February 21, 2021 | 5 minutes read | Tags: Oppression and Liberation, News & Analysis

Bad Blood

Until we all work together, not on symbolic inclusion, but on free treatments for HIV, on access to housing and food and education, on dismantling violent border regimes and on the decriminalisation of sex work and drug use, then we will be doing the work of racial capitalism.

Bad Blood

Reflections from a member.

I don’t want a person with AIDS for president. I don’t want a president.

It’s LGBT history month. Even writing that is a betrayal, honestly, because it shows how effective the divorcing of “LGBT issues” has been from its broader origins in anti-racist, anti-capitalist class struggle. The radical, revolutionary and disruptive potential of gay liberation has been misdirected to serve the needs of state and capital. And that is incredibly clear in the politics of blood donor activism which seems often lacking in material analysis.

This summer, the blood donation policy in Britain will change to a “gender neutral”, “risk-based” approach. This appears to be equality. Doesn’t matter who you are anymore, it only matters what you do. If you test negative for blood-borne infection and have had the same sexual partner for the last three months, you can give blood. Therefore, men in monogamous relationships with men are welcome! Come in, sit down, enjoy your post-donation juice and cookie.

I simply do not care that some gay men are now allowed to donate blood. I don’t care in the way I don’t care that some same sex couples are allowed to marry, that people can be openly gay in the military, that Alan Turing is on the £50 note. By which I mean: it bothers me deeply.

This project of inclusion into the healthy, life-giving “blood donors” is a project of separatism, of assimilation, of symbolic inclusion into white, bourgeois homonormativity. You only have to look at the way the changes are praised: it’s a step in the right direction, they say. Ethan Spibey (the founder of the blood donor activist group FreedomToDonate) said that the new criteria challenged “the stereotype of a gay man being dirty”. Alright, Spibey, let’s unpack that. In your haste to distance (monogamous, respectable, white) gay men from the ghost of HIV, you’ve really achieved nothing but pushing that “dirtiness” onto other marginalised queers. Blood donor activists tend to be self-identified “healthy” gay and bisexual men who take issue with what they deem to be an outdated HIV/AIDS-linked homophobia that marks all gay and bisexual men — regardless of their sexual practices — as possible infection risks.

I get it, I really do. The shadow of the homophobia associated with HIV and AIDS looms large. The pain and the injustice are still being worked through (see Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, which, I contend, is a five-hour therapy session focussing on white boys who seroconvert while not mentioning the cis women, trans women, intravenous drug users and many others who acquired AIDS). But now, as then, the public conversation is around gay men having gay sex. This very public labelling of men who have sex with men as a “risk group” is entrenched in the murderous policies of Reagan and Thatcher, who declared this an issue of “personal responsibility”. Is sex the virus? No, the virus is the virus.

Just as the political tide turned when HIV was detected in haemophiliacs, surgical patients, and babies of infected mothers, with cries about how the innocent are being infected, blood donor activism is only ever going to create a condition where there are good gay men who don’t get HIV, and bad gay men who do. Indeed, blood donor activism is a direct response to the prevention, in 1983, of “high risk” groups from donating blood. It could only ever be shaped by that original exclusion and, therefore, cannot be truly liberatory. The innocent patient who must be protected is held up against those who are deviant, who deserves to be excluded. But queer subjects, as Jasbir Puar writes, are no longer figures of death, but are becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity. Same sex marriage, adoption, the military, the literal £50 note.

This is rainbow capitalism, where some LGBT people are targeted for inclusion into the market and their “diversity” is profitable.  However, as Marxist Leninists, we know that capitalism produces and reproduces oppression. Liberation is not a Barclays pride float and liberation is not the mythical “gay blood donor”, the upstanding citizen who could not be further from HIV. Nothing to do with him.

The HIV crisis is not over. Men who have sex with men still shoulder a disproportionate burden when it comes to HIV transmission and, like everything under capitalism, the epidemic plays out along lines of class and race. In the United States, in 2018, the highest rate of new infections was among Black people (45.4 per 100,000). Latinos and multiracial people both had higher rates of transmission than the population average. In Britain, a report published in 2019 indicated that the “steepest fall” in HIV transmission were in white gay and bisexual men. The numbers of people acquiring HIV through intravenous drug use is low but constant.

This is the material reality. HIV transmission persists and it is from these people that the blood donor activists wish to politically distance themselves; from the 4000 mostly gay and bisexual men who are diagnosed with HIV each year.

So, are you a good gay or a bad gay? Are you monogamous, in a long term relationship, have sex in private, behind closed doors, on one hundred count Egyptian cotton sheets? Is your blood sufficiently pure, sufficiently close to the heterosexual, white ideal that you are considered worthy to literally assimilate your body into the nation state? Are you good and healthy? Are you innocent? If you happen to get a blood borne infection because, let’s face it, there is no permanence to the safe gay male subject, it won’t be your fault, not like those risky queers, those ones that are intravenous drug users or sex workers or enjoy condomless sex with a stranger in the sauna in Vauxhall.

The history of queer “liberation” shows us that when the most privileged segment of the community gets a little crumb, everyone else goes even hungrier. Trickle down economics doesn’t work and nor do trickle down rights. The HIV crisis will not be properly addressed by reforms that centre condom-using, monogamous, white bourgeois men. Indeed, the whole rhetoric around Undetectable = Untransmittable, state-sanctioned monogamy, PrEP and anti-retrovirals, seeks to portray HIV as something of the past. Men who have sex with men are conditionally accepted on a very narrow set of lifestyles. Those who can assimilate should not forget that many can’t.

If men who have sex with men want to be able to donate blood the same way as their heterosexual counterparts, then the focus should be on eliminating the material conditions that render some people disproportionately at risk of HIV transmission. Until it is safe to be a sex worker, to be an intravenous drug user, to be non-monogamous, to be Black, to be working-class, then no one can be safe.

Until we all work together, not on symbolic inclusion, but on free treatments for HIV, on access to housing and food and education, on dismantling violent border regimes and on the decriminalisation of sex work and drug use, then we will be doing the work of racial capitalism and further dividing our community. This month, let’s learn from the radical, anti-capitalist, anti-racist LGBT history and make sure we are fighting for the right freedoms.