Many teenagers in Taiwan, having reached the age of 17, have a special yet untypical birthday wish. They are not hoping for a grand present nor rushing out to see their first NC-17 movie, but line up at one of the many white trailers parked by the roadside, branded with red crosses, to donate blood.
Unfortunately for some, this simple wish will never come true.
Since 2001, the Department of Health's (DOH) blood-donation regulations clearly state that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other AIDS high-risk groups are banned from donating blood.
After continuous protests by gay and gender-rights groups, new draft regulations were unveiled two weeks ago. The words "gays, lesbians and bisexuals" no longer appear in the regulations and were replaced with "Intravenous drug users/addicts, men who have intercourse with men (MSM) and hemophilia patients are forever banned from donating blood." Despite the refinement of the DOH's original wording, the corrections sparked protests once more from gay rights groups.
"They [DOH] took care of the `identity' part by not saying `gays,' but what do you call MSMs then?" said Ashley Wu (
A DOH official surnamed Chang responded to the vociferous protests by saying that these groups misunderstood the regulations and that the requirements do not discriminate against the "actors" (ie, gays).
Gay-rights activist J.J. Lai (賴正哲) said that the regulations discriminated against gays and were too problematic and flawed to be practical.
"These regulations are discriminatory because anyone who doesn't practice safe sex falls in the high-risk group, not just gays," he said. "They equate AIDS with being gay, doing nothing to help AIDS prevention."
"Furthermore, how do you know if somebody is gay or not? I might be gay today and love women tomorrow," Lai said, referring to the regulations' possible implementation problems.
"The Taiwanese requirements follow blood-donation regulations of countries such as the US and Canada, which ban homosexuals from donating blood," Chang said in response to the protests.
The US regulations were made in 1983, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended donor-screening procedures to exclude individuals at increased risk for transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In addition, the FDA stated that "although a potential individual donor may practice safe sex, persons who have participated in high-risk behaviors are, as a group, still considered to be at increased risk of transmitting HIV." The FDA also said that "safe sex reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of AIDS transmission."
Studies have also shown that many people who believe they are practicing safe sex are actually not doing so, either because of poor technique (ie, incorrect use of condoms) or lack of consistency (ie, proper safe-sex practices are not used in every sexual encounter), according to the FDA.
However, Ashley Wu spoke of two countries that changed their policies and lifted the ban on blood donations by gays: Italy and South Africa.
"Italy, a Catholic country that had long discriminated against gays, started allowing blood and organ donations by gays in 2000. South Africa decided that such a ban was against constitutional and human rights and changed its regulations in 2000," he said. "Taiwan does not see the changes and improvements in other countries. That's why some things have remained the same here."
The debate continues, with adamant arguments on both sides. Perhaps this is a problem beyond the issue of discrimination, but instead touching on safe-sex and AIDS education in Taiwan.
In Taiwan, sex is not a subject that is easily broached. Teachers shy away from such a topic at school and teenagers are left with incomplete or incorrect knowledge and perceptions about sex.
As Chu Wei-cheng (朱偉誠), a professor who has researched gay issues and literature at National Taiwan University, said, "The government's ban on gays donating blood is based on a misunderstanding of the AIDS problem."
The public's ignorance of the AIDS issue leads to misunderstandings, and misunderstandings often lead to discrimination. Before continuing the debate, maybe sex education is something that needs to be addressed first, he said.
But perhaps a bit of good news for gay-rights groups is that the draft regulations are still under discussion at the DOH, being reviewed by academics and experts. Changes may be on the way.
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