The Equal Blood Project: An Interview with Ben Hansen-Hicks

Where did the Equal Blood project come from?

I used to give blood when I was a wee lad, every 3 months just because I thought it was a good thing to do. When I got to uni - massive cliché – and started batting for the other team, I realised I couldn’t give blood just on that basis and I got really disappointed that I couldn’t.

I’d always get letters through the post saying please donate we’re desperately low on the X and Y bloodstocks but I couldn’t. So I thought what better than send a reminder that I would still very much like to give blood to the people in the NHS, and it started from there really.

I just thought what sort of way can I bring them into my life and just show them that I’m actually a person too, more than willing to donate to save lives.

When did the blood restriction start?

It came about in the 80s around the time that people started realising that HIV was a fatal disease. They pretty much ran a mile and were like F-that so they stopped all gay and bi men people giving blood. But now, a lot research has been done which shows that this level of ban is completely unnecessary. The most recent research shows that HIV can be detected in sampled blood within 9 days. It used to be a 3 month window, but now that this new test – called RNA testing – has come in, it’s dramatically shorter.

When did you wake up and think ‘I’m going to send postcards’?

I’d come out to a few people and said I wanna do something about this. I’m perfectly capable of sending postcards and so is everybody else so why shouldn’t I start now, because it’s not going to change itself.

It was really horrible, just a couple of weeks after I started sending postcards, the Orlando massacre happened and the discussion suddenly bubbled up into the forefront of everybody’s minds. Lines of people were queueing up outside Orlando to give blood in hospitals and loads of gay friends, husbands or boyfriends of those gunned down couldn’t give blood and it was just really distressing to see.

So yeah, one day I woke up and thought why not do something about it.

What kinds of questions do people ask you about the project?

People are very keen on the idea. They hate that I can’t give blood, just as and when. So I get similar questions to what you’re asking, why are you doing it, what’s the point, how long have you been doing it for, what does this mean, what are you trying to achieve, all the usual ones.

Have you been contacted by James Neuberger?

Well I started out postcarding a chap called John Pallutto who is the head of the NHS Blood and Transplant board. I sent postcards to him for about 4 weeks so about 20 postcards - I send them Monday-Friday. He emailed me and it transpired that there was going to a governmental review on the ban so he basically just said we can’t really do anything about changing the rule. James Neuberger, however, is the head of SaBTO (Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs) who is leading the charge in reviewing the 12 month MSM (gay and bisexual men) ban on blood donations. Once they finish the report, whatever they tell the NHS to do will have to be put into motion. So he (Pallutto) basically said we’d love to help but we can’t, so please send postcards to this guy instead (Neuberger).

A couple of my friend thought it was just somebody I knew, really randomly, like why are you sending him postcards?!

Have you been contacted by him?

Yeah I’ve been contacted by a couple of people who work for the Department of Health in general. But they’re very generic stock responses like, thank you for alerting us to that and I’m sorry about that, take a ticket please. So nothing major as of yet.

What do you hope that he says?

That it will be changed because it’s not a discrimination viewpoint that I’ve got, there’s even a strong evidence-based scientific one now. It’s just ridiculous. I just hope that he’d say that we’ve managed to look through some of the latest research over the last couple of years and come to the conclusion that we don’t need this ban at all. Look at Argentina, Spain and Italy – they don’t have any sort of ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men and their blood stocks are much healthier because of it. It should just be an individual basis in the way that they organise risk, instead of banning an entire community.

So when friends ask me questions about it, I give them this scenario to show how silly the law is; if you were the most promiscuous straight guy you could walk into a blood drive and give blood right then and there. Whereas, even if you were married to another man for years and you’ve only had sex with him for the last 5 or 10 years, they wouldn’t be able to give blood straight away. It just seems illogical.

What will you be doing on Sunday then?

I’m going to be doing a short talk about what I’m doing and why people should get involved. Afterwards I’m going to be sitting at a table, hopefully not on my own, with lots of collage-y postcard making things that people can cut out and stick together to make their own postcards. Got a few on the go already (from members of the media team). This way people can just come up with their own reasons for why it’s bad and wrong, why we should change it and their viewpoints, and add their postcard to everyone else’s! I’ll be showing them off on the Instagram over the next few weeks so everyone can get an idea of what other people are saying.

Do you hope that it turns into a movement and lots of people send postcard daily?

Yeah definitely, because Britain isn’t the only place where it’s basically an indefinite ban. I’m half Danish and it’s the case there that gay and bisexual men  can’t give blood ever.

It’s an indefinite ban but on the other side there at 18 countries in the world, including places like Italy and Spain, where they don’t have freeze-out bans. So you can just turn up and it’s more of an individual assessment of your risk instead of just saying every gay/bi man will get HIV or Hep C in his life. So definitely, it would be great if it was a movement and I think that there’s way more people doing lots of different things as well.

But it’s not just me trying to get the law on blood donation changed. There’s a really great organization called Freedom to Donate that have been lobbying the issue for a few years and have gotten really far.

There are more people out there, it’s just connecting everybody up.

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