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Blood Type: Queer

By: Sai Siddhaye

The COVID-19 pandemic has left us with a dramatic shortage of blood. The implementation of social distancing measures has shut down blood drives, and the national blood supply has become dangerously low. You would think–given how critical blood donations are to the livelihood of the country–that all healthy and eligible people would be encouraged to donate blood right now, but even amid a pandemic and a national blood shortage, the FDA is still enforcing its discriminatory restriction of blood donations from queer men: the infamous MSM policy. 

The restriction of blood donations from men who have had sex with men was established by the FDA in September of 1985, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. The policy was that even a single sexual encounter with another man made men indefinitely ineligible to donate blood, “due to the strong clustering of AIDS illness and the subsequent discovery of high rates of HIV infection in that population”. This policy was in place until December of 2015, when the lifetime ban was revised to a yearlong deferral period, known as the MSM (men who have sex with men) deferral policy, after decades of pushing from LGBTQ activists.

After blood donations began to drop nationwide following the beginning of the pandemic, FDA officials did make a temporary modification of the MSM deferral policy. As of April 2, 2020, the deferral period has been shortened to three months rather than 12 months, meaning men must abstain from sexual encounters with other men for three months before donating blood. This change was implemented by the American Red Cross in June of 2020.

It is crucial to note that every unit of donated blood undergoes thorough screening tests for HIV, hepatitis, syphilis and other blood-borne diseases, regardless of who the donors are, to ensure that blood transfusions do not infect recipients. It is also important to understand that everyone, regardless of sexual identity, gender, or race, can be susceptible to these diseases. AIDS and HIV are not exclusive to queer men, nor are any other infectious diseases. So why does the FDA only restrict queer men from donating?

 According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), though “none of these tests…are 100 percent accurate, and they can produce faulty results. For instance, despite current restrictions and testing of approximately 12 million units donated each year, 10 HIV-infected units have slipped through. To ensure the safety of blood and other tissues for donation, the FDA uses scientific data to automatically defer certain populations. Because gay and bisexual men have higher incidence of disease, they are eliminated from the donor pool immediately.” The American Red Cross states that “The FDA selected the 3-month deferral to provide adequate time for the detection of infected individuals”. 

Though this reasoning certainly seems logical, the policy is too two-dimensional to specifically screen for at-risk donors. The FDA’s donor guidelines are in place for good reason; most policies target behaviors that pose a legitimate risk of spreading infectious diseases. The three month deferral period applies to people who have a history of syphilis or gonorrhea, have gotten unregulated tattoos or piercings, have engaged in non-prescription injection drug use or shared needles, and other behaviors that have a very high risk of contracting and spreading infections. There is already a policy in place that indefinitely bars anyone who has tested positive for HIV, and a three month deferral period for anyone they have had sexual contact with. The MSM deferral policy differs from these examples in that it imposes restrictions based only on queer identity, not on actual risk of infection. 

The FDA’s concern about preventing the spread of HIV has already been addressed by its other restrictions, making the MSM policy increasingly arbitrary. Implying that having sex with other men automatically makes a person “contaminated” not only stigmatizes queer sex, but is also simply untrue. Having unprotected sex creates a high possibility of infection regardless of sexual orientation, but creating a policy that only restricts men who have sex with men–including protected sex–does not address that threat at all. As NBC puts it, “Even with a clean bill of health, a gay man is considered more of a threat to the blood supply than a straight man who was treated for chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, venereal warts, and genital herpes within the past year.” Restricting queer men who do not fall under any of the other deferral categories, therefore, cannot be seen as anything other than discriminatory. Shortening the deferral period from one year to three months does not change that.

The MSM policy, like so many other policies and systemically-ingrained practices, perpetuates the hypersexualization of queer people. Institutionally tying queer sex to medical contamination is one of many ways that queer people have been systemically portrayed as sexually dangerous, prompting discriminatory policies in the name of ‘protecting’ the rest of society. Like the unwarranted racism and xenophobia that Asian Americans faced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, queer people have battled the social stigma that followed the AIDS epidemic for decades. The historical caricature of the “sexually perverted and predatory queer man” continues to manifest itself in discriminatory practices such as DADT and the MSM policy. The bottom line is that blood donation is critical to our national health, especially in this pandemic, and the FDA should be encouraging all healthy people to donate blood rather than arbitrarily restricting them based on their sexuality. The way to repair this is to remove the MSM deferral policy altogether and focus on targeting actual threats of infection so that as many people can safely donate blood as possible. Perhaps there is no way to rectify the harm that the medical industry has done to marginalized communities, but working to eliminate medical bias and prioritizing medical equity is the only way forward.

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What’s Happening in Lebanon?

By: Sarah Ansari

Early in the morning last week, I opened up Instagram to mindlessly scroll through memes and came across a recording of a Tik Tok video. The girl in it smiled, looking as though she were about to break into song. She just made her way outside when something on the horizon caught her attention. Her eyes widened for a brief moment before she turned and ran back into the house. Her formerly amiable expression contorted to one of fear as she screamed. 

The explosion in Beirut, caught live. 

Lebanon has been caught in the crossfires of humanitarian, political, and economic crises, and to protestors, the explosion is yet another sign of governmental neglect and corruption. The ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion had been impounded as cargo back in 2013, and although worries were voiced about the safety of the chemicals, no action was taken by officials to address the concerns. Blame for the tragedy was passed around, with no one wanting to bear the brunt of responsibility(*1).

In the streets, the righteous anger of protestors steeped to an inferno. Security forces were sent to quell the protests, and videos circling online display an excessive use of force– particularly tear gas and rubber bullets– by the dispatched units (*2). The brutality used by security forces on protestors displays the intention of the government to silence rather than to listen.

