In October 2008, Robert Wayman started his Philosophy degree at Essex. He joined the Students’ Unions LGBT and Friends society and discovered that, as a gay man, he was banned from giving blood for life. It was at that point that he began campaigning for change.
In June 2021 blood donation rules changed, removing the ban to allow gay and bisexual men who have had the same partner for at least three months to give blood. The following month, Robert gave blood for the first time.
“Coming to Essex was an eye opener. I went through school not talking about homosexuality. Even after Section 28 ended in 2003 [a series of laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality] it wasn’t talked about throughout my education.
“You go to university and it's liberating. Essex had a very active LGBT and Friends society, students union, and it was a safe space. When I got there, I thought “this is great because, finally, I can be who I am."
“Through the society and my role as LGBT officer for the Students’ Union, we had links with NUS, and they told us about the giving blood campaign. I wanted to get behind it. We were an active society and we thought it was a cause that could get a lot of engagement – a lot of people give blood but not a lot of people knew about the discrimination.
“At a similar time, Anthony Nolan changed their rules so you could be a stem cell donor, but you still couldn't give blood. This made it more apparent that it was discriminatory. Gay and bisexual men weren’t banned based on our individual risk, we were banned based on our sexuality and gender. It incorrectly stereotypes that all gay and bisexual men act in ways that increase the odds of having HIV and other blood-borne diseases. In fact, the rationale that banned gay and bisexual men from donating allowed other people who engage in the same risky sexual behaviours to donate blood without so much as a caution. That’s why it was discriminatory.
“Even in my adult life, after university, every time someone would give blood, I would ask them to give a pint for me. They'd ask why and I’d explain about the rules against gay and bisexual men. A lot of people didn’t know about it, it was a good way to really open that conversation.”
Inspired to make a change to the discrimination being faced, Robert, the LGBT and Friends society and the Students’ Union were ready to fight for change.
“We were part of the national campaign in 2010 which the Students’ Union had supported before. It was two days of activity including a talk, but the big thing was being in the squares and getting people to sign the petition over two days. We didn't have iPads or access to things like change.org, so it was literally getting people to hand-sign a petition. We were encouraging people to give blood too. Our message wasn’t to not give blood, our message was ‘give blood because we can’t, talk and be an advocate to get rid of this discrimination’.
“We had huge signs around campus, and we did a big stunt where we pretended to give blood, but the blood went down the drain. We were trying to convey that we had all this good blood that was going to waste. At that time, as it is now, there weren't enough men giving blood either, yet they wouldn’t take ours. We got hundreds of signatures and had a good response."
“Essex gave us that space to be vocal and campaign for change and I think that’s something unique to Essex. It was the welcoming, diverse community that we had on campus that made us feel able to be more active and ask for signatures from hundreds of people without getting any negative responses.
“With students from over one hundred countries at that time, many where homosexuality was illegal, you think that it could have been a hostile environment, but it really wasn't. It was the diversity that actually made it more accepting.”
The giving blood campaign was one of many things Robert, the Students’ Union and the LGBT and Friends society did. In 2011, his last year at Essex, the society, one of the first of its kind in the UK, celebrated its 40th anniversary, making this year the 50th anniversary of the society. A presentation exhibiting archive materials from the society through the years can be seen onYouTube.
The drive and power behind the LGBT and Friends society, and the wider campaign around the country, continued throughout the years and did eventually lead to a change in the rules. In 2011, when Robert graduated, a change was made to the rules updating the lifetime ban to a twelve-month ban.
“It did change but it still wasn’t great. The twelve-month ban was kind of lip service. It annoyed me more because I still couldn’t give blood. I was still being discriminated based on sexuality and gender because it wasn’t realistic. Gay and bisexual men could be in a same-sex monogamous relationship, practicing safe sex, but couldn’t give blood unless they abstained from sex for 12 months. That’s still discriminatory.”
But even after Essex, Robert’s campaigning ways did not leave him. Things like change.org made it easy for more people to get behind causes and petition for reform.
“I’m an advocate for talking about giving blood. As I mentioned, my big thing was saying to people ‘give a pint for me’, and start that conversation, telling them about the rules.”
In 2017, the rules were changed again. The twelve-month ban became a three-month ban. Then, in June this year, a significant change was made. Donors are no longer asked if they are a man who has had sex with another man. Instead, any individual who attends to give blood, regardless of gender, will be asked if they have had sex and, if so, about recent sexual behaviours. Anyone who has had the same sexual partner for the last three months will be eligible to donate.
When hearing the news that Robert would finally be able to give blood, more than ten years since his campaigning began, he said it was a ‘great feeling’ and he immediately booked an appointment. As we speak, he’s even due to give blood again tomorrow!
“My blood type is A- so I’m actually quite rare and in-demand. It was one of the proudest things I’ve done. It sounds really small, but when you've been told you can't do it because of who you are, it means a lot. Then they send you a text message when your blood has been used which was a great feeling. My first pint went to Frimley Park Hospital."
Having also seen so many of my gay and bisexual friends give blood once the change came into place this summer, Robert is looking forward to seeing the future statistics to understand just how much of an increase in male donors the change has attributed to.
“I hope Essex is a still a breeding ground for people that are passionate. It’s important to have a place where you can have open debate and discussion. Essex is a platform where you can create change.
“Getting people to believe in a cause…it absolutely helped formulate where I wanted to go in my career. Until now I’ve never described myself as a change-maker, maybe a difference-maker, but maybe I am, and doing that campaign was the start.”
Since graduating Robert has put his engagement and campaigning skills to good use in his career in higher education where he focussed on fundraising and stakeholder engagement. He is now Head of Recruitment for Foster Carers in a county council.
“When I was able to give blood for the first time, I did stop and reflect back on the years because it’s been such a long journey. When I think back to the days campaigning in the squares, same sex couples couldn’t even get married at that point.”
Now happily married and a regular blood donor, we’re so proud of the part that Essex played in Robert’s journey.