After a change in the NHS rules in June, more gay and bisexual men can now donate blood. Ethan Spibey, who led the calls for change, explains why a solutions-focused campaign made a difference
When Ethan Spibey’s grandfather survived a major operation in 2010 thanks to eight pints of blood transfusions, his entire family decided to donate blood to compensate for the kindness of the donors.
“Realizing that Grandpa wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for blood donors, we couldn’t believe that we would never have donated blood ourselves,” he says. But as a gay man, Spibey, who was in his freshman year of college at the time, was shocked to find that he couldn’t join them.
He had faced a restriction that had its roots in the HIV crisis in the 1980s, as well as the tainted blood scandal.
“I felt so guilty and ashamed that I couldn’t help,” says Spibey, who lives in London. At the time, gay and bisexual men were not allowed to donate blood.
“I hadn’t told my family yet, so I just swept it under the rug and pretended I didn’t want to donate,” adds Spibey. “I almost felt unwanted, dirty, and that feeling inspired me to say, ‘You know what? This is ridiculous. Honestly, this cannot be the case that people have been excluded: fundamentally because they are homosexual. ‘
Spibey’s experience led him, in 2014, to launch Freedom to donate. At this point, the policy had changed to allow men to donate blood as long as they had not had sex with another man in the past 12 months. But Freedom to Donate thought this was not going far enough. The campaign focused on a call for all blood donors to be screened based on their individual risk of carrying blood-borne viruses like HIV, rather than a blanket policy that effectively excludes gay and bisexual men.
Spibey was inspired to donate blood after his grandfather was saved by a transfusion. Image: Sam Bush
On June 14, 2021, the group finally saw their vision come true when the new system went into effect, allowing many to donate blood for the first time.
Now all donors are asked questions about their sexual behavior without regard to gender, regardless of sexual orientation, meaning the UK now has “the most pioneering policy for gay and bisexual men in the world,” according to Spibey.
London-based colleague Daniel Costen, who joined the Freedom to Donate campaign in 2016, captures the impact the rule change will have on many: “For many people, they will no longer feel that they are not good enough.”
So what is behind the success of the campaign? Spibey learned valuable lessons about building a movement by volunteering for the campaign for equal marriage when he was a student at King’s College London. While working for a Westminster-based lobbying organization after her degree, she gathered like-minded friends with various skills, from policy writing to social media, for input.
“To be able to do something that we have campaigned for for several years is incredible.” Image: Sam Bush
“We were all really focused on the concept that anyone who can donate safely should be able to, because why the hell would you not agree with that?”
Many had intensely personal reasons for participating. But, aware of the need to involve politicians, they made the conscious decision to keep their requests based on evidence.
The activists worked closely with LGBTQ + charities to create a ‘coalition of support’ across the UK parliament; Community health groups, doctors and celebrities also participated. This helped them secure a review of the existing blood donation policy, which led to their first victory in 2017: a reduction of the deferral period from 12 months to three months.
One of the reasons Freedom to Donate has been successful is its belief in the power of positive messages, Spibey says. He focused on the possibility of an increase in male blood donors, where there is a serious shortage, rather than simply condemning what activists saw as a discriminatory policy. In fact, they deliberately avoided words like “discrimination.”
It’s easy to be outraged by something. It’s harder to build a positive solutions-based approach to how you propose to change it.
“It is very easy to be outraged by something on Twitter. It’s harder to build a positive, solutions-based approach to how you propose to change it, but [it’s] more effective, ”Spibey reasons.
His grandfather died in 2016. But although he was unable to participate in the celebration of Freedom to Donate’s latest triumph, he applauded the progress of the campaign over the years and was “very flattered to be the inspiration behind it,” he says. Spibey.
“My grandparents lived around the corner [when I was] Growing up and I was so close to my grandfather, he was almost like a second father, so donating blood means so much to me. “
Before your first trip to a donation clinic, how is Spibey feeling? Excited but also a little nervous, he says. “To be able to do something that we have campaigned for for several years is amazing. I just hope I’m not afraid of needles. “
Lead Image: Sam Bush