Christopher Karas' fight against Canadian Blood Services' gbMSM donor restrictions
‘Based on fear’
By Nathan Woolridge
In 2016, Christopher Karas, a paralegal and activist, filed a federal human rights complaint challenging Canadian Blood Services' (CBS) policy that restricts sexually active gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM) from donating blood. When the Brampton, Ont. man went to donate blood for the first time, he was shocked to have been turned away because of his sexuality.
“I didn't believe entirely that I would be barred outright if I were to go to a clinic and tried to donate. I thought, ‘I have nothing to lose. I'm going to try. I'm going to go into my local blood clinic and I'm going to try to donate my blood,’” says Karas.
In preparation for this, Karas even had a blood test done, which proved he was HIV-negative. Despite this, his request to donate blood was denied.
“When I went to the clinic, I showed them that I had my test results in hand and they said that they still can’t take my blood… because I'm gay.”
Christopher Karas is currently in the process of challenging Canadian Blood Services' gbMSM donation restrictions on the count of discrimination. He says the organization's targeted ads — telling people they can give life through donor restrictions — played a large role in his decision to take legal action. Photo courtesy of Christopher Karas.
This is a battle he’s been fighting almost his entire life. Throughout high school, as the only openly gay man, Karas tried to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) — a student-led organization meant to create a safe space for LGBTQ2S+ youth and allies. However, he faced heavy opposition from his Catholic school in Mississauga, Ont.
“They did everything in their power to stop [the GSA]. The posters I put up were torn down and we were barred from creating this group,” says Karas.
Eventually, Karas filed 25 complaints against the school board with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging discrimination and homophobia.
This marked the beginning of Karas’ fight for change.
Now, years later, Karas is dedicating his time and effort to challenge CBS’ donor policies that prevent him — and other gbMSM — from donating blood. And although the fight has been extensive, Karas says he’s hopeful.
“When I was fighting my school board, I received hate. I had a hate letter that was sent to [me] wanting to castrate me and
"I received hate. I had a hate letter that was sent to [me] wanting to castrate me."
— Christopher Karas
I had to get the police involved. It was dealt with as a hate crime, whereas with this case, I feel like the public is open to change,” Karas says.
Karas says CBS’ gbMSM donor policies are outdated and discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation.
“I think it's discrimination,” says Karas. “You have to see it as not just a policy that is barring men who have sex with men, but a policy that bars other groups.”
Karas says he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation when he went to donate his blood to Canadian Blood Services. Document photo courtesy of Christopher Karas.
These donor policies aren’t only restricted to gbMSM — they also affect women who have sex with gbMSM and transgender individuals who want to donate blood.
“If a woman has had sexual contact with a man who has had sex with a man in the last year, she must wait three months from last sexual contact before donating blood,” CBS states on their website.
When he filed the complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2016, he told CBC News the policy was "based on fear,” which stemmed from the tainted blood scandal.
“There was a fear of being infected. It was belief at the time that HIV and AIDS were the same thing and, not just that, but it was a disease that was only specific to gay men. So they created this policy as a response to that.”
Although the donor policies have changed since he first filed a complaint from five years to one year and then to a three-month deferral period, Karas still shares the same sentiment.
“We still have a history of discrimination ... And we need to confront that."
— Christopher Karas
“I think it's interesting that they actually use this word deferral because they wanted to find a way to change the policy and make it seem as if they had done something significant, but they really haven’t,” he says. “They were able to maintain the lifetime policy under a deferral and make it seem as if some progress had been made.”
But, CBS disagrees with Karas by championing the three-month deferral period as “an incremental step in the evolution of our donor eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.”
“Because the Public Health Agency of Canada identifies men who have sex with men as a high-risk group for HIV transmission, and our testing cannot show new infections within the ‘window period,’ the waiting period for men who have sex with men is part of a multi-tiered system designed to protect the safety of blood donors and patients,” CBS said in a written statement.
After looking into Karas’ complaint, the Canadian Human Rights Commission found it had merit and facilitated a mediation between Karas’ team, CBS and Health Canada, which failed to reach a mutual agreement. Karas’ complaint was then referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, according to the Brampton Guardian.
After four years, Karas is preparing for the tribunal process in his fight against Canadian Blood Services' gbMSM donation restrictions. Document photo courtesy of Christopher Karas.
Karas and his team are preparing for this next step in the process. During the tribunal process, there will be investigations, witnesses and a final ruling, the Brampton Guardian writes, including the chance to appeal the decision. If necessary, the next step could involve bringing the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“In a lot of cases, the public wants a change to happen, but the government is a whole different story, right?
Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services don't want the status quo to change. They really don't,” says Karas.
Karas feels there won’t be any changes to CBS’ policies until they are forced to change them.
“I think they're waiting for this decision to be made so that they can point to it and say, ‘The tribunal decided that, so we're going to do this now. We're not going to do it ourselves. We're going to do it because this decision was made.’”
Karas isn’t sure when or where this journey will end, but he is hoping the pressure being put on CBS will enact some sort of change.
“We still have a history of discrimination … And we need to confront that. We can't put it under a rug. We have to challenge it so that we can hopefully live in a world that's been better than the one we came into.”