The gymnasium looked the same. Sure, they had upgraded the bleachers (now folded up against the wall) and replaced the lightbulbs with a starker option, turning your skin slightly purple under their harsh glare. But the floors were still blue, spelling out E-A-G-L-E-S, and there was that familiar smell of sweat, rubber, and floor wax. I stood in a line of about twelve people, which was an impressive turnout at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.
The form was pretty much completed; I was waiting to be “interviewed” by a nurse aid before they would place a needle under my skin, so I could gift the Red Cross a half liter of blood. It was a familiar ritual, but this time the proceedings had taken on a somber - even noble - air about them, here in the great state of Ohio. We were sending this blood back East, to New York City.
It was the last day of September. The year was 2001. I was 25 years old, home visiting my aunt and uncle, my physical presence meant to reassure them that I was safe from all of the atrocities. Their volume-lowered television was showing an endless footage loop of the towers, the firemen, the talking head politicians, and the tributes in the subways and along the fences. “Why would you want to get back involved in all THAT?” my uncle would spat out without eye contact, both of us knowing I had a boyfriend waiting for me back in the City.
I moved up in the line. Three more donors to go.
During the early 80s, in the murky height of the chaos and misinformation around the arrival of the AIDS epidemic that began to blanket the entire country, the government quietly started blocking sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood. It made sense on an intellectual level - who doesn’t remember the Golden Girls episode where Rose had to wait 72 hours to find out if the blood used during her gall bladder operation had inadvertently infected her with HIV? - and it was definitely a safety concern; the medical community and the gay community were willing to try anything to “stop the spread.” But as the years went by, and the virus became manageable through regimented antiretroviral therapy, the ban stuck.
I began donating blood on a quarterly basis the week of my seventeenth birthday. I’m not sure I recall my reasoning, but it felt like an important civic act, like a bake sale or a 5K walk to raise money for a new church steeple. I had been a volunteer at our local hospital in those years, and it just felt like a natural evolution. I saw so many patients while handing out water chips and snacks on the hospital floors who had benefited from this program, and blood was ALWAYS needed. It made me feel a part of my community.
I was next in line. I knew The Question was coming.
“AIDS is not a gay disease.” “AIDS is not a punishment.” “AIDS affects everyone, gay and straight.” These pleas for compassion and understanding were packaged and re-packaged in art, in media, at medical conferences, and at protests for almost 40 years now. And yet the blood ban against gay and bisexual men persisted. Once I had gone to college and become much more politically minded in the late 90s, I had stopped donating blood. My queer friends and I would rationalize that our blood “was too good for those homophobic medics!” But inside, I knew it was much more complicated than that - and that I still yearned to contribute in that specific way.
Donating blood is so easy - and it does so much good for people you don’t even know.
Nurse Gwen called me over and reviewed my form. She gave me a smile; I skewed on the young side this Saturday morning. She began asking me Questions.
Earlier this year, the FDA made it easier for gay and bisexual men to donate blood. The revised questioning does not remove the safety precautions that have “protected” people from contaminated blood, but acknowledges the realities of modern sexual practices and removes the stigma of shame that has surrounded this process for queer men (and women sleeping with queer men). I was so galvanized to learn of this, yet weary of the mixed message it sent the gay community: were we now safe enough - valued enough - as a group to donate our blood to help others? Was our blood still going to be placed in that “other” column, tested and re-tested to the point of non-usability? What was even the point to all of this? And why did it bother me so much?
Post 9/11, we were a different world. And we were a world that needed (donated) blood. It was one way to participate that wasn’t mired in the political. It was the most humane act one could make.
Nurse Gwen’s eyes cast down on the clipboard as she asked me The Question, then she quickly looked up. Of course, she knew. But she had to ask. This was her job.
I thought of my boyfriend back in New York. I thought of patients in hospitals and the families of the victims from the attacks. I thought of the millions of Americans who have fought and protested for my rights. I thought of the millions of Americans who have died due to the virus (and to our society’s homophobic negligence). On that day, in that moment, donating blood felt like a prayer, a hopeful act, towards believing we could do better, we could be more understanding, that the 9/11 attacks - while horrific - would inspire a new era of compassion and understanding (maybe even curiosity?) towards each other.
“No, I have not.”
Nurse Gwen quietly checked the box and directed me over to a chair where a needle and a box of apple juice and cookies awaited me. I took a deep breath and focused on the ceiling of my high school gym, the cracks as familiar to me as my own bedroom back in New York.