LGBTQ

Under Canadian Blood Services' policy, trans women are men

Unclear donor screening policy includes questions about genitalia
Photo: Peter Almay

Transgender people are collateral damage in Canadian Blood Services' continuing discrimination against gay blood.

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In the midst of a critical blood shortage that continues to threaten lives in Canada, CBS presently maintains a policy of banning blood donations from MSM (men who have sex with men). Its position regarding transgender people has remained somewhat unclear.

CBS relaxed its lifetime ban of blood donations from MSM in 2013, permitting donations from those who fulfilled a five-year celibacy requirement. More recently, it put out a survey through Ipsos Reid to gauge public response to the idea of reducing the ban further, to just one year of celibacy.

The survey mentioned trans people, but one respondent says it was confusing and disrespectful.

"Gender: Are you a man, a woman, or trans?" recalls Catherine Brockhurst, a trans person living in downtown Toronto. Trans people, she points out, can be men, women, or neither, but they do not fall into a separate category. She says the survey required respondents to choose only one option, forcing them to decide between invalidating their core gender identity or erasing their trans identity. A copy of the survey obtained by Ricochet confirms that trans people were asked to identify themselves by checking a box separate from the ones labelled "woman" and "man."

"It could have been set up in a more sensible way," Brockhurst explains.

ID cards and misunderstandings

Trans people can experience discrimination from the frontline staff trained by CBS as well.

The last time I went to donate blood was a couple of years ago. The staff sat my boyfriend and I down, had us fill out forms, and asked us questions, including whether we were sexually active. Everything appeared fine until the staff person started to examine my health card.

"Wait a minute, we can't take your blood," she told me, shaking her head. I asked her why.

"Because you're a man," she said, strangers within earshot.

"No, I'm definitely a woman," I corrected her.

"Then why does your health card say 'male' on it?" she questioned, with a tone of voice and type of shrug that in a middle-school setting would be accompanied by "Duhhhhh."

"Misdiagnosis at birth. I'm transgender," I told her. Like many trans people, I hadn't been able to change my ID cards, and the "male" designation on my health card had led her to the faulty conclusion that I was a man in a dress.

Simple little cissexist misunderstandings like this are frustrating, but common.

Simple little cissexist misunderstandings like this are frustrating, but common. A polite explanation usually clears things up (although it's still a huge problem that we're forced to "out" ourselves because of our ID). I expected her to learn from it and move on, but my concern began to mount as I met her skeptical stare.

"You're considered a man by our policy," the staff person said as she passed my health card back to me. I couldn't believe it. CBS wasn't going to take my blood because I was a trans woman in a heterosexual relationship with a cis man. Telling me to wait, the woman disappeared behind one of the curtains into the clinic where my boyfriend had been taken.

She re-emerged with my partner and his attendant technician. "We can't take his blood either," she explained to her colleague, "because she's actually a man."

Stereotypes over science

CBS sent a statement to Ricochet regarding its donor policy, but refused to answer specific questions, including whether it would change the language of its policy to avoid referring to trans women as men.

"Canadian Blood Services assesses donor eligibility of transgender and transsexual persons . . . based on their current anatomic sex and in accordance with current donor eligibility criteria, including MSM." In other words, trans people are judged to be men or women based on any genital surgeries they have had.

CBS confirmed that it classifies non-operative and pre-operative trans women as men. Claiming to be "respectful of a transgendered [sic] donor's choice to self-identify their gender as different from their anatomic sex," the CBS stated that its "practice is to screen individuals who have not had surgery going by their anatomic sex at birth."

Because the CBS falls under federal jurisdiction, it is subject to the federal Human Rights Act, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission would hear any human rights claim filed against it.

What CBS calls an MSM ban ends up being enforced as a ban against all queer people, excepting only cis lesbians.

In 2012, MP Randall Garrison, the LGBTQ critic for the NDP, introduced Bill C-279, which would add gender identity as a protected ground to the Human Rights Act. The bill is currently stuck in senate committee limbo. Garrison says the anti-transgender blood policy can still be challenged without the bill, but "if 279 passed, the outcome would be much more clear."

Garrison opposes the ban on blood donations from MSM. "It's based on stereotypes. It's not science or behaviour based," he explains. In June he introduced Motion 516, which recommends that "Health Canada replace the current policy with a science-based policy that protects the integrity of the Canadian blood supply while treating all potential donors with equal dignity and respect."

When informed that the CBS officially discriminates against trans women, Garrison is not surprised. "Again, their policies aren't based on science and behaviour. I appreciate you bringing it to my attention. I plan on writing to them about it," he says.

A ban against the queer community

Under the policy outlined by the CBS, trans men would be considered "women" and thus exempt from the MSM ban. But trans man and multiple blood donor Maxwell Kent reveals that he has run into problems as well.

"My experience is that it has come down to the individual you speak to and whether or not they consider you a man," explains Kent, whose sex partners have included men. He has donated blood on a number of occasions, and he's been both accepted and turned away.

"I've had the 'men can't donate if they've had intercourse with another man in the past five years' rule cited at me, and I've also had someone say, 'Nah, it should be fine,'" says Kent.

While cis men, trans women (depending on surgery), and some trans men are banned from donating blood if they have sex with men, cis women may donate blood freely with no restrictions placed on their partners or sex habits. The net result, as experienced by the queer community, is that what CBS calls an MSM ban ends up being enforced as a ban against all queer people, excepting only cis lesbians.

"They don't go for anything that they interpret as remotely gay," says TK, another trans community member. "In their world, only gay men have risk of HIV," he says, explaining that the exclusion of trans people stems from a lack of LGBTQ awareness.

"It's a backwards policy."

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