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Fear of AIDS Leads Red Cross to Cancel Lesbian Blood Drive

Times Staff Writer

Despite a shortage of human blood, the Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross canceled a lesbian-sponsored donor drive last week out of fear that the public would think the donations might be tainted by the AIDS virus, which primarily strikes homosexual men.

Dr. Benjamin Spindler, the chapter’s medical director of blood services, said Tuesday he canceled the Dec. 30 donation drive, planned by at least 40 gay women at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Garden Grove, because the association could undermine public confidence in the organization’s blood supply.

Discrimination Charged

“We felt that the public was concerned that we might be collecting blood from gay men, and that is not true,” Spindler said. “We declined to go to the gay community center (to collect blood donations) because of the confusion our other regular donors might have.”

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According to homosexual and lesbian leaders, it was the first time a blood drive was canceled because of what they called “blatant homophobia.”

Spindler said he knew about the planned blood drive, but canceled it on Dec. 27 after he read a notice of it in a newspaper and received one complaint. He said about four other complaints were received by other Red Cross employees.

Gay and lesbian leaders charged Tuesday that Spindler’s action discriminated against lesbians, a group considered to be at least risk of contracting or spreading the disease, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or any other blood-borne disease.

“Apparently, the need for blood in Orange County must not be as great as stated when you permit prejudice and fears to cancel a blood drive,” the center’s chairman wrote in a letter of protest sent to Spindler.

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Spindler, however, said Tuesday that he valued the “good will and understanding” of the thousands of regular Red Cross donors “more than I value the 30 or 40 units of blood we would have collected.”

On Monday, the American Red Cross chapter in Los Angeles announced a critical shortage of 6,000 units of blood in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and made a public plea for immediate donations, particularly from persons with type O and type B blood. All but emergency medical procedures were being discouraged because of the lack of blood for transfusion, the chapter said.

Holiday Blood Drive

The lesbian blood drive was part of the Red Cross’ massive “Save-a-Life-Month” campaign, begun Dec. 14 to build up supplies over the holiday period, when there is usually a decline in donations.

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Virginia M. Apuzzo, executive director of the New York-based National Gay Task Force, called the decision “distressing” in light of a nearly two-year-old nationwide “Blood Sisters” campaign to promote donations from lesbian women while discouraging donations from homosexual men.

A group of San Diego area women won the task force’s 1984 humanitarian award for their successful blood drive, which received extensive publicity, Apuzzo said Tuesday.

Two previous lesbian-sponsored blood drives in Los Angeles had to take place at a donor center in downtown Los Angeles because Red Cross officials refused to send a bloodmobile to the area’s gay community center, according to officials of the center’s lesbian programs.

AIDS is a life-threatening condition that attacks the body’s immune system, leaving patients unable to resist infections. As of Jan. 6, 47% of the more than 7,788 people in the United States diagnosed as having AIDS had died, according to the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.

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Since it first appeared in the United States in 1979, AIDS almost exclusively has affected homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users, Haitians, hemophiliacs and others exposed to contaminated blood products via transfusion.

AIDS is believed to be spread through intimate sexual contact or by the transfer of blood from persons having or carrying the disease.

Public concern about the integrity of blood supplies has grown as an increasing number of AIDS cases were attributed to transfusions--93 cases nationwide, or 1.2% of all reported cases as of Jan. 6.

Health authorities now believe the incubation stage of AIDS takes at least six months, sometimes as long as five years. There is no test to determine whether a blood donor has AIDS, although medical officials say several screening methods are being developed.

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Dr. A. Brad Truax, a San Diego general practitioner who specializes in homosexual and lesbian health issues, said lesbians have “the safest blood of all,” because no lesbian has been diagnosed as having AIDS.

Truax, who helped to organize the San Diego area blood drives, said that, moreover, lesbians seldom contract hepatitis, a liver disease frequently spread through blood transfusions.

“This was obviously a decision based on blatant homophobia,” Truax said. “It’s a totally irrational fear related to a person’s being gay. . . . Not only are they (the Red Cross) turning away precious blood donations which they need, but they are also turning away the very safest blood.”

Group at Least Risk

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Spindler acknowledged that blood donations from lesbians involve the least risk, but he said he believes “the public could not distinguish between what was a high-risk group and what was not.”

Randy Pesqueira, coordinator of the Garden Grove center’s AIDS response program, said Tuesday he had urged Spindler to reconsider, calling the situation a “golden opportunity to educate the community that lesbians were the least likely to have AIDS. . . .

“He said he was much more concerned with the general population than with what the lesbian or homosexual community thought,” Pesqueira said.

Spindler said center officials had violated an agreement not to publicize the blood drive, and had compounded the problem by failing to make it clear that only gay women were being sought as donors. “It was confusing, from a general donor’s point of view,” he said.

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But Barbara Brock, coordinator of lesbian activities at the center, said there was never an agreement not to publicize the drive. To the contrary, she said, a Red Cross representative wanted publicity to enhance the image of the gay community, and provided 500 flyers to be distributed throughout the community.

Newspaper Notices Used

Brock said she decided against notifying local television stations because she didn’t want to frighten away potential lesbian donors. But details of the drive, scheduled for 11 a.m. on “Save-A-Life-Sunday” (Dec. 30), were contained in a press release sent to both gay and general-interest newspapers.

When word reached her on Friday, Dec. 28, of Spindler’s decision to cancel the drive, Brock said it was too late to contact the 40 women who had pledged to give blood, and another 20 who had said they probably would attend. Instead, she posted a notice on a door at the center.

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Brock said her telephone “rang off the hook” that Sunday with calls from irate women protesting the cancellation, and that the center’s telephone hot line was jammed with calls about it. Callers were referred to the Red Cross chapter offices in Santa Ana, but Spindler said only a handful of anonymous calls were received.

Spindler said he invited lesbians to come individually or as a group to the Red Cross center to donate blood, but that no one has taken him up on the offer.

Hard Feelings Created

Stuart Smith, chairman of the center’s board of directors, said Tuesday that Spindler’s actions have jeopardized the homosexual community’s working relationship with the Red Cross.

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“Both agencies have a lot of crosses to bear,” Smith said. He added that he thought Spindler may just have been trying to be “very cautious” about a potentially inflammatory issue. He said, “It is discrimination, but there are no laws that prevent this kind of thing.”

Spindler responded that “any lesbian woman who does not fit into the high-risk category (for AIDS) is welcome here at the (Red Cross) center.”

“I think the cancellation was unfortunate, but it was done primarily out of concern for the thousands of donors we rely upon to supply us with blood,” he said.


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