I was 17 years old the first time I learned what discrimination feels like.
My high school put on occasional blood drives in the annexed gymnasium at the back of the building, which were always a hit with do-gooders and apathetic teenagers who would accept any reason to skip class.
My friends and I fell partly into both categories. We wanted to feel good about ourselves, but it was also nice to miss out on half of AP Calc. So, into the gymnasium we strolled, feeling anxious about needles and blood loss due to whispered reports that people had passed out.
Upon arrival, we passed by blue mats on the floor covered in students recovering with oranges and granola bars and were separated by volunteers into little curtained booths with machines inside. I didn't know it at the time, but these looked very similar to a polling location on election day.
When the volunteer pointed, I pushed aside the black curtain in my designated booth and sat on the rickety plastic chair placed in front of a machine, all set up to take what I believed to be a harmless screening questionnaire.
The initial questions were standard - name, age, height, weight, etc. Then it started asking about my general health and how I was feeling that day. Then the questions started getting more specific, asking about drugs and tattoos. I began to be unnerved, but answered all the questions honestly and soldiered onward.
Until I hit a wall.
Have you had sexual contact with another male in the last 12 months? Y/N
The words went fuzzy on the screen and my palms started to sweat. I wiped them on shaky thighs and turned my face up toward the fluorescent light flickering far above my head until my mind went blank.
Why was this relevant? What did "sex" mean, exactly? Was someone going to find out if I lied? I wasn't out of the closet. No one knew I was gay. What if I answered truthfully and someone found out?
I felt trapped.
I was only 17. I hadn't had sex, but I had messed around with other guys, as most teenagers do. I already felt ashamed of this behavior, but this seemingly innocuous survey question made me feel downright disgusting. Surely, there was something about my sexual orientation that made me dirty, and I didn't want a single soul in that gymnasium to find out just how dirty I was.
So, I lied.
I finished the survey - which I passed with flying colors - and donated blood without passing out. My friends and I laughed in relief about the success of the day, but I hadn't stopped thinking about my lie - or, more appropriately, why I had to lie.
So, I did research. What would have happened if I had answered that question truthfully: yes, I have had sex with a man in the last 12 months?
I discovered that I would be deferred from donating my blood.
Why? Because, according to the FDA, a man who has had sex with another man in the last 12 months is ineligible to give blood due to the assumption that sexually active gay or bisexual men must have HIV.
This shocked me.
Men who have sex with women, women who have sex with men, and even women who have sex with women were not punished in the same way, despite the fact that HIV does not discriminate and can infect any of us equally.
Instead of relying on the question that specifically asks you if you have HIV, blood donation centers are required to prohibit sexually active gay men from donating blood.
There is a word for this: discrimination.
As a sexually active gay man, I am not allowed to donate blood. Not because I am diseased, but because I am assumed to be diseased because of my sexual activity and sexual orientation.
Having HIV does not make your blood dirty. It is a manageable disease with proper treatment. But being turned away from a donation center because I am expected to have HIV makes me feel dirty. Ashamed. Lesser.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking why not just lie and give blood anyway like you did when you were 17?
I refuse to do that. A long time ago, I made a vow to myself to live my life as authentically as I possibly can, because I owe it to myself and others to make the world a better place for people like me. Being complicit in a system that openly discriminates against a person for their sexual activity is not something I ever want to do.
That silence - not my sexuality - is what would fill me with shame.
Being gay in 2019 is infinitely easier than being gay in 1989 was, which was infinitely easier than being gay in 1959 was. It always gets better, but that doesn't mean it's always easy.
It hurts when my place of employment hosts a blood drive and I have to smile and make excuses when my coworkers ask if I am donating blood, because I want to tell them that I am not allowed. I want to tell them that there are systems in place that label me as less than they are; that I am too dirty, too much of a risk.
I'm not sure how this gets better, or if this will ever change.
All I can do is share my thoughts - as I always do - and hope that people understand.
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