A young Enfield resident is taking steps toward ending what he feels is discrimination against him by a longtime ban against blood donation by gay men.
Michael Heroux, a 2011 Fermi High School graduate who is currently a pre-med student at Hofstra University, says his homosexuality has unfairly landed him on a "blacklist" due to a regulation by the ederal Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability.
During a blood drive at Fermi conducted during his high school years, Heroux said became aware of a policy he says is discriminatory.
"They make you answer a lot of questions and then they talk to you about the red flags you raise," Heroux said in a recent interview with Enfield Patch. "One of the questions was worded rather strangely: have you had sexual interaction with another male even once since 1977?"
When Heroux answered yes to that question, he says a woman from the Red Cross asked him to elaborate. "It was very awkward so I was being very vague with her, and she then told me I can't donate blood," he said. "I questioned why, since I get tested regularly every six months and have always been negative for all STDs. She said that doesn't matter, there's a federal regulation and she told me I'm now on the blacklist with the Red Cross, permanently prohibited from donating blood and I will be turned away if I try to donate. She went from this sweet little old lady to this rude, condescending woman."
Heroux said this was the first time he felt humiliated at what he considered outright bias against him because of his sexual orientation.
"The first time I knew I was gay was in sixth grade, and the first person I came out to was in eighth grade," he recalled. "I was never in the closet in high school - everybody knew, and nobody had a problem with it. I had a very easy coming-out: I wasn't bullied, and my family accepted it 100 percent."
As a freshman at Hofstra, Heroux joined a pre-med fraternity about a month ago, and again encountered a situation which he deemed unjust.
"We were doing a blood drive and bone marrow testing, because that's what we want to do is save lives," he said. "All my fraternity members were donating and getting tested and feeling great about it because they're doing a great thing, and I'm sitting there watching them thinking how much this sucks not being allowed to participate."
Heroux decided to channel his anger and frustration into working to get the regulation changed.
"I've been a member for a few months of change.org," he said. "They've done petitions that have actually caused change. They got the Trayvon Martin case nationally recognized, they got Bank of America to turn around their proposed $5 a month debit card fee, they got Apple to comply with OSHA regulations over in China. So I created an online petition on a Monday about 3 p.m., and by the time I went to bed it was up to 200 signatures."
Social media quickly became an ally in Heroux's cause.
"I got in touch with all these drag queens from RuPaul's Drag Race, and they started re-tweeting it," he said. "I sent it to the teachers from Fermi. My friend Greg is very prominent online, with a blog that gets about 40,000 hits a month. He posted it online last week, and we kept watching it grow and grow. I have a tab permanently open on my computer, and every time I hit refresh there's more signatures."
As of Friday, April 20, 1,055 signatures have been collected.
"It's gotten hits from all around the world: the Philippines, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Australia, the U.K.," Heroux said. "Technically the ban has no effect on them, but it's more a human rights issue. It's really cool to see how, through social media and the Internet, people quickly get onto these issues, and how willing we are in 2012 to help these grassroots movements grow."
Heroux said his goal is increase awareness of the lifetime ban, and get it changed to a more reasonable timeframe.
"When you get enough people to become angry, that's when change happens, especially in the last two years," he said. "The American Red Cross, the American Blood Bank Association and 17 U.S. Senators do not approve of this ban. They think it's harmful to the cause and to human rights as a whole, and the group that actually makes the rules, the blood availability group, when they upheld the law in 2011, at the same time they issued a statement where they said they believe this policy is suboptimal."
Heroux acknowledges that the policy was logical at one time, but says it should be modified considering the scientific strides that have been made.
"When it was implemented, it made sense. I'm not going to say this is a completely homophobic rule that was never based in reality," he said. "In the 1980s, there was none of this testing of blood, and unfortunately AIDS was very prevalent, so the rule did make sense. But with the testing today, it is outdated.
"With the petition, I would like to see the lifetime ban lifted, deferred to a year and perhaps reduce the stigma even more down to a month or two. I would like this to be brought to national attention, because while there are a lot of homophobes in this country, we also have a lot of allies. I've seen that many people don't know about this. Things are getting much better for gay people, but there are still places in this country where you can lose your job for being gay, where you can be denied housing for being gay, where you can't adopt children because of the stigma that all gay men are pedophiles."
If the ban were lifted, an estimated 219,000 pints of blood could be donated, according to the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.
"I view it as a discriminatory policy," Heroux said. "Yes, gay men are a high-risk group, we are 70 percent more likely to contract AIDS. But what I find screwed up is if you are a man who has had sex with a prostitute, or if you're a man who has had sex with a woman who is known to have HIV, you're still allowed to donate blood - you just have to wait a year. Unfortunately there are a lot of gay men who sleep around, and AIDS is prevalent in the gay community, but it's not all we are. We aren't all sleeping around - a lot of us are in committed, monogamous relationships, and we feel we should be able to donate blood. All you hear about nowadays is a shortage of blood, and all these healthy men who get tested regularly and are using safe sex techniques, or they're not having sex at all."
Heroux plans to submit the petition to legislators, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Joe Courtney.
"The only weapon that can fight ignorance is education, and that's my goal," he concluded.