Arthur phoned his in: Would you rather be an octopus or a squid?
“If I choose squid, is someone hunting me?” I asked, attempting to add drama to his scenario.
“Why would someone be hunting you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m a monster?”
He told me that when people are cremated, most of the ashes they give to the families belong to someone else. I told him that when I die, I want my ashes scattered over an ant-hill. I confessed that I lied on the questionnaire.
“It’s so weird that they make you choose,” he said. “You can either save someone’s life or you can check that you’ve had gay sex and let them die.”
“I kind of wish I was cool enough to tell them I’m gay,” I told him. “Like, as an act of revolt?”
I wondered what that might look like. Putting myself first.
A little boy named something devastatingly cute, a name only a kid can pull off: Max. As an adult, he will go by Maxwell, but for now, he’s just Max. He has a gap tooth and freckles, the kind of kid you can see on the cover of an off-brand box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He has a rare cancer, so rare his parents are considering an experimental treatment that requires huge amounts of blood. We share a blood type.
“Sorry Max,” activist me would say. “I can’t donate. I’m making a political statement.”
Back on campus, it was still too early for my night class, so I made my way to my favorite quiet spot on the third floor of the cafeteria to read. Usually I have no trouble lugging my body up three flights of stairs, but this time I felt nauseated, so I gave up my original plan and saddled myself into the nearest seat I could find. At the table next to mine, an athletic couple studied silently from a mess of books and papers laid out before them, the man pausing every few minutes to take a gulp from a Herculean gallon of water.
I looked down to the first floor where I could see hundreds of students dashing in and out, a few daring ones riding their skateboards right through the cafeteria, late to class again. Another hurried student stepped on a corner of the Pegasus insignia printed on the floor. University legend warns that stepping on the Pegasus ensures that you will never graduate from the school, which is why it’s usually partitioned off by velvet ropes. An icy shiver passed through me. Rubbing my hands for warmth, I noticed that they were a shade lighter than usual, and suddenly they shifted into a blur and I couldn’t discern what color they were at all. I stood up to go to the bathroom, hoping I could make it to a stall before throwing up.
Sometime later, I woke up on the floor crumpled up in a ball and blind. I could hear two girls exchanging feverish words next to me, but we were separated by a wall of black.
First one told the other: “He’s waking up.”
Then, to me: “You passed out. Are you okay?”
I closed my eyes, figuring it wouldn’t make much of a difference because I couldn’t see with them open anyway.
“Don’t go to sleep!” a voice ordered, shaking my arm back into existence.
“You’re probably dehydrated,” someone speculated. A red-headed blob gradually came into focus.
“Can you bring me water?” I asked, feeling self-conscious.
Was I being too demanding?
I once heard on the radio that people regularly die choking alone in restaurants. Instead of asking anyone for help, they rush to the bathroom not wanting to bother anyone. They pretend they’re just having a run-of-the-mill teary-eyed, claw-at-your-neck coughing fit, and once inside they choke quietly by themselves.
People don’t want heroes. We want to be able to save ourselves. I closed my eyes again.
You’re not going to die in such a wimpy away, I told myself. If you’re going to die, it better be being hunted as a squid.
A third girl came up to me with water. I snatched it from her hands, but within seconds she took it back.
“Actually, if you’re dehydrated, you shouldn’t be drinking water,” she said.
I now saw that I was surrounded by a swarm of white girls. Maybe I was already dead, I thought, or in limbo: an infinite series of white girls bringing me water and taking it away.
“Are you sure?” I wanted to ask, gazing longingly at the cup of water in her hands, but I was too confused and out of it to reason with her. Instead I just curled back into my ball. Maybe she’s pre-med or something.
Soon, the paramedics arrived. They measured my blood pressure and told me I was dehydrated. They told me I needed water.
“Have you had any water?” one asked. I looked at the cup the girl brought me, still full on a table too far for me to reach.
They plugged me into an IV. An Evil-Dead quantity of blood squirted out of my arm. The paramedic wiped it with a tissue.
“Why did you donate blood? For the movie tickets?” he asked straightaway, maybe not his first time doing this.
Partly. But don’t forget that I’m a selfless hero.
“Was it worth it?” he asked, not waiting for a response to his first questions.
I leaned my head against the wall and felt the cool liquid from the IV travel through my veins, a million microscopic glasses of ice water splashing along the insides of my limbs, gradually waking my body up.
“You have two options,” he went on. “You can go to the hospital or you can stay here and drink a lot of water.”
I am asked to monetize my life. I could probably survive if I stay, I calculated half-conscious. This wasn’t my first time fainting. A few months before, while staying at my mother’s house, I sliced my thumb trying to open a can of tuna. I woke up a few hours later in her bed. I had passed out. Not sure what to do, she had simply dragged my body to her bedroom and resumed cooking dinner.
“I’m really poor and have really bad insurance, so I think I’ll just stay here,” I said.
