Monday, June 28, 2010

Imagine Living in Idaho

Idaho is a beautiful state, I spent a summer at music camp in Sun Valley when I was a kid, and I have had occasion to pass through there at other times. But scenery isn't everything, I don't think I'd really want to live there. From an article in the Spokesman-Review:
Idaho doesn’t recognize gay or lesbian marriage, but some Republicans want the state to go a step further.

A panel of GOP delegates at the state party’s convention passed a measure Friday to define marriage as a bond between a “naturally born” man and woman, effectively barring transgenders.

Bannock County delegate Ralph Lilling says his amendment to the state party’s platform will help further protect the traditional family unit.

But Donna Montgomery, a delegate from Kootenai County, argued that the additional language was unnecessary because people from Idaho understand man is a man and a woman is a woman.

The measure still has to go before the full convention for approval. Idaho GOP move to define marriage to exclude transgenders

What you almost love is the person who's so dumb they think this wording is not necessary because the gender dichotomy is so obvious. At least to people from Idaho. Well, there's not much reason to comment on this, it is what it is. There but for the grace of God ...

This article goes on to list other achievements of this Republican panel up there in Idaho. For instance, they voted to repeal the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution, which is the one that says Senators will be elected by the people rather than appointed by the state legislature. They decided not to support medical marijuana, no big surprise there.

Oh, and they also voted in favor of Idaho having its own state militia that is not under federal control.
Butte County delegate Guy Mongan says such a force could assist in the event of natural disasters and wouldn’t be subject to a military call-up, such like the Idaho National Guard.

Sure, like for forest fires and stuff, I'm sure they weren't thinking of anything like Ruby Ridge at all when they came up with that one.

The article notes that these things are not on the official GOP platform yet, they have to be approved by the full convention Saturday.

The comments are pretty good, too.

Idaho is a Republican-dominated state, in case you hadn't figured that out. Barack Obama got 36.1 percent of the vote there in the last Presidential election, it's like the opposite of our Blue suburban county. In other words, it is entirely possible that these things will be passed into law.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Supreme Court: Bigots Can Be Identified

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that signatures on a petition can be made public. Anti-gay groups in Washington State had called for a referendum that would overturn a new law there that gave rights to LGBT citizens. The 138,000 people who signed the petitions wanted to take their neighbors' rights away anonymously, saying they were afraid of retaliation for expressing their opinion. The Supreme Court said no, it's okay, people have the right to know who signed those petitions.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the names of people who signed petitions in an attempt to overturn a new gay rights law in Washington could be made public, a victory for state officials who said the case was a test of open government laws.

Justices ruled 8-1 in a case called Doe V. Reed. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. They heard oral arguments in Washington, D.C., April 28.

The ruling dealt broadly with claims by foes of the new gay rights law that disclosing their names would violate their First Amendment rights. However the justices said the plaintiffs could go back to a lower court to try to get a specific exemption on other grounds - and the chief lawyer for people who signed the Referendum 71 petitions said he would do so. Supreme Court on R-71: Names on petitions can be made public

I grew up in a time when we were taught to stand up for our beliefs. We learned to respect differences of opinion, but when it was our turn we said what we believed and we took the consequences. We called it "freedom," and it carried the cargo of accountability.

These people in Washington wanted to express their opinion and then have the government place a hood over their faces so nobody would know who they were.
Protect Marriage Washington asked justices to shield the names of the 138,000 people who signed R-71 petitions in hopes of overturning the "everything but marriage" same-sex domestic partner law. In November Washington voters upheld the new statute. Gay rights groups have said they'll post the petition signers' names online, and some fear harassment or threats if their names are revealed.

State officials had said there are laws in place to protect people who might be threatened. When people sign petitions or referendums they are acting as legislators, [Washington Attorney General Rob] McKenna said, because they are trying to enact or change laws.

Gary Randall of the Faith and Freedom Network said in an e-mail that plaintiffs will go back and seek an exemption for R-71 signers.

"The names cannot be released to the homosexual activists immediately," Randall wrote. "This matter is not settled yet."

It's not settled? The freakin' Supreme Court has ruled, man, it's settled. C'mon, let's see those names.

They are afraid of retaliation, so what? You speak up, sometimes you have to fight for what you believe. That is what these chickenlivers were trying to subvert with this lawsuit, they want to tear other people's lives down under cover of legal darkness, and even this conservative Supreme Court can see that's not the way we do things around here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Saletan on Black and Gay Blood Donors

I see William Saletan, writing at Slate, asks the same question I was asking a couple of weeks ago, though of course he asks it better than I did. We're talking about the policy of not accepting blood donations from men who have had sex with another man even once since 1977. The abbreviation for "men who have sex with men" is MSM, it's more precise than "gay" or "homosexual."

The FDA bases its MSM policy on simple math. "Men who have had sex with men since 1977 have an HIV prevalence … 60 times higher than the general population," the agency observes. "Even taking into account that 75% of HIV infected men who have sex with men already know they are HIV positive and would be unlikely to donate blood," that leaves a population of MSM blood-donor applicants whose HIV prevalence is "over 15 fold higher than the general population."

So a 15-fold difference is good enough to warrant group exclusion. How about a nine-fold difference? According to the Centers for Disease Control, HIV prevalence is eight to nine times higher among blacks than among whites, and HIV incidence (the rate of new infections in a given year) is seven times higher. For black women, HIV prevalence is 18 times higher than for white women.

