Blood Donor Activism, Homonormativity and the Sexual Politics of Credible Participation

Benjamin Weil

My ongoing research into blood donor activism in the UK – predominantly gay and bisexual men protesting the deferral of men who have sex with men from donating blood aka the “gay blood ban” – in part locates this activist practice as evidence of what Lisa Duggan has described as the now-entrenched “homonormativity” of gay and lesbian political forms. According to Duggan, homonormativity is a product of the perfusion of neoliberal ideology, inculcating “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.” Homonormativity, Duggan argues, can be understood to depoliticise gay and lesbian identity and its potential for radical social critique, centring, instead, a politics of respectability that defines “a ‘positive’ role model as a well-dressed, prosperous, white professional.”

As a concept, homonormativity has enjoyed a full political life outside of academia. According to the transgender studies theorist and historian, Susan Stryker, the term homonormativity was first utilised within transgender activist circles as a critique of the privileges afforded to homosexuality as a category of sexual identity by virtue of maintaining normative gender definitions and embodiments. Elsewhere, something closer to Duggan’s use of the term has been routinely taken up by queer activists and within mainstream and gay press to highlight gay and lesbian political and cultural forms regarded as exclusionary or politically problematic.

While broader citations of homonormativity have been useful for naming a certain political tendency and opening it up to vital critique, these framings typically apprehend homonormativity as solely bad acts of embodied political agency. In contrast, the academic scholarship on homonormativity has tended to (although by no means universally) highlight homonormativity as the product or corollary of a range of overlapping cultural, structural or institutional factors – for instance, neoliberalism, European jurisprudence, or the ripple effects of AIDS crisis. Pointing out this discrepancy is not intended as an elitist form of terminological nit-picking. Rather, I wish to highlight that while the apprehension of homonormativity as a form of bad political agency – in other words, taken up by craven individuals craving assimilation – serves  as a rallying point for gay and lesbian politics, it also narrows, reductively, the scope of discussion and reform to individuals and their intentions, rather than the wider culture that encourages, constrains or enables them. Note, for instance, how swiftly the critique of the homonormative politics of Pete Buttigieg – the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate – derailed, prompting ideological defences of whether or not Buttigieg himself was “gay enough” to represent the LGBT+ community.

Through my interviews with blood donor activists in the UK, I have found that the homonormative embodiments within protests of the so-called “gay blood ban” have interesting and rather surprising roots. Rather than simply being the product of a desire for conformity and assimilation into the heterosexual mainstream, the homonormative politics of blood donor activism can be understood as, in part, the product of the epistemic norms of engagement required of lay outsiders attempting to intervene within the politics of public health. In this case, I wish to argue that homonormativity evinced within the politics of blood donation represents the sexual politics of credibility.

In Steven Epstein’s seminal study of US AIDS treatment activism in the late 1980s and 1990s, he outlines the “credibility tactics” that outsider activists were compelled to take up in order to effect change in the biomedical procedures that governed the testing, production and distribution of life-saving AIDS drugs. Activists, for instance, learned to speak in the language of biomedicine; enrolled allies by inserting themselves in existing intradisciplinary debates; and translated their claims by yoking moral or political arguments to methodological ones. In a strikingly similar fashion, in order to be position themselves as legitimate participants within the politics of blood donation, blood donor activists have adopted credibility tactics of their own. In particular, activists – at the point of their engagement with policy-makers within what Jenell Johnson and colleagues refer to as the “‘field of vision” of institutional science and medicine” – have tended to articulate  their campaigns in the cool, ‘apolitical’, and objective terms of scientific epistemology.

The epistemic norms of public health thus form what sociologists of social movements have termed an “opportunity structure” that enables the flourishing of only a certain form of blood donor activism. Crucially, this facilitative structure has its corollaries, constraining the possibility of other articulations of blood donor activist claims – possibilities rendered less legitimate under scientific orthodoxy. Blood donor activists, for instance, in working to establish scientific legitimacy for their campaigns have been compelled to eschew overt, political messaging and emotional displays about institutional homophobia. As one participant, George (pseudonym), put it: “I just felt quite keen to sort of say to people, “Don’t put that in the messaging because that’s very us. And we’re not trying to convince us.” For example, one activist, Patrick (a pseudonym), described his experience of meeting with policy-makers from the Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs as follows: “I felt I couldn’t really talk about institutional homophobia […] I wanted to get in with the facts, with what I thought they wanted to hear or what their argument was going to be […] I wanted to meet their arguments on science and not just my opinion because they didn’t care for that.” As such, activists have been keen to publicly assert their campaigns as public health oriented – concerned with expanding the pool of potential donors – rather than, as activists privately expressed to me, to do with challenging the homophobic implications of deferring men who have sex with men from donating blood.

It is important to note that the constraints placed on activist campaigns extended beyond whether or not they were able to explicitly discuss the topic of institutional homophobia – since the adoption of credibility tactics could be read as merely the necessary means to reform donor deferral criteria. In fact, the demand for activists to cultivate apolitical, objective and otherwise ‘scientised’ campaign identities placed limits on precisely what issues they were able to take up. Certain issues like sex without condoms, drug use, and sex work, despite their implication within the risk politics of blood donation policy, were considered too political, taboo, or transgressive to broach with policy-makers or politicians and, therefore, to threaten the fragile credibility that campaigners had worked hard to carve. One donor activist told me, for instance, that, whilst lobbying for MSM donor reform, “politically people didn’t want to touch the idea of looking at commercial sex workers or people who had ever injected themselves with drugs. […] People [would] tense up a bit compared to when they were talking about LGBT issues.” Consequently, blood donor activist campaigns have tended to centre monogamous, condom-using gay men – the very embodiment of sexualised homonormativity – at the expense of more difficult or sensational topics.

In sum, the epistemic norms of public health, or, in other words, the requirements for legitimate entry into the politics of knowledge, can be understood in the case of blood donor activism to exert a chilling effect over and to accelerate the depoliticising of gay political forms. There is a critical implication here for both the sociology of activism, as well as the broader push-pull between activist practice and its critique. If we do not attend to and attempt to intervene in the orthodoxy of scientific knowledge politics and simply continue to ‘game’ them as a way of staking credible participation, the political forms and voices of marginalised groups (i.e. those that deviate from the hegemonic face of scientific expertise) will continue to be constrained, limited and flattened in ways that prevent the blossoming of a truly radical politics of change. It is in this sense that it is meaningful to apprehend the homonormativity of blood donor activism as, in part, a product of the epistemic requirements of outside participation in public health policy. Doing so trains our gaze away, momentarily, from individual campaigners or even individual campaigns and towards the institutional norms or politics that structure activism and are so desperately in need of reform – for instance, in the form of a true and equitable culture of lay participation within the politics of public health.

Benjamin Weil is an ESRC-supported PhD candidate in the Science and Technology Studies Department at UCL, researching blood donor activism in the UK. Working at the intersections of queer and science and technology studies, he is particularly interested in the co-constitution of science and sexuality. He is also a founding member of the Decolonise STEM Collective. Ben obtained his MSc at University College London (Science, Technology and Society) and his BA at Cambridge University (Natural Sciences). Twitter: @benvyle

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