Battle over blood

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When nurses from Blood Bank of the Redwoods set up their needles, blood machines and cartons of high-fructose juice at Sonoma State University last week, 94 students, faculty and staff members donated blood.

Math professor Rick Luttmann was not one of them.

He was ineligible, he said, because of a federal Food and Drug Administration ban on blood donations from men who had had sex with men. A ban that he said amounts to unlawful discrimination.

Blood drives are the newest battleground for SSU faculty members who, led by Luttmann, are out to purge organizations on the 8,500-student campus they say discriminate against gays .

In a resolution to the school's Academic Senate, Luttmann has asked that SSU discontinue all campus blood drives because the FDA ban violates the school's anti-discrimination policy.

Blood bank officials say SSU accounts for about 5 percent of the regional blood supply.

SSU's administration has not taken a position on the proposed resolution, said Susan Kashack, university spokeswoman.

It is not the first time faculty members have argued against allowing an organization on campus because of similar concerns. In October, SSU canceled a $15,000 athletic sponsorship deal with the Army after faculty members complained that the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay service members violated the campus policy.

If the blood bank resolution is approved by the faculty, as Luttmann predicts it will be, it will go the administration to decide whether blood drives can be continued on campus.

"The blood banks say if you are gay you are second-class, your blood isn't worthy," Luttmann said. "If the administration is really serious about the nondiscrimination policy, then we can't tolerate blood banks."

Luttmann's proposal comes on the heels of a San Jose State University decision in January to ban blood banks from conducting drives there because of discrimination issues.

While San Jose State students supported the ban, many SSU students appear to oppose it.

"People need access to blood. At any moment someone could need a transfusion," said student Skye Nashelsky, president of the Queer Straight Alliance. "The FDA is discriminating, but it's people who need blood who would be punished if we banned blood drives."

Men who have had sex with men since 1977 are eliminated from the donor pool because the FDA recognizes them as a risk of HIV infection.

The Red Cross and blood banks across the nation, including Blood Bank of the Redwoods, support lifting the lifetime ban on blood donations from such men, said Kent Corley, spokesman for Blood Bank of the Redwoods. Current HIV tests screen blood with minimal problems, he said.

However, Corley also said the ban relates to sexual history and not sexual orientation and does not constitute discrimination.

He cautioned SSU faculty against their effort.

"If we can't call on the community to step up the blood supply because of an issue like this, it would be unfortunate. People would not get the blood they need," he said.

"SSU represents a big donor base for us," Corley said, noting 350 new donors sign up at Sonoma State every year.

Last year, SSU students, faculty and staff donated 619 units of blood in 12 drives, said Diana Nation, chairwoman of JUMP, a community-building student association on campus.

That represents 5 percent of Blood Bank of the Redwoods' three-county supply, Corley said, and a potentially significant long-term supply if young student donors get in the habit of giving blood regularly.

"Nobody wants to see anybody discriminated against. I mean, that's not what we're trying to promote by wanting to promote the blood drives," Nation said. "But we feel the benefits outweigh the cost at this time."

Student leaders are considering a resolution opposing Luttmann's proposed ban on blood drives.

"We don't want it to look like we're supporting discrimination, but we don't feel qualified to determine if the FDA's ban is incorrect," said Jonathan White, speaker of the Student Senate. "Sponsoring blood drives is good for the whole community."

Students in the Queer Straight Alliance are supporting the blood drives, too, and issued a statement voicing opposition to both the FDA policy and the proposed faculty resolution.

Nashelsky and others in the Queer Straight Alliance are working to develop strategies to educate the community about the FDA's ban without endangering the quantity of the blood supply.

Students unable to contribute to blood drives may be asked to find a donor to give blood in their name. The Queer Straight Alliance may develop an on-campus visual exhibit, such as using pint jars of red-colored water to illustrate how many people wanted to give blood but were not allowed.

Some students, faculty and staff are finding their own ways to cope with the FDA policy.

Luttmann said at the blood drive last week he rolled up his sleeve to give blood while telling blood bank staff he was gay.

"I asked, 'Is that going to be a problem?' and they said 'Yes, I'm sorry, but it is,' " Luttmann said.

He did not give blood.

Nashelsky, whose grandmother received blood during a medical emergency five years ago, said he has donated about 20 times in her name, opting in his words to "lie."

"I want to donate. I know I'm not (HIV) positive. I have safe sex and I get tested regularly," said Nashelsky, who has the coveted O negative blood type.

"I don't like lying. But I can't say 'no, I can't donate. Sorry to ruin your day.' It's a good feeling. It's a gift you're able to give someone."

You can reach Staff Writer Laura Norton at 521-5220 or

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