“You will almost definitely pass out again if you stay,” he countered, more stern.
Then why even give me the option? Is this some kind of fun game paramedics play: put the patient in a life or death situation, ask them to choose death, then force them to live anyway? Still, I thought I had a shot at making it on my own. There was a water fountain a few feet away. I was lucid. I said out loud, “I’m lucid,” figuring that anyone who can remember the word lucid must be it. Besides, if I couldn’t afford breakfast, I sure as hell didn’t have money for an emergency room.
“I think I’ll stay,” I repeated.
“We’re taking you to the hospital.”
In the ambulance, I discovered that my phone’s flashlight feature would not turn off. Thank God: I had broken my fall with my new cellphone I’d saved up for months for. I turned it around in my hands, not really sure what I was looking for. A hidden magical switch that would help me in exactly this kind of situation? I didn’t care about the phone. I was worried the battery would die and I wouldn’t be able to call anyone to pick me up from the hospital. I had twelve percent battery left. I called my mom. No answer. Eleven percent. Again. No answer. I called my brother and went straight to voicemail. Nine percent. I called Arthur. He’s coming.
Later, I will find out that after my call, he rushed out of bed and ran out of his parent’s house, frantic to see that I was okay. His mom was maneuvering into the driveway, coming home from work, and parked an inch from the driver’s seat of his car thinking it would be funny if she made it hard for him to get inside. Assuming he was overreacting over her innocent joke, she roared into her steering wheel laughing hysterically as he flailed his arms and shouted at her to cut it out. Meanwhile, I was in the back of an ambulance plugged into an IV with a computer printing out a series of zig-zag lines quantifying my life. I still think she’s funny.
I went back to trying to fix the light.
“You trying to take a selfie in an ambulance?” the new, younger paramedic riding with me asked, disapproval thick in his voice.
My eyes jumped from the tribal tattoo on his arm to the hurricane of wires coming out of mine. I didn’t answer, not wanting to explain myself to him.
“You got a girlfriend?”
Again, I looked down at my cut-offs and painted nails to what I thought was an obvious declaration of what type of boy I am.
“There’s lots of girls around here,” he continued.
I folded and told him that I didn’t have a girlfriend. Not really a lie. A part of me worried that if I told him I’m gay he would purposely mess something up. I was plugged into a lot of tubes and they all presented an opportunity for an “accident.”
“Is my water level thing better now?” I asked him.
“Your water level thing?”
“I don’t know what it’s called,” I said, “but the first paramedic told me I was dehydrated and needed water and he kept looking at a measurement I think might have been my blood pressure. I’m not sure though.”
“Are you pre-med?” he asked.
“Well, how is it?” I asked, caring less and less about the possibility of an accident now.
“What kind of tests will they do on me at the hospital?” I went on, running up the tab in my head.
“Are you anxious?” he asked.
“Only when I’m in an ambulance.”
It had been over an hour since I had fainted. Even so, the paramedics insisted that I be wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. A nurse behind the reception desk looked up at me.
“There’s my sixty-three,” she smiled.
“I’m your sixty-three,” I said back, then turned to the young paramedic. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re her sixty-third patient today. You win a prize.”
“Like an Olive Garden gift card?” I asked, or free healthcare?
Her eyes flashed to my hands as I fumbled with my phone.
“Need a charger?” she asked.
“I’ll go get one for you,” she said, getting up from her station. She pushed through a set of double-doors and moved into the room next door. I never saw her again.
Classic hospital prank.
From there, I was wheeled into an emergency room about the size of a walk-in closet.
“Do I have to do these tests?” I asked my doctor. “I feel perfectly fine. There’s no way I
can afford this.”
“You look fine,” he said. “I’ll just give you another IV and you can go.”
My mind flashed back to the water fountain that was only a few feet away, the cup of water probably still on the table. Arthur arrived just as my doctor was about to go, his curly hair still matted down in the back from his nap. On his way out, the doctor warned me, “Watch out. The person you least want to see is on her way.” Minutes later, an Ursula-like woman entered the room pushing a laptop on a cart.
“Name?” she asked by way of introduction. Date of birth. Social Security number. Religion? At this, I felt myself losing my temper. Why did it matter what my religion was? In case you die, a voice whispered in my ear. The winds were betraying me. What do they do for agnostics? I wanted to ask. Throw their ashes on ant-hills?
“Health insurance card?”
“How much is this going to cost?” I asked, digging through the several-month-old receipts and expired coupons stashed in my wallet.
“I can’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll get a bill in the mail.”
But I’m right here. Let’s skip the middle man.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, I can tell you your health insurance kicks in after $900. After $900, you pay ten percent.”
After $900? Ten percent of what?
“Don’t worry, though,” she said. “You’re on your mom’s insurance. She’ll pay for it!” I smiled politely, again doing my impression of someone who’s got it all under control. Of course, my mom will just hock one of the diamonds she bought with her glamorous, high-paying gig at Starbucks. No worries.
