What is the message sent to the Canadian public when homosexual men are grouped in with injection drug users in certain legal policies? This is a question that we must ask ourselves when considering the ministry of health’s policy on homosexual organ donors.
It was in December of 2007 that Health Canada officially instated its policy that prohibits men who have sex with men from donating their organs. The policy is a safety measure taken to ensure that diseases like HIV are not transmitted from an organ donor to the organ recipient.
Several groups have been identified as unsafe. Those that top the list include prostitutes, injection drug users, and, of course, ‘active homosexuals,’ which means any man who has had sex with another man in the past five years.
By linking sexual orientation to socially deviant behaviour in this policy, Health Canada is saying far more than simply who can and who cannot donate their organs. The message articulated is that men who have sex with men possess a certain danger to others that is directly related to their implied lifestyle.
This lifestyle is associated with the perception that gay men are promiscuous and careless when it comes to their sexual relationships and often involved in injection drug use. This makes them all too likely to have HIV or other STIs and therefore makes them undesirable candidates for organ donation. And while there certainly are some individuals – homosexuals and heterosexuals alike – that do fit this narrowly constructed view, the rest who do not are thrown into an unfair system of general classification.
However, it should be noted that homosexual women are excluded from this classification. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the stigma associated with homosexual males does not often extend itself to include homosexual females, and so lesbian women are deemed safe by the government’s standards.
Conservative view of heterosexuality
There are further arguments that state that transmission of STIs is increased during anal (as opposed to vaginal or oral) sex. However, to use this as a valid argument would be to speculate erroneously that homosexuals are the only ones who engage in anal sex acts. It might then be said that the government, in addition to having too prejudiced a view towards homosexuality, has a too conservative view of heterosexuality.
Not surprisingly, many people are outraged by these regulations. Fortunately, health minister George Smitherman has publicly acknowledged the tremendous discrimination that these regulations diffuse. He expresses his infuriation, saying “to have these wonky bureaucrats up in Ottawa write that kind of nonsense, based on some long-standing bias within their department, ignoring the front-line people that actually do this stuff, that was the part that was most offensive.”
And with this issue very close to Smitherman’s heart, he has announced that work would be done to make men who have sex with men aware of alternative donor opportunities. In addition to Smitherman, many other professionals have spoken out against this legal bigotry.
Often highlighted is that, though certain sexual practices may put individuals at an elevated risk of infection, it is not the sex of one’s partner but the number of partners and the precautions used (or not used) that identify individual’s risk of infection.
So what about the health of organ recipients? Is that not why all these legal policies are in place? If this is Health Canada’s way of ensuring that no one be infected with HIV or Hepatitis as the result of an organ transplant, then what is the harm? The harm is to the health of our social consciousness.
By identifying men who have sex with men as a health concern, we are only reinforcing stigma surrounding the group, not to mention eliminating a source of potentially viable organs when the supply is continually overwhelmed by the demand. And so, the Better-Safe-Than-Sorry policy that Health Canada has constructed is simply unacceptable and unjust which makes it necessary for the public to speak out in hope that the government might budget itself a brain-transplant.
Leslie, Keith. “Smitherman slams policy on gay organ donors.” The Toronto Star. http://www.thestar.com Jan 24th, 2008.