I’m proud that, in London, I can now give blood without discrimination

The UK has changed its blood-donation rules for gay men. Ireland is too slow to catch up

As a sexually active gay man, it was no longer permitted for me to give blood so I stopped, but every now and then I felt sad that I couldn’t help others. File photograph: iStock

One Monday morning in June I was waiting to donate blood in a fancy hotel in Canary Wharf, in central London. The function room was filled with medical equipment, plastic reclining chairs and NHS staff rushing about. The nurses kept apologising to me for the wait – "It's our first morning with these new forms, you see."

I assured them it was no problem: I didn’t mind waiting, and I had heard all about the change of rules that had necessitated the updated forms.

The new rules in the UK mean that, for the first time in decades, gay and bisexual men are able to donate blood on the same terms as everyone else. From the 1980s to 2011, if you were a man who had ever had sex with another man, you were banned for life from donating blood. This was changed to a 12-month deferral period in 2011, and to a three-month deferral period in 2017.

Finally, this summer, after years of campaigning from gay-rights organisations, discrimination based on sexual orientation has been removed from the British rules

Finally, this summer, after years of campaigning from gay-rights organisations, discrimination based on sexual orientation has been removed from the rules. As long as you have not had anal sex with a new partner (regardless of your or your partner’s gender) in the past three months, then you’re good to go.


In Ireland, the blood donation system is still discriminatory.

Ireland appears to be following in the UK's footsteps very slowly in this regard, having switched from a lifetime ban to a 12-month deferral period in 2017. With luck the Irish Blood Transfusion Service will move more quickly now and remove the discriminatory 12-month deferral period, as HIV Ireland and other groups have repeatedly called on them to do.

I first gave blood in 2011, the evening after my Leaving Cert results came out. My friend Una and I had booked our spot a few months previously, as part of the "Now we're 18, let's do stuff we could not do before" phase we were going through at the time. We weren't sure if it was okay to give blood, having consumed so much alcohol the night before, but no one at the donation centre mentioned this. They did, however, question us extensively on our sexual history.

When you give blood the first time a nurse sits you down and goes through the screening questionnaire with you. The question “Have you ever had sex with a man?” made my heart jump. I hadn’t, but as a sexually confused young man it wasn’t exactly helpful to discover that, if I ever did, this would become a place I would no longer be welcome.

The rest of the experience was pleasant: all the staff were very friendly, and I felt proud to do something that might help a stranger in need somewhere. There was a great sense of community, with regular donors welcomed like old friends by the staff.

Even though I was still a big fat virgin, the 'Have you ever had sex with a man?' question bothered me more and more, and I grew less enthusiastic about donating blood

As we ate the biscuits and drank the MiWadi provided after we had been drained of 400ml of blood, Una told me that she heard you get a special pin after your 100th donation. We joked about doing it for the pin, the way you might enter a 10k because you want the free T-shirt. But in the back of my mind I was saddened that I might not make it far enough to get the pin, banned from donating because of my sexual orientation.

I gave blood semi-regularly over the following years. I was proud to do something altruistic, and I tried to spread the word, telling family and friends how fun it was to be drained of your life force. The only one I managed to convince was my mom, who joined me a few times,and it was nice to share the experience. But even though I was still a big fat virgin the “Have you ever had sex with a man?” question bothered me more and more, and I grew less enthusiastic about the whole thing.

After college I moved to London. I signed up for email updates with the blood donation service here and intended to donate, but soon enough I had come out of the closet and had my first boyfriend. I know, I know – move to London, go gay – what a cliche. But that’s the way it went. As a sexually active gay man, I was no longer permitted to give blood, so I stopped, mostly forgetting about it, but every now and then I felt sad that I couldn’t help others in that way.

Like many of my peers, I was back home with my parents during lockdown earlier this year. One evening my mom asked me if I still gave blood. (She had to stop, unfortunately, because her veins are invisible.)

"Hmm... no..." I replied.
"Did you just not want to any more?" she asked.

Liam Cunningham.

Acknowledging the existence of sex in conversation with your parents is awkward, of course, and saying that, no, I just didn’t want to any more would have been the easy thing to do – but I did want to lie. And I wanted to be honest about my feelings, something I couldn’t be in the years I was in the closet. So I explained: “No, I do want to, but you’re not allowed to if you have had sex with a man in the past three months, so you basically have to be celibate. It’s quite discriminatory, because a straight person can be as promiscuous as they want, but a gay man in a monogamous relationship for years is apparently too risky.”

“Oh right,” she responded.

I felt proud to have shared this.

In the fancy hotel in Canary Wharf a friendly woman called Anna was sticking a needle in my arm. She asked me if it was my first time giving blood. I explained that I used to do it when I lived in Ireland but that it was my first time in this England. “Wow, brilliant! Did you do it regularly in Ireland?” I said I had done it a few times, and I wanted to explain that I hadn’t done it in London until that day because of the change of rules. I decided not to say that. I think I was still a bit nervous to be back in this environment.

This was probably silly of me, as Anna and all her colleagues were decked out from head to toe in rainbows for Pride month, and she definitely would have thought it was great that I could do it again.

I’ll tell her next time. Later that day I sent my mom a picture of the pin prick on my arm and said “They changed the rules today about gay men donating blood to be generally less discriminatory and I was first in line this morning.”

In her classic understated texting style she responded: “That’s great.”

And it is.

Read: Is it time to lift restrictions in Ireland?