And these numbers understate the likely difference in risk to the blood supply. A recent CDC analysis of MSM in five cities found that while only 18 percent of the HIV-infected white men were unaware of their infections, 67 percent of the infected black men were unaware. If the awareness gap between blacks and whites overall is even half as great as it was among the men in this study—i.e., if blacks are twice as likely as whites to be unaware that they're infected, and therefore more likely to try to donate infected blood—then theoretically, black donors are just as risky as MSM donors. If it's OK to reject blood from gay men, what about blacks?

His links are very informative.

This is a multiobjective optimization problem, if I may say so. You are trying to maximize the availability of blood while at the same time minimizing the risk of accidental infection through transfusion.

Maybe it's easier to think of a comparable multiobjective optimization problem that does not have the connotational baggage. Think of speed limits on the roads. There are two criteria: you want people to be able to get to their destinations as quickly as possible, at the same time minimizing the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries from accidents. The ban on MSM blood donors is like setting the speed limit to ten miles per hour everywhere. The Beltway, interstate highways, school zones, everywhere, no one can ever go faster than ten miles per hour.

The effect of such a speed limit would be to optimize one of the two criteria. I'll bet almost nobody would ever get killed or seriously injured in car wrecks at ten or less miles per hour. You can see though that this solution fails to optimize the other criterion. Nobody would ever be able to get where they were going. Forget traveling, working in the next county, forget going out of your neighborhood, you can't do it at ten miles per hour. Speed limits have to optimize both criteria, travel efficacy and safety, over a general population.

In the same way, the point of collecting blood is to make blood available for people who need it. A 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 6.5 per cent of men age 25-44 had ever had oral or anal sex with another man. You would be taking approximately that percent of American males out of the donor pool by implementing a no-MSM rule. The policy has a cost: it results in fewer donors, making much-needed blood more scarce.

Saletan's point is on-target. If the reason for the rule was simply to decrease the risk of infection by banning a group of people with a high infection rate, then in a reasonable world you would not allow black people to donote blood, either. Of course, even if you supported a no-blacks policy with statistics, everybody would recognize the policy as racism. The question for blood donation is obviously not the color of somebody's skin, but whether they are infected with a deadly disease. And even though blacks are more likely to be infected with HIV, and even though they are less likely to know when they are infected, and thus are more likely to innocently show up to donate blood, the powers that be feel that the risk is acceptable. And most people agree that the risk is acceptable, all blood is tested, the chances of getting HIV from blood are now one in every two and a half million transfusions and that's not bad.

So why does the government accept black people's blood and not gay people's? There is only one possible explanation: gay cooties.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Two Armies Side By Side

I don't usually watch much TV news, but I made a point of watching Chris Matthews' special documentary this week on "The Rise of the New Right." He talked about it ahead of time on Rachel Maddow's show, and to tell you the truth I was more interested in some things he said in the interview than I was in the documentary itself.

He told Rachel:
There's two armies that march almost side by side through American history.

There's the progressive army that led for abolition, that fought the Civil War, the good guys of the Civil War. And then of course, those who really pushed for reconstruction afterwards like Thaddeus Stevens and the good guys, the radical Republicans of that day.

And alongside is this other army, the know-nothings and then the Klansmen that came along later. And then, you've got in the 20th century - it's the same pattern - it's the progressives moving a step or two ahead of this reactionary army that rides right along them, some camp followers playing off the dispossessed, those who resent change.

It's the same with sexual orientation today. There's always going to be another group growing along saying this threatens traditional marriage. This threatens something here. Transcript: Rachel Maddow show, Tuesday, June 15, 2010 [Edited after listening to the video: JimK ]

I don't suppose the perspective originates with Chris Matthews but I appreciate him putting it out there at this point in time when it can be helpful to get a gods-eye view of the issues.

Do you remember learning about the Know-Nothings in history class? I don't either, they were a pretty powerful political movement in the early days of the United States. Here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for them.
The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery. Most ended up joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election. Wikipedia: Know Nothing

This was in a young America, living people could remember the Revolution. Nutty rightwing conspiracy theorists are as American as apple pie, it turns out. Two armies marching side by side, one fighting for kindness, fairness, objectivity, and the other fighting to preserve the power structure that rewards them with privilege. It's always been that way in this country.

I don't think I have ever met a person who actually believes that the US should allow slavery today, the buying and selling of human beings on the open market, depriving them of citizens' rights, considering them legally as property. But less than two hundred years ago slavery was widely accepted. The progressive abolitionist movement was successful, slavery is not only outlawed in this country but reviled by the great majority. I remember some mutterings when John Kennedy ran for President, that he would have to do anything the Pope told him to do, but really there is not much left of serious anti-Catholic prejudice in this country, some of us may oppose the church's stand on some topics but we don't just hate them because they're different from us, or because the Pope is going to become a tyrannical dictator. Even after the relatively recent civil rights revolution, public opinion has changed. There are still undercurrents of prejudice, and I have met people who don't believe that black people should have equal rights to whites but it is well understood in all levels of society that racial discrimination will not be tolerated. The progressives may bring fairness into the world kicking and screaming, but after a while those norms become the status quo and people accept them. The women's revolution -- there are still some awkward jokes and details to work out, but everyone knows a woman should get the same pay as a man for the same work, there is simply no reasonable argument against it, though the concept would have seemed absurd not so many years ago, within my lifetime. The progressives push for something, and over time it is accepted but in the meantime those who are known as "conservatives" will make progress as difficult as they can.

