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Russia Casts Wider Homophobic Net, Targets Gay Blood Donors

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Aug 26, 2013

A Russian lawmaker has proposed a measure that would effectively widen that government's recent anti-gay legislative activity to include another area of civic life: Blood donations. The rhetoric used to justify the proposal is similar in tenor to rationalizations offered for the Russian Duma's highly controversial law, passed in June, making pro-gay "propaganda" a criminal offense.

Mikhail Degtyaryov proposed the new restriction, according to an Aug. 26 story posted by The Moscow Times.

Much as Russian President Vladimir Putin described the law banning "gay propaganda" (which can include public displays of affection or sympathetic comments and statements about gays and their families), Degtyaryov attempted to characterize his proposal as being not antigay, but rather a matter of "protecting" the public. The lawmaker, who is also a hopeful of the post of Mayor of Moscow, claimed "that his proposal is not an act of discrimination but a precautionary measure, since over 65 percent of HIV-infected individuals are men," the article reported.

Similarly, Putin had posited that banning any broadcast, publication, or public expression that could be seen as positive commentary on gay individuals and their relationships was necessary for the sake of Russian children. The claim seemingly has roots in an idea -- prevalent among anti-gay American organizations, including church-sponsored "reparative therapy" programs -- that homosexuality is a pathological condition, and gays can and should be "cured."

Degtyaryov touched upon this, as well, giving voice to the notion that an attraction to one's own gender is a departure from natural human sexuality, and downplaying the prevalence of homosexuality in the general population.

"Degtyaryov said that the Duma is also considering a program to provide anonymous and voluntary counseling for gay and bisexual people who want to be heterosexual," the article posted by The Moscow Times related.

"Many want to return to a normal life, to become heterosexual like 95 to 99 percent of our citizens," according to Degtyaryov. The article did not say whether the politician offered any reliable sources for this information.

The law's vague, broad provisions are anything but non-discriminatory in real life, and violence against Russian gays has escalated sharply since the law was passed. The fact that the government has stated explicitly that tourists and athletes expected to pour into Russia for next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi will be subject to the law's provisions has send shockwaves of concern and anger through the global gay and athletic communities, with activists seeking to secure some sort of meaningful action or even denunciation of the law from the Olympic Committee and corporate sponsors of the games.

"The law does not outlaw gay sex, which was legalized in Russia in 1993," an Aug. 12 Associate Press article noted. "It does not explicitly ban participation in gay pride parades or promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality online, but anyone wearing a rainbow flag on the street or writing about gay relationships on Facebook, for instance, could be accused of propagandizing."

In Moscow, where Degtyaryov hopes to serve as the next mayor, gay pride events have been met with bureaucratic obstruction and even violence.

Ironically, the freedom for gays to donate blood in Russia is one example of a liberty denied them in some Western nations. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has banned gay men from being blood donors since the start of the AIDS epidemic, despite considerable advances in virus detection that could be used to test donated blood for the presence of HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS by decimating the body's immune system. The FDA also bans donations by people who have had certain diseases or who have lived abroad in certain regions, for fear that the donors might unknowingly transmit diseases to hospital patients.

The FDA's ban on gay, bisexual, and MSM blood donors went into effect in 1985. In recent years, lawmakers such as Secretary of State John Kerry and Rep. Mike Quigley (Democrat of Illinois), have pressured the FDA to lift the ban, noting that the agency's guidelines are blatantly discriminatory toward gays: Heterosexual men may donate even after paying prostitutes for sex, after a one-year waiting period, whereas gay men who have had even one same-sex encounter are banned for life under the current policy.

In 2010, after a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) committee acknowledged that the FDA's blood donation policies were far harsher toward gays than to heterosexuals who had engaged in risky sexual conduct, Mark Skinner of the American Plasma Users Coalition told MSNBC that anti-gay discrimination was a price worth paying to keep donated blood free of pathogens.

"Ultimately the end-user bears 100 percent of the risk," noted Skinner, going on to say of the FDA's stance, "The fact that it's discriminatory does not mean it's wrong if it's in the interest of public health."

But balancing the extremely remote possibility that a recipient would be infected with contaminated blood that had managed to get past modern screening technology with the sheer volume of blood that could be made available provides a compelling argument for revising the ban.

"A one-year deferral period on blood donations by men who have had sex with another man would yield an estimated 89,000 additional pints annually, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law," noted MSNBC in the same Aug. 11, 2010, article.

Similar restrictions in Canada were lifted earlier this year -- sort of: Canadian law still stipulates that gay male donors must be celibate for five years (or else confine their sexual activity to members of the opposite gender) before they can donate.

In the United Kingdom, a similar restriction lingers following the 2011 lifting of an absolute ban on blood donations by gays. Male homosexual blood donors must refrain from sex with other men for at least one year before offering their blood for donation.

Perhaps more worrying than the proposed blood ban is the suggestion that the government would offer -- perhaps, in time, impose -- services to "cure" gays. Reputable mental health professionals warn that attempts to change homosexuals into heterosexuals are ineffectual and may be harmful to many of the individuals who submit to such treatments. So-called "reparative therapy" has been outlawed for use on minors in a number of states, including New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie, who signed the law protecting gay youth, had earlier vetoed a measure that would have made marriage legal in that state for gay and lesbian couples.

Even the former leaders of Exodus International have admitted that the now-defunct network of anti-gay ministries, dedicated to "praying away the gay," as critics characterized it, had done more harm than good, and had not "cured" a single homosexual.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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