“It’s fine! I’ll just sell some more of my blood for money!” I yelled, but she was already out of the room.
Arthur, who has had cancer and been through the hospital bureaucracy before, explained: “Your health insurance only kicks in after the first $900. Anything before that, you have to pay.”
We waited ten minutes. Twenty. I could hear the nurses in the reception area talking about Game of Thrones. A main character had died, apparently. They were distraught. Thirty minutes. The monotonous beeps prompted by the wire connected to my finger started alternating their rhythm. Beep. Three seconds. Beep. Sometimes two consecutive beep, beeps—no intermission. I tore the wire off, feeling like a bad-ass action movie star, except twenty-two and puny. The same tired, limping woman walked back and forth down the hallway. There was a glitch in the Matrix.
“If you don’t go to the reception area and bring me a doctor, I’m going to get primal,” I told Arthur. He hurried out.
Driving out of the hospital, it was finally okay for me to be gay. Arthur blasted our best friend song on his CD player, B*Witched’s “Blame it on the Weatherman.” We listened to it when he was first diagnosed with cancer, now when I was released from the hospital, and years later driving by our old club, Pulse. Each time, we blamed it all on the weatherman, pleading at the top of our lungs for him to leave us alone. We stopped at a convenience store to pick up a bottle of water, my total coming out to a little over two dollars. I winced at the idea of paying for water. A week later, my bill would arrive notifying me that I owe $3,412.67 to the hospital for donating blood. A measly sum to a hero.
We talked about boys. I slowly came back to life describing Zac Efron on the cover of whatever magazine was in the checkout line, laughing in hindsight at the paramedic’s girlfriend comment.
“I asked the paramedics to let me stay,” I told Arthur, taking a massive swig from my water. “Even if it meant I would die.”
“Well, now neither of us can donate,” he told me.
“What do you mean?”
“In high school, on our blood drive day, I tried to donate,” he said. “But when the nurse handed me my questionnaire, I didn’t really know any better, so I marked that I wasn’t a virgin.”
He told me she informed him he would not be able to donate. When he asked why, she explained that it was because his blood wasn’t safe. The bus was packed with other high school students, jocks who agreed to be heroes so long as they could get out of fourth-period Biology.
“Everyone heard,” he said. “So I hid in a bathroom stall until the end of the blood drive so I wouldn’t have to go back to class.”
I watched as his grip on the steering wheel tensed, his knuckles white.
“Did you notice how all the guys that worked at that hospital were beautiful Aerie models?” I asked.
We played Would You Rather all the way to the university parking lot where he offered to drive behind me till I made it home. I accepted, letting him be the hero this time. I didn’t want to choke alone in the bathroom.
In the grand scheme of things, gay men donating blood might rank as a low-stakes issue, especially when compared to high publicity causes like marriage equality, the right to serve in the military, and LGBTQ bullying. After all, donating blood is inconvenient and time-consuming. Shouldn’t gay and bisexual men be grateful to have their hour and fifteen minutes spared? Why, that’s enough time to watch a couple episodes of Golden Girls and have a quick round of high-risk sex!
Amidst the controversy of whether gay men are too great a gamble to the nation’s blood supply, it’s the less overt threats that come with current discriminatory eligibility requirements that have largely gone ignored: that of supporting the false belief that heterosexual people who participate in high-risk behavior are at low risk for HIV infection, the danger that comes with reinforcing negative stereotypes about gay and bisexual people. When the American Red Cross cites that the two most common reasons people choose not to give blood are “never thought about it” and “I don’t like needles,” it suggests that gay and bisexual men are not interested in helping others and don’t particularly feel like being heroes, which is problematic, particularly when blood drives occur in workplaces, high schools, and colleges where donors may worry about the employment or social implications of not donating, all because needles hurt.
This battle isn’t Stonewall and the small victory that will come from gay men being eligible to donate blood will not drastically improve the lives of the LGBTQIA community. Yet, despite the near triviality of this issue, if anything, because of it, because lesbian and gay marriage is now a reality and because gay bullying is gradually becoming more of a taboo, it is the small battles that need to become a focus of the gay civil rights movement. It is the institutionalized homophobia, like that of a gay Iowa teenager who took his life and was not eligible to donate his eyeballs because his mother could not answer whether he was sexually active, that is the most insidious of all, because it hides under its apparent insignificance.
What’s most nefarious of all is that the FDA revising its policy on gay men to a one-year deferral as opposed to its previous lifetime ban is being heralded by many as a courageous move, as if the perception of equality is just as meaningful as equality itself.
Original art by Eva Azenaro-Acero, an artist, writer, and musician living in Chicago. Their work has appeared in Fanzine, Witchcraft Mag, The Parks Exhibition Center, and more. Find them on Instagram @birdlets or online at evaazenaroacero.squarespace.