It was also good for Matthews to tie this historical trend to the issue of sexual orientation today. It's just the same, today's know-nothings cling to their stereotypes about gay people while the progressives continue to hammer out kind, fair, and objectively accurate policies, laws, and social norms. There is no doubt where the movement is headed, we are moving toward an era when sexual orientation simply doesn't matter. It's not here yet but it's visible on the horizon.

After discussing a number of races to be determined this fall, Matthews continued:
But we'll have to see. I don't know. I think this is a bad year for progressives. It's a tough economy, and you're always blamed if you're in power.

But the American people have sort of a gyroscope, something that always brings them back to center, we're very much - and nobody wants to hear this on the right, but we're very much like France in that way. We're a bourgeois country, you and I know that. We're a bourgeois society.

We're not an ideologically proletarian country or a right-wing militarist country. Generally, we listen to those voices and we never go further right than say Reagan, and the minute he got into office, he moved very much to the center, as governor of California, for example, on issues like abortion rights. He moved to the center.
I don't think we are an extremist country, but these voices are frightening. And at a time of economic desperation, if you will, they're being listened to. But the one ironic - I don't want to call it silver lining - the one whisper of possible good coming out of this horror in the Gulf of Mexico, which is really hurting our North America, the love we have for this part of the world, our own part of the world, is that maybe it convinces people that government is important.

As you said earlier in the program, government has a very positive role to play. To regulate - when you get on the airplane, don't you want to know there's an FAA? When you open up a can of tuna, don't you want to know that there's somebody who's making sure it doesn't have ptomaine in it?

Don't you want somebody on your side besides the money guys? And I do think that we're looking at the gulf as a country. I think the Republicans even - the very conservative Republicans, I think, are very hesitant now to say "Do nothing" to their president. "Don't do anything, let the industry do it." I haven't heard that voice this week. Isn't it interesting?

It's a horrible way to get there, but we're there, I think. [ Transcript edited after listening to video: JimK ]

Good point, a sad point but a good one, the silver lining on the Gulf disaster. Everybody is in favor of lower taxes, that's not a conservative position, everybody prefers to have control over their own money. Everybody is in favor of freedom and of keeping government out of our private lives, that's not a conservative position, they don't want government to stay out of gay people's lives, for instance, or marijuana smokers' lives, or prostitutes' lives. The difference between conservatives and liberals is what they think government should do, not how big it should be. Conservatives don't mind spending a billion dollars a week on a war against a population that poses no threat to us, but you let an injured immigrant use the emergency room and they will stand outside with picket signs demanding that the government do something about the "problem."

Conservatives were put into an awkward position during the debate over health-care reform, for instance, they had to be careful to oppose this health-care reform without saying something that would sound critical of Medicare, which they really don't want to lose, and which is the ultimate and very successful example of the progressive model for health care. In the Gulf spill, conservatives hate to criticize a gigantic corporation, which might be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the free market (and some politicians might lose generous contributions), but they love to take the opportunity to criticize the Democratic President, and the only way to do that is to assume that the federal government should be in charge of cleaning it up. Progressives and conservatives switch sides on that one, progressives think BP should pay for their own mess, the rightwingers are calling for the government to do it.

In fact the "new right," as Matthews calls them, uses simple concepts like tax reduction and small government as catch-phrases to lull voters into supporting them. Everybody is in favor of those things, each in his own way, and people who are stupid enough to believe that "liberals" want bigger government and higher taxes are stupid enough to join up with a movement like the Teabaggers. The know-nothings have always been there, but you can't just accept them, unfortunately you have to fight them tooth and nail every step of the way, because people don't have time to think things through and they will be persuaded by a catchy phrase. The good news is that America is progressing in spite of them. There is no slavery now, black people have civil rights, women have rights in the workplace that they never had, LGBT people are on the brink of being treated with respect. Progress is made, but it is a constant fight.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Prop-8 Arguments Finished

There has been some important testimony out in California this week. Let me give you the LA Times summary:
Closing arguments concluded Wednesday afternoon in the Proposition 8 trial with more pointed questions from U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who is presiding over the landmark proceedings to determine the constitutionality of California's ban on gay marriage.

When court resumed after the lunch break, Charles Cooper, attorney for proponents of the measure, told Walker that the "marital relationship is fundamental to the existence and survival of the race. Without the marital relationship, society would come to an end." That relationship, he said, is between a man and a woman and its main focus is procreation and "channeling" the sexual behavior of heterosexuals into "stable, marital unions."

Walker continually pressed the sometimes flustered Cooper on just what marriage means and why the state should care about it. Why does the state regulate marriage, he asked. Do people get married to benefit the community? Why doesn't the state just consider it a private contract?

Walker: "Why is it that marriage has such a large public role? What is the purpose?"

Cooper: "This relationship is crucial to the public interest. Procreative sexual relations both are an enormous benefit to society and represent a very real threat to society's interest."

Walker: "Threat?"

Cooper: "If children are born into the world without this stable, marital union both of the parents that brought them into the world, then a host of very important, very negative social implications arise.... The purpose of marriage is to provide society's approval to that sexual relationship and to the actual production of children."

Walker: "But the state doesn't withhold marriage from people who cannot have children."

Cooper: "It does not." Walker: "Are you saying the state should?"

Cooper took Theodore Olson, attorney for the gay and lesbian couples who filed suit against Proposition 8, to task for claiming that Californians could support the ban on same-sex marriage only "through irrational or dark motive, some animus, some kind of bigotry." He called Olson's characterization a "slur" on the millions of Americans who voted for the ballot measure in 2008 and "a slur on 70 of 108 judges who have upheld as rational the decisions by voters and legislators to preserve the traditional definition of marriage."

