From time to time social media seems to conspire to throw things together in a way that sparks a bit of reflection.
Facebook today reminded me of this ad for my first novel, which came out seven years ago.
I have spoken in the past about Angel as a snapshot of a particular moment as cultural opinion shifts around us. (A few years back I realized that laws and culture changed so fast regarding LGBTQ issues that it is possible to pretty much identify the exact year in which the novel is set by a reference to the states in which same sex marriage was then legal. If you’re wondering– is set in 2007.)
This came up in my feed just after I watched a clip of a top tier presidential candidate talking about how the FDA’s ban on blood donation from sexually active gay men effected him personally. (Go forward to 4:43. My apologies, I did not have the patience to try to figure out how to add the time cue in Word Press.)
This is something I could not have imagined at the time I was writing Angel, (on and off from 1990-2010) or even when it came out in 2011.
The reason the combination of this clip and Angel ad is serendipitous is that one of the plot points in the book revolved around a blood drive and a minister– the center of his community– who was excluded from joining with his congregation in donating blood.
Until she got sick, Sara had been the driving force behind the annual blood drives. Paul and Sara used to kick off every blood drive as the first donors, leading by example. After her death, Paul continued the tradition himself. Encouraging community service and giving was one of the most meaningful parts of his job. It was a ritual the church counted on him to provide. Having to sit the blood drive out filled him with a profound sense of loss. And it made him feel dirty, like a person from Biblical times who’d been labeled “unclean.”
At the time I wrote the book, the FDA banned donations for life from any man who had had sex with another man. In 2015 they revised the ban to only prohibit donations from men who were sexually active with other men in the previous year. The broad policy seems to be based more on fear than on science (promiscuous heterosexuals are not banned, while monogamous gay men are) and many people have called for it to be revised.
A few years before I wrote Angel, this issue came up at my Unitarian church, which prides itself on being a Welcoming Congregation. (A designation for churches that are welcoming spaces for LGBTQ people.)
The church had regularly hosted a blood drive, and one year, after a gay congregant was not allowed to donate, we had to decide whether hosting blood drives was in conflict with our mission as a Welcoming Congregation.
This is not a simple question. In most cases when a group is excluded they are prevented from doing something that would benefit them. In this case, they are prevented from doing something to be of service to others.
For a boycott to effective, you need your protest to disrupt operations enough to force an organization to change. And in this case, it would mean impacting the supply of blood for emergencies. In a country where less than 10% of eligible donors give blood annually, this is not something we really should be contemplating.
So we were caught with two competing moral goods– advocating for inclusivity, and providing life-saving blood. It was contentious.
I was against cancelling the blood drive. And when my book came out shortly thereafter describing my character Paul’s feelings of exclusion, one reader from my church said, “You took up the other side.”
This isn’t really true.
I was certainly not against cancelling the drive because I was for exclusion or didn’t recognize how it might feel to be turned away when you tried to give. My argument was that we should continue to donate as a congregation, and that we should use the events as teaching moments, and combine them with a letter-writing drive to the people who actually have authority over these decisions (the people who run the Red Cross drives do not) asking them to change the policy.
Instead we ended up with one of those compromises that, to my mind, solved nothing. We stopped hosting the drives and, the first year, we gave people a list of other places they could donate if they wanted to. In other words, we did nothing substantive to challenge the policy, we just opted not to participate as a way of demonstrating our moral values.
I am not critical of those who felt that this symbolism was important. Symbols do matter. It matters, for example, that the nation elected an African-American to represent us as a country. But that did not put an end to racism, as has become painfully clear in recent years. In fact, there can be a danger in symbolic acts if they make us feel comfortable enough to move on without doing the work to address the underlying issue.
Mayor Pete spoke eloquently about his own exclusion. Always nuanced and practical, he concluded with a call for an evidence-based plan.
“I would direct the FDA to reevaulate it so what we’re doing is consistent with what medicine is telling us and not with old prejudices.”
Not a great bumper sticker slogan, but good policy seldom is.