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16.1.06

Gay Witches At The Blood Drive

Abiola Lapite is upset over a recent threat by South African gay activists that they will begin lying to blood donation personnel in order to be able to give blood. The activists argue that the ban on gay donors stigmatizes gays. Lapite's concern is that, given the higher incidence of HIV among gay men, these activists are putting the nation's blood supply at risk.

Pointing out that gays (or any other group) present a higher risk of donating HIV+ blood is not, however, sufficient justification for excluding them. People can't be simply categorized into "risky" and "not risky." Every donor has some risk, however miniscule, of introducing a disease into the blood supply. It's necessary to weigh the costs and benefits of any proposed exclusion. Neither Lapite's judgment that the additional risk is too great to justify the benefits of an increased blood supply, nor the activists' view that the benefits are greater, is prima facie irrational. (This is assuming, of course, that the risk-benefit standard is being applied impartially across all risk factors.)

I'm no epidemiologist, but I can't say I'd be upset if blood donation systems around the world stopped excluding gays' blood (certainly the Red Cross isn't helping the case for broad precautionary exclusions when it constantly tells us how precariously low the blood supply is). Nevertheless, I'm unhappy with the gay activists' tactics -- including the mere announcement of the threat, even if nobody ever follows through on it. This is because I think this tactic will tend to reinforce homophobia.

Gays play a role in the modern worldview similar to that of witches in pre-Enlightenment times. They're both seen as traitors, infiltrators invisibly moving among us, undermining the foundations of the community. Think of the worries about gays "turning" otherwise straight people, or opening the floodgates to other forms of immorality. The idea of gays presenting a higher risk of HIV fits perfectly with this*. Blood is a primal substance, and thus it's the first thing for the Other to be prohibited from sharing.

The threat that gays will lie in order to give blood plays right into this way of thinking. "You're kicking us out for being witches? Well, we'll show you what witchcraft is!" While they may succeed in getting the blood services to give up on asking about donors' sexual histories, they would do so at the expense of reinforcing the idea that gays are secret traitors, infiltrating the center of the community's life.

*This is not to say that gays don't in fact have a higher rate of HIV -- but as the Cultural Theorists are quick to remind us, "it's true" is not a sufficient explanation for why people believe something. And of course what we make of that difference in rates is quite cultural.

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