Olson's viewpoint, Cooper said, "denies the good faith of Congress, of state legislature after state legislature and electorate after electorate." To which Walker responded: "If you have 7 million Californians, 70 judges and this long history, why in this case did you present but one witness? ... You had a lot to choose from. One witness, and it was fair to say his testimony was equivocal."

A ruling in the case is expected sometime this summer. Prop. 8 trial: Closing arguments end as judge presses both sides

I wouldn't make any bets on how the judge will decide this one, but I think our side ended up looking good compared to the other guys. It does not appear that the Prop-8 supporters had any evidence to support their contentions, and they only called one witness after two weeks of testimony by the other side. Cooper seemed to think it was obvious that the insitution of marriage requires opposite sexes, and that since large numbers of people agree with him the judge should allow the prohibition of same-sex marriages to stand. The judge did not seem impressed with the obviousness of it, but on the other hand he was not entirely friendly to the other side, either.

Everybody expects this case to end up in the Supreme Court. Can't say I'm optimistic it will get a fair hearing there. Hey, did you realize that Clarence Thomas has not asked a single question during oral arguments in four years? He has heard nearly 250 of the country's most important cases without ever questioning anything. The Supreme Court has become a conservative anchor for US legal decisions, you can figure there won't be any surprises if the Proposition 8 challenge makes it to that court.

Drug Use As the Summer of Love Generation Ages

This just in. Researchers report that the Woodstock generation uses more drugs than the generation before it.

From CBS News:
America's drug abusers are going gray.

The proportion of people admitted to treatment for drug abuse who are aged 50 or over nearly doubled between 1992 and 2008, a new government study says.

Alcohol is still the leading cause of admissions in this age group, but sharp increases were noted in those needing treatment for heroin, cocaine and marijuana, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports Wednesday.

"These findings show the changing scope of substance abuse problems in America," agency administrator Pamela S. Hyde said in a statement. "The graying of drug users in America is an issue for any programs and communities providing health or social services for seniors."

While some people 50 and over were taking up drugs for the first time — notably cocaine users — the study found that three-quarters of older Americans admitted for treatment had started using drugs before age 25. Drug Abuse Admissions Up Among People Over 50

So it's not that old people are discovering drugs, it's that drug users are getting old. Really, they could have reported this story nearly opposite; instead of saying the over-50's increased, they could have said that those who started using these drugs at a younger age are still using them.

I admit I am a little surprised to find a significant number of older cocaine users saying they had started using that drug recently. As a young musician I noticed that cocaine has a tendency to destroy your life, I knew a lot of skinny, hyperactive, paranoid guitar players and drummers who crashed their cars a lot and didn't have a place to live. I had thought our generation tried cocaine in the seventies and eighties and eventually figured out the stuff was not good for you.

On the other hand, I am not surprised if my generation discovers that some of the stuff that gets prescribed for these new aches and pains can have a euphoric side effect.

It is notable that this study looks at people who are admitted for treatment for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana abuse, which may or may not reflect the prevalence of actual use. That means that either their addiction was ruining their lives, or they suffered an acute episode, aka OD, or they got logged into the criminal justice system and had to go into a program. Tell me, how many people OD on marijuana? I'm a little skeptical about some of this.

This government administrator mentions the issues involved for health-care providers. I suppose there are medical questions to figure out, like how different kinds of dope interact with blood pressure medicine, cholesterol meds, the over-50s are tossing down handfuls of prescribed pills every morning, you throw something unprescribed on top of that and what have you got? And now I am trying to picture how some of these things would work with Viagra ... never mind.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nope, No Change to Blood-Donor Policy

I'm so glad we decided to be rational about it.
WASHINGTON -- A high level federal public health committee Friday declined to recommend a change in restrictions on blood donations by gay men, but proposed research that could eventually enable some currently barred men to give blood.

In voting 9-6 against making any immediate changes, committee members cited what they said was a tiny but still unacceptable increased risk of contamination of the blood supply if current standards are changed.

The restriction on gay men, imposed in 1983 in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis, bans any man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977 from ever giving blood. It effectively bars nearly all gay and bi-sexual men.

A key point of contention at the two-day hearing in suburban Washington was the disparate treatment of gays, who incur a lifetime ban for a single sex act even years in the past, and heterosexual men or women, who are required to defer giving blood for only one year if they have sex with someone with HIV.

Acknowledging that uneven treatment, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability said the current donor system is "suboptimal" because it permits "some potentially high risk donations while preventing some potentially low risk donations."

It unanimously recommended a series of steps to guide health authorities in moving to a more nuanced policy that takes into account individual behavior, rather than assessing the characteristics of a broad group - such as men who have sex with men.

Recommendations include studying whether questionnaires filled out by would-be donors can be fine-tuned to identify gay men who are not high risk, as well as heterosexuals who are high risk and not weeded out by the current system.

The goal, panel members said, was to improve blood safety while seeking to diminish the discriminatory aspects of donor policy.

The committee also called for studying the feasibility of setting up a protocol of "pre-screening" - testing currently banned men to enable them to become donors - and studying donor demographics to determine which groups are at greatest risk for transmitting a range of blood borne infectious agents including newly-emerging pathogens.

The panel's proposals, which are non-binding, go to senior executives at the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has the final say on any change in policy. No Changes for Gay Blood Donors

There is a "tiny but still unacceptable increased risk of contamination" if gay men can donate blood. What about the lives that would be saved if blood were available?

The question, to me, is not about whether the policy discriminates against gay people. It does discriminate against them, but the real question is whether allowing them to donate blood would increase real risk relative to the benefit of having the extra blood. It does not appear from early news reports that the question was even asked, never mind answered.