But how could a government not expect retaliation from its people when it boasts a 25% unemployment rate, pervasive poverty, a trash crisis, lack of clean drinking water, and unreliable power? All these issues existed before the worldwide spread of the coronavirus and have only been aggravated since. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound and poorly-dealt with wildfires only fueled the growing resentment for the government(*3). Meanwhile, the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics prevented any decisive maneuvers to address the people’s concerns. 

With eighteen religious groups dividing power based on their population, and the inability to make any “major decisions [..] without the consent of all major religious communities, even the election losers”(*4), the political atmosphere within Lebanon remains stagnant and prone to the decay which it is and has been experiencing. Think of the deadlocks that can come with a divided Congress in the U.S., but multiply the discordant parties by nine. Without major reforms to the political system, the troubles in Lebanon will continue to grow, since the government will spend more time debating than fixing the issues. However, to bring about changes to the distribution of power and to hold officials accountable for their actions, the same officials have to agree to the reforms, something which they have had little incentive to do until recently (*5).

Following the explosion in Beirut, calls for the prime minister, Hassan Diab’s, resignation multiplied, and finally culminated in the resignation of himself and his cabinet on Monday, August 10. In an interview with npr (*6), blogger Gino Raidy discussed the incompetence the Lebanese government displayed following the blast, and noted that “the people […] took charge of the search and rescue, the relief effort, fundraising, and campaigning”. In other words, the resignation of the current officials places Lebanon in the same state they were in before; reforms and other efforts (humanitarian, environmental, etc.) are spearheaded by the people, rather than their representatives. 

Raidy does mention the near-certainty of widespread reform now that the government has been dismantled, although if foreign aid gets funneled through the officials, funds will likely go directly into their pockets, rather than to rebuilding and rehousing efforts. Because of this, the humanitarian aid offered to Lebanon comes on the condition that definitive reforms are made to combat the issues discussed earlier (*7). With the stage set for the reconstruction of the Lebanese government, the actions taken now, at this tipping point, will decide the country’s future.

If you wish to send aid to Lebanon, make sure to donate to the Lebanese Red Cross. Various people from Lebanon have said online that it is the most reliable organization to ensure humanitarian aid goes directly to the people.

SOURCES/FOOTNOTES:

This article acts primarily as a simplified overview of what’s happening in Lebanon for people who are unfamiliar with the crises. For further reading into the cited issues, I recommend reading through these articles, which discuss the issues in more depth.

  1. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/07/899776352/beiruts-explosion-looks-like-an-accident-and-a-sign-of-the-country-s-collapse
  2. https://www.hrw.org/blog-feed/lebanon-protests
  3. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53390108
  4. https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-02-22/why-lebanese-politics-are-so-messed
  5. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/lebanon-pm-hassan-diab-resigns-anger-beirut-blast-200810135202076.html
  6. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/10/901064416/lebanese-government-resigns-in-response-to-protests-over-explosion-in-beirut
  7. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-security-blast/change-needed-in-lebanon-after-beirut-blast-says-german-foreign-minister-idUSKCN258189
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An Ongoing Reflection on COVID-19 from Six Feet Away

By: Christina Lee

Our world during the coronavirus pandemic is on hold, yet constantly moving.

As for me, I’ve found it difficult to harmonize my position as someone who stays home (or where I’ve been for the past two months, honestly) while I know that out there, the whole world partakes in a global fight against unprecedented circumstances. I don’t know how to reconcile the stressful but quiet stagnation of my social, academic, and work life with the dynamic bustle of the larger world as they cope with new government regulations, social issues rising to the forefront, and the glaringly global nature of the current pandemic.

As someone who is privileged enough to work and study from the comfort of my home, what I am about to express might not feel justified. I almost feel guilty for having the leisure to reflect, to point out my observations when I know that there are others occupied with holding onto life, risking their health and safety everyday. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that reflection might be one of the more productive things I can do as of now, to recognize lessons beyond not panic-buying toilet paper, disinfecting surfaces, and social distancing.

These lessons relate to the numerous social issues that appear unrelated to the virus at first glance but are actually relevant and quite predictable consequences to the coronavirus’s impact on our world. Only now under the guise of the effects of an unexpectedly rampant virus are we starting to shed light on some of the more headline-worthy issues—from increased numbers of daily domestic violence calls to hotlines in Colombia ever since their lockdown to one-dimensional regulations in Panama that failed to accommodate the identities of their transgender population, as well as government orders in Malaysia suggesting that housewives wear makeup and try not to nag their husbands.

The most striking aspect to these headlines are that they are all part of the process of disillusionment; we only let these social issues come to our attention now because firstly, they may give us a new way of looking at the coronavirus, but most importantly, we oftentimes fail to realize that these events actually originated from existing, systemic problems present all over the world. These problems are ingrained in our culture, yet we fail to acknowledge them until a worldwide crisis pushes our limits and the next journalist needs a headline that people will read.

We can’t find temporary interest in issues like these only because they are timely, and we certainly shouldn’t forget about these issues once the pandemic subsides. If anything, the resurgence of these topics is a sign that tells us what values and mistakes society has built up so far, and these are now exacerbated by the virus. Domestic violence, discrimination, or inequality isn’t something that just happens within a day; these are all results of systemic, habitual, and ongoing sociocultural shortcomings that always need consideration, regardless of whether we are in a pandemic or not.

Hopefully, there will come a time where we will be able to view the coronavirus in the same emotionally distanced state as we view the diseases of our past, but we cannot let the lessons we are constantly unearthing and bringing to the forefront become as ephemeral as the virus.

Yes, the pandemic is ongoing, and there are no solid conclusions to be made just yet. But we can only hope that we come out of this more enlightened, aware, and cognizant of the world we have created—and we must carry that with us into the future.