Back in 2010, Ethan Spibey’s grandfather underwent major surgery and survived—thanks to eight pints of donated blood. His entire family knew that he wouldn’t have lived through the operation had it not been for the generosity of blood donors, and to repay that invaluable kindness, they all decided to donate blood, too.
“Realizing that granddad wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for blood donors, we couldn’t believe we’d never donated blood ourselves,” Spibey told Positive News. However, one thing barred him from joining his family in donating. Much to his shock and dismay, as a gay man, Spibey wasn’t permitted to donate due to a restriction put in place during the HIV crisis in the 1980s following the contaminated blood scandal.
Spibey was in his first year of university at the time and hadn’t come out to his family yet, so had to pretend that he didn’t want to donate. “I just felt so guilty and ashamed that I couldn’t help,” he says. “I almost felt unwanted, dirty—and that feeling inspired me to say, ‘You know what? This is ridiculous. This can’t honestly be the case that people have been excluded: fundamentally because they’re gay.’”
This experience inspired him to launch Freedom to Donate in 2014. By this time, the policy had changed and allowed men to donate blood as long as they hadn’t engaged in intercourse with another man within the past 12 months. Freedom to Donate wanted more and campaigned for all blood donors to be assessed on their individual risk of carrying blood-borne viruses like HIV, instead of a discriminatory policy that excludes gay and bisexual men.
Their hard work resulted in their first victory in 2017: a reduction of the 12-month deferral period to three months.
In June of this year, Freedom to Donate celebrated the new system that the NHS finally put into effect that allows many individuals to give blood for the first time. Under the new system, all donors are asked questions about their sexual behavior on a gender-neutral basis, no matter what their sexual orientation is.
Daniel Costen, who joined the Freedom to Donate campaign in 2016, puts the impact that the policy change will have purely and simply: “For a lot of people, they’ll no longer feel like they’re not good enough.”
The success of the campaign was due in large part to Spibey’s intelligent movement-building skills, which he picked up while volunteering for the campaign for equal marriage when he was a student at King’s College in London. He was able to bring together like-minded individuals with a range of diverse skills in order to pull off their campaign. They also partnered with LGBTQ+ charities and created a “coalition of support” across UK parliament, getting community health groups, doctors, and even celebrities involved.
The campaign’s focus on positive messaging was also key to the group’s success. Rather than giving off a condemning tone for what the campaigners viewed as a discriminatory policy, they intentionally avoided negative and inflammatory words like “discrimination.” Instead, they focused on the shortage of male blood donors and the potential for the policy change to increase them.
“It’s very easy to be outraged about something on Twitter. It’s harder to build a positive, solutions-based approach to how you actually propose to change it—but [it’s] more effective.”
Now, the UK has “the most pioneering policy for gay and bi men anywhere in the world,” Spibey proudly declares.