So the rule remains. Gay people can't donate blood because they're scary.

I was happy to accept a rational decision either way, based on probabilities and estimates of risk. This obviously was not that.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sprigg To Address Blood-Donor Hearings

There is a local Montgomery County angle to the HHS hearings on gay blood donors.

Third-term MCPS sex-education advisor Peter Sprigg will be testifying today, according to PR Newswire.
[Thurs, June 10, 2010] Peter Sprigg, Family Research Council's Senior Fellow for Policy Studies, made the following comments in advance of tomorrow's public hearing:

"I will urge the committee to maintain the current policy which permanently defers men who have had sex with men since 1977 as blood donors. This policy is based on a well-documented behavioral risk — nothing more, and nothing less.

"Any change in this policy should occur only if it can be demonstrated that it will improve both the availability and the safety of the nation's blood supply. No such evidence is available."

The Food and Drug Administration itself has noted, "Men who have had sex with men since 1977 have an HIV prevalence... 60 times higher than the general population, 800 times higher than first time blood donors and 8000 times higher than repeat blood donors."


Sprigg also added, "I understand that there are many people who wish to advance the socio-political goal of winning greater acceptance of homosexuality. However, the blood donation policy does not exist to serve socio-political purposes, nor should it be changed to advance them."

"Only the scientific evidence matters, and it indicates that the current policy should remain in place," concluded Sprigg.

The ACBSA meeting will hear public comments from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EDT on Friday, June 11, at the Universities at Shady Grove, 9630 Gudelsky Drive, Rockville, MD 20850. FRC to Testify in Support of Current Blood Donation Policy

Peter Sprigg is serving his third term on the Montgomery County Public Schools Citizens Advisory Committee for Family Health and Human Development, advising our public school district on its sex-education curriculum and materials.

I would agree with his statement that only the scientific evidence matters -- though as usual he presents only the "scientific evidence" that can be taken out of context to support his anti-gay position. Since the percentages are known, it should be a straightforward matter to calculate the change in risk resulting from various policy modifications. Questions are:
  • How many HIV-positive gay men will report being HIV-negative and donate their blood? (This includes both liars and those who don't know they are infected.)
  • All blood is tested, with a known false-negative failure rate that currently results in infection in 1 of every 2,500,000 transfusions; what is the likely change in that probability given the addition of self-reporting gay men to the donor queue?
  • How will the policy change affect the availability of blood products to patients?
  • How much increase in patient risk is justified by the increase in availability of blood products, e.g., if X more people per year die because of infection but Y more are saved by blood products that would be unavailable under current policy, what ratio of X:Y will justify adopting the policy?

These calculations should be made over a range of policies until an optimal solution is found.

It is meaningless to say that men who have had sex with men since 1977 (call them MSM-77) have 60 times the prevalence of HIV as the general population, because we are not randomly sampling the MSM-77 population. Very few people who know they have HIV will try to donate blood. The relevant proportion, under proposed policy changes, is the proportion of MSM-77 men who have not had sex with a man in the past year and are HIV-infected who will show up to donate blood, claiming to be HIV-negative. I think that percentage will be pretty small.

The policies that have been proposed will eliminate individuals who have engaged in male-with-male sex within the past year or some other timeframe, but will not do anything about straight men and women who are infected by their heterosexual partners; it is likely that the probability of infection during transfusion will not go up at all.

Here's a question for you. Why isn't Peter Sprigg calling for a prohibition of female African-American blood donors? Their HIV rate is 23 times the national average.

Peter Sprigg devotes his life to opposing gay people. He has said we should not allow them into our country from abroad. He has said people should be imprisoned for "homosexual behavior." Sprigg likes the rule that says that gay people are too unclean to selflessly give their own blood to help a stranger, it is a nice graphic way of reinforcing his ugly stereotype of gays. Anything that can keep the stigma going is all right with "everstraight" Peter Sprigg.

It is possible that the statistical models will reveal that adding MSM-77s to the donor pool increases risk dangerously. If that is found, then we as a society will agree rationally to continue the policy of prohibiting MSM-77 donors. More likely, though, the models will show that adding them to the donor pool will significantly increase the number of patients who can be helped by the donated blood, with an immeasurably small increase in the probability of infection from the blood supply, if any. If that is the finding, then the only reason to continue the current policy is discrimination. And really, people, we need the blood.

FDA Considering Lifting Ban on Gay Blood Donors

AIDS was first identified in a group of five gay men in Los Angeles in 1981, and the CDC initially called the disease GRID, or Gay-related immune deficiency. The disease was soon found to infect not only homosexuals but Haitians, hemophiliacs, and heroin users, and so was called "the 4H disease." By September 1982 the CDC began calling the syndrome AIDS, as it was not limited to any particular community.

President Ronald Reagan famously refused to address the topic as the disease became epidemic, he would not even say the word "AIDS" publicly, until near the end of his second term, in May, 1987, though more than 16,000 Americans had died of the disease by then.

It became apparent during those years that some people were getting the disease from blood transfusions. In 1985 the first AIDS antibody test was approved and blood products began to be tested. Also in 1985, the FDA prohibited blood donations by gay men. They didn't just prohibit gay men, they prohibited any man who had had sex with another man since 1977. And that's the way it stands now, any guy who has had sex with another guy at any time since 1977 cannot donate blood. On the other hand a straight person who has sex with an HIV-positive partner or with a prostitute is required to wait twelve months before they can donate blood.

