In a Launceston clinic in 2004, a Red Cross nurse told Michael Cain that he could not donate blood. He’d answered “yes” to a question in Section C of the Red Cross questionnaire, a paper given to all potential volunteers.
“One of the questions is, ‘have you had male-to-male sex in the past 12 months’,” Cain says. “I remember asking myself, ‘Why are they asking this?’ I almost had an instinct to lie.
“I was taken aside by a nurse and she explained to me that because I’d had male-to-male sex, I wouldn’t be able to donate blood because statistically gay people are more likely to transmit HIV.”
All donors who answer yes to this question are excluded from donating blood. The rule was introduced at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“My first reaction was anger and then I realised that I wasn’t going to get any information from the nurse,” he says. “I started to think about what she said. The anger subsided and I started to feel second-rate, almost dirty. It was a horrible, disgusting feeling.”
Since that day Cain has fought for the right for gay men to donate blood.
He first took his case to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission in 2005, which found grounds for the potential for discrimination and referred him to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.
“In 2009 the Tribunal handed down their findings and the decision remained with the status quo, on the basis that I had no medical proof that the gay community was much safer than others,” he says.
However, important and positive findings encouraged Cain to persevere with his case.
“The tribunal found that significant portions of the gay community are at a lower risk than others in the community, and others currently eligible to donate,” he says.
Cain describes the court process as draining. For a time, the court cases and the campaigning controlled his life.
“I took time off work for all of that period. At times I was doing some really daft stuff like pouring salt in my coffee. I just wasn’t paying attention because I was that weary,” he says. “The hearing started at eight or nine. We would have already had a meeting before that to discuss what was going to happen that day and then sit in court for six to eight hours.
“It was very hard to go in and hear gay people denied something that seems, to me, like a no-brainer in human rights.”
Cain is motivated by a humanitarian interest in the lives of those in need of blood.
“It’s important for the right of gay men to give blood, specifically to me, it’s something altruistic,” he says. “Every donation can save three lives and there’s such a critical shortage of people donating blood in Australia. Allowing this mass group of people to donate this blood is crucial to the ongoing health of the Australian public.”
Spain and Italy have recently changed their laws and lifted their blanket-ban on gay men making blood donations. In response to the global trend, the Red Cross announced an independent review of their blanket-ban on gay blood donation in September this year. In WA, homosexual men are not permitted to give blood but the Red Cross review may change that.
Cain predicts that the review’s outcome will be positive.
“I believe that the research will get done and we will have a good result. But I wouldn’t say my case alone was responsible,” he says.
Even if Cain’s predictions are wrong and the review upholds current Red Cross policy, he will have made important gains for the gay-rights cause. Unable to pay for lawyers, he successfully sought out members of the legal community who were willing to help him.
“My lawyer worked pro bono,” he says. “That was something that really took me by surprise, it was fantastic.”
With the announcement of the Red Cross blood policy review, Cain has a reward for six years of hard work.
“Now I look at how the review has come through, it really makes me feel like it’s worth it.”
Cain’s father says it has been worth it.
“My father was incredibly supportive about it. Not just because he was proud that I was doing something good for the community, but the fact that I was willing to stand up for something I believed was right.”
Published in the Western Independent October 2010