The disease had not spread to the heterosexual community in those days, the disease was poorly understood and testing was not very good, and the gay-donor ban might have been a reasonable judgment, made in the chaos of an epidemic. But it's not 1985any more. We have a President who is not afraid to say the word, the HIV virus is found throughout the population, and there are good tests for its presence in blood. While it is sensible to eliminate HIV-positive blood donors, it just doesn't make sense to reduce the pool of potential blood donors just because a man has had sex with another man at some time in the past.

The Department of Health and Human Services has hearings scheduled today and tomorrow on the topic.

Should gay men be allowed to donate blood? A government health committee is re-examining that question today.

A regulation created at the height of the 1980s' AIDS epidemic banned men who have had sex with another man since 1977 from ever giving blood.

Advocacy groups, blood-collection organizations and some members of Congress are calling for the Food and Drug Administration to revise the lifetime ban, which has been reviewed twice in the past 10 years, but left unchanged.

Groups advocating lifting the ban point to frequent shortages in the blood supply. A new study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that if the ban on gay men ended, 219,000 additional pints of blood would be donated annually.

Gay rights organizations say the regulation discriminates against gay and bisexual men. They point out that heterosexual men who have had sex with an HIV-positive partner or a prostitute are barred from donating blood for only 12 months after that contact. Ban on gay blood donors revisited

It will be interesting to see what happens. Of course the policy is dumb. The problem is HIV, not sexual orientation. If your life is on the line, you don't care who donated the blood that saves you, but you want to know that it is not contaminated.

The current method relies on people telling the truth. The policy is casual about heterosexuals in risky situations. It assumes that gay men have HIV and that straight ones don't. It just doesn't make sense on a lot of levels.

The Red Cross and other blood-collection organizations recommend a one-year ”deferral,” or waiting period, on donations after male-to-male sex, saying the current lifetime ban, established in 1985, is scientifically unwarranted. The policies “should be applied fairly and consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities,” the Red Cross says.

A one-year deferral period on blood donation by a man who has had sex with another man would produce an estimated 89,000 additional pints, according to the Williams Institute study.

And that's a lot of blood.

The FDA will decide. They have a reason for keeping the policy:
The FDA, explaining the current policy, points out that men who have had sex with men since 1977 have an HIV prevalence that’s 60 times higher than the general population. The agency contends its first obligation is to ensure the safety of the blood supply.

Look, the question isn't "have you had sex with another man?" The question is "Are you infected with HIV?" And the fact is, every pint of donated blood is tested, regardless of the donor's self report of sexual behavior or infection. If someone says they do have HIV, then don't bother sticking them, that's easy enough. If they say they don't have it, there is still a chance they have it and don't know, or are lying about it -- whether they have ever had sex with a man or not. That's why they test it all.

The FDA will gather evidence today and tomorrow and go back and study it. Here's what you don't want to see: you don't want to see politicians who are afraid to make the obviously correct decision because it might cost them votes. Here's what you do want to see: discussion and study among people who understand the implications of the statistics, who can accurately calculate any possible increase in the number of people who will get HIV from blood, compared to the number of people whose lives will be saved because of the increase in donors. Those researchers can adjust the waiting-period, it doesn't have to be a year, maybe six months gives the same result, or two months, or two years, or five. It's all probability and statistics, you adjust a parameter to the model and see what the result is. It doesn't matter whether your religion tells you that some kinds of sexual behavior are immoral, the risks and benefits are objectively calculable.

More blood donors means more blood, which means more sick and injured people can be saved. If the inclusion of gay donors drives the risk upward beyond a reasonable threshold (it won't), then it makes sense to keep their blood out of the supply. The researchers should come to a consensus definition of "acceptable risk" at the beginning of their discussion, and stick to it. Most likely, it will turn out that gay blood donors who report they are HIV-negative will increase the supply of blood significantly.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Helen Thomas Dropped From Whitman Commencement, Retires

Maybe everybody is sick of this story already, but it's got a local twist and I expect that our readers may have opinions on this subject. Helen Thomas is a venerable reporter, of Lebanese heritage, nearly ninety years old, she was shown disrespect by the Bush administration and kept her head up, she kept after them when she was right. Recently she was asked if she had any words for Israel, following the recent incident with a Turkish aid ship, and she said, into a video camera belonging to a web site called, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land, not German and not Poland." The interviewer asked, "So where should they go, what should they do?" Thomas said, "They go home --" "Where's home?" "Poland, Germany --" "So the Jews should just go back to Poland and Germany?" "And America," she said, "And everywhere else."

She had been scheduled to give a graduation speech Monday, June 14th, at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, and the school canceled the speech after her controversial statement. Today she announced her retirement.

The Post:
Veteran journalist Helen Thomas announced Monday that she would retire immediately, amid a controversy over her comments that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and go "home" to Germany, Poland and elsewhere, according to a report from her employer, Hearst News Service.

Thomas, 89, also canceled plans to speak at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School graduation, after students and parents protested. On Monday, school officials searched for a new speaker and discussed the decision with underclassmen. Whitman seniors, who do not have class this week, debated the topic on Facebook.

Last week a video of Thomas's comments about Israelis and Palestinians circulated on YouTube and triggered a public outcry. On Monday the White House blasted the comments as "offensive and reprehensible."

Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, has covered the White House for almost half a century -- mostly as bureau chief for United Press International, but in the past decade as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. She is well known to the television-watching American public because for years she had the honor, as dean of the White House press corps, of asking the opening question at presidential news conferences. White House blasts Helen Thomas comments on Jews, Israel

Thomas posted this statement on her website:
Helen Thomas issued the following statement today: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” (June 4, 2010)

The MCPS graduation schedule online lists the commencement speakers for every school in the district except Whitman.

It will be interesting to see how history treats Helen Thomas.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Life on Saturn's Moon?

Did you see this one? NASA is quietly saying that there might be life on one of Saturn's moons. From a NASA web site:
PASADENA, Calif. - Two new papers based on data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft scrutinize the complex chemical activity on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. While non-biological chemistry offers one possible explanation, some scientists believe these chemical signatures bolster the argument for a primitive, exotic form of life or precursor to life on Titan's surface. According to one theory put forth by astrobiologists, the signatures fulfill two important conditions necessary for a hypothesized "methane-based life." What is Consuming Hydrogen and Acetylene on Titan?

It has always bugged me that movie aliens have two eyes above a mouth, two arms and two legs, and that they talk using sound. I am guessing that life on Titan will be quite primitive, since it is very cold there. If there is life on Titan it will have adapted to an environment that is nearly three hundred degrees below zero. They may have evolved some kind of bunny slippers or other characteristics to stay warm.

This gives you a little bit of an idea about how the "methane-based life" concept works.
This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who proposed a set of conditions necessary for this kind of methane-based life on Titan in 2005. One interpretation of the acetylene data is that the hydrocarbon is being consumed as food. But McKay said the flow of hydrogen is even more critical because all of their proposed mechanisms involved the consumption of hydrogen.

"We suggested hydrogen consumption because it's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth," McKay said. "If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth."

To date, methane-based life forms are only hypothetical. Scientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere, though there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane or produce it as a waste product. On Titan, where temperatures are around 90 Kelvin (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), a methane-based organism would have to use a substance that is liquid as its medium for living processes, but not water itself. Water is frozen solid on Titan's surface and much too cold to support life as we know it.

The list of liquid candidates is very short: liquid methane and related molecules like ethane. While liquid water is widely regarded as necessary for life, there has been extensive speculation published in the scientific literature that this is not a strict requirement.

I don't know about you, but I think this is kind of cool.

Two New Surveys: Good

Two interesting surveys published this week give cause for optimism. Pew and Gallup polls document a long-term trend in the US toward accepting differences among people. It might seem counterintuitive in light of the big immigration blow-up, but that might be another one of those tempests in a teaparty where a small band of Nutty Ones generates a lot of noise and attracts the media's attention, while normal people are evolving into something decent.

Since we tend to address LGBT issues here (and have you been following Amanda Hess's series at the City Paper about whether it should be LGBT or GLBT?), we'll start with the Gallup survey.
PRINCETON, NJ - Americans' support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the symbolic 50% threshold in 2010. At the same time, the percentage calling these relations "morally wrong" dropped to 43%, the lowest in Gallup's decade-long trend. Americans' Acceptance of Gay Relations Crosses 50% Threshold

They plot the trend, acceptance of homosexuality has been slowly and relentlessly climbing for ten years. It has been a difficult campaign as the LGBT community insisted that the media and the public take them seriously as people, and one by one individuals came out and the straight world realized how crucial gays and lesbians are to every aspect of our society's functioning. So now half the population believes that "gay and lesbian relations" are "morally acceptable," it's a breakthrough but you can't really claim it as a victory quite yet. If fifty-two percent think it's morally acceptable then forty-eight do not, sorry but that glass is still nearly half empty.

The victory though is in the demonstration that the decades-long campaign has been working. The number is rising, it's rising slowly but there have been no relapses, the trend is monotonic as we say, it always goes upward, at least within the margin of error.
Additionally, Gallup finds greater movement toward acceptance among independents and Democrats than among Republicans, and a big jump in acceptance among moderates. Liberals were already widely accepting of gay relations in 2006, and have remained that way, while conservatives' acceptance continues to run low.

Notably, there has been a 16-point jump in acceptance among Catholics, nearly three times the increase seen among Protestants. Acceptance among Americans with no religious identity has expanded as well.

That's all good news, or at least unsurprising. Bible-thumpers and Republicans don't like gay people, everybody else is coming around.

At the same time, the Pew Research Center reports:
A record 14.6% of all new marriages in the United States in 2008 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from each other, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That figure is an estimated six times the intermarriage rate among newlyweds in 1960 and more than double the rate in 1980.

This dramatic increase has been driven in part by the weakening of longstanding cultural taboos against intermarriage and in part by a large, multi-decade wave of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Marrying Out: One-in-Seven New U.S. Marriages is Interracial or Interethnic

The weakening of longstanding cultural taboos. Exactly. Puritan America had its straight-and-narrow view, we do things this way because that's the way we do them, that means that's the right way and those who do different are wrong. But with time, with waves of immigration from Europe and Africa and Asia and Latin America and Haight-Ashbury, the Puritan tradition has been diluted to the point that reason can get a foothold.

It is not coincidental, I'm sure, that people are coming to accept two kinds of outgroups simultaneously. The boundary between "us" and "them" is becoming thinner, as "we" recognize that "they" are actual real, breathing, feeling people just like us. This kind of enlightened perspective-taking is definitive of liberalism and is anathema to conservatism, which comprises a set of ad hoc formalisms to justify and protect the ingroup.

I doubt that a group loses its identity in this kind of boundary-thinning. It is interesting to see people living in a place like Europe, where folks just over the mountain speak a different language and have a different history, where you are always aware that people who live in your town are different from people in the next town. You don't have to believe your town is better, you just know that towns are different, societies are different, norms vary. Communities have retained their identities, their norms and uniqueness, over thousands of years in that kind of situation. Americans do not get to have that experience, being insulated by oceans on two sides. Americans used to claim to have a "way of life," back in the days of Norman Rockwell and Leave It To Beaver, we don't say that any more, and I'm glad. It wasn't true at the time, and now people are realizing it isn't true. We have always been a country of different kinds of people, different ways of life, that is our strength as a country.

Friday, June 04, 2010

PFOX Complains Because the PTA Doesn't Want Them

Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX) lives to feel sorry for themselves. Oh, pity those poor straight people who used to be gay, nobody recognizes them as a special group, everybody picks on them. Now it's the PTA. Here's a whiny Chistian Newswire account of their latest boo-hoo:

CHICAGO, June 3 /Christian Newswire/ -- Charles ('Chuck') Saylors, hailed as the first male president of the Parents Teachers Association (PTA), has rejected a pro-family organization's request to exhibit at the national PTA convention. Although the PTA allows gay rights groups to exhibit, Saylors rejected the exhibit application of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX).

PFOX is a family organization that educates the public on the message of hope and support for students, families and educators affected by homosexuality, gender confusion, and school bullying.

According to the PTA's website, Saylors is a Southern Baptist deacon, attends Forestville Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina and is the past president of the South Carolina PTA.

"PFOX emailed the PTA for eight months while seeking a response to our request for an exhibit booth at the annual PTA convention," said Regina Griggs, executive director of PFOX. "We also left voice mail messages for Saylors."

"But Saylors chose not to speak with PFOX. Instead, he sent an email accusing us of not meeting the PTA's 'Diversity and Inclusion Policy.'" (See Saylor's email at

"Why is it gay groups meet the PTA Diversity and Inclusion Policy but our families do not? 'Diversity' and 'inclusion' should mean exactly that -- diversity and inclusion of everyone," said Griggs. (See PFOX email to PTA at

"Instead, gay groups like PFLAG that deny public access to ex-gays and disrupt church events welcoming former homosexuals are approved by the PTA while ex-gay groups are not," said Griggs. PTA Says PFOX Families Not Welcome at PTA Convention

Good for the PTA. PFOX is an anti-gay group with a superficially clever angle that might sound reasonable to someone who is not paying attention. They insist that gay people can stop being gay, which is incorrect if you mean that sexual orientation can really be changed. Then they go a step further and complain that gay people who become straight are discriminated against. PFOX then demands equal rights for "ex-gays," often going to court, almost always losing.

They can complain about this, but it has been tested in court and the principle is easy to understand. PFOX's core beliefs are the opposite of the inclusive principles that the PTA adheres to as a matter of policy. The PTA accepts people of all sexual orientations, and PFOX, no matter how cheerily they phrase it, opposes gay people. If there are ex-gay people, their sexual orientation is heterosexual, not an issue.

You gotta love that question, though: why do gay groups meet the inclusion policy and anti-gay groups do not? (Hint: it's called an inclusion policy.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

AAP Reverses Policy on Female Genital Cutting

This story didn't get much prominence in the news with all the other things that are going on, but I think it's an interesting development and relevant to topics we discuss here. Amnesty International estimates that 130,000,000 women in the world have undergone the procedure known variously as female circumcision, female mutilation, or female genital cutting. The procedure is mostly practiced in Asian and African countries, and though it varies, female genital mutilation generally consists in removal of the external female genitalia, especially the clitoris and clitoral hood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently passed a new rule allowing doctors to perform a "ceremonial pinprick, or small nick," in situations where families wanted this done to their daughters. After an outcry, the AAP rescinded the rule.

One thing should be made clear from the start: female circumcision is nothing like male circumcision. Guys might argue about whether there sexual pleasure is greater or less with a foreskin, but there is no objective measure that shows any significant difference one way or the other. There may be health issues that are affected by the presence or absence of the male foreskin, but basically it is a sheath of skin with no function. (I know there are people who are adamantly opposed to circumcision, I don't care to argue with you here. The point is, the penis functions just fine either way.)

There are four levels of female circumcision, and even the lowest level involves removal of the clitoris. You will find that newspapers don't like to publish the word clitoris, you can read entire articles on this subject that do not use the word, and we may see this as a not-so-subtle expression of profound sexism. The clitoris does have a function: it is the key to orgasm for women. The only reason to remove it would be to reduce the pleasure that a woman experiences in sex. And why would you want to do that? There is no answer that does not lead to a conclusion of oppressive patriarchal sexism.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement that has been removed from their web site (even though their home page still has a link to it). I will quote from Psychology Today blogger Paul Raeburn, who seems to have some involvement in the issue and had access to the original documents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics was suggesting that a less damaging "clitoral nick" might be a reasonable alternative to the more dangerous and disfiguring genital cutting practiced by a variety of cultures around the world.

"There is reason to believe," the AAP said in its statement, "that offering such a compromise may build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities, save some girls from undergoing disfiguring and life-threatening procedures in their native countries, and play a role in the eventual eradication of FGC [female genital cutting]."

The idea was that pediatricians who were asked to perform a genital cut would, as an alternative, propose a "clitoral nick," a very small cut, that might satisfy the cultural imperative without harming the child. AAP sputters, then retracts policy on female genital cutting

So you as a doctor would wheel the girl into the operating room, assemble a surgical team, shut the doors and take your sterile scalpel out, make a meaningless incision somewhere in her genital region, wheel her to recovery, and parade out to the waiting room to tell the proud parents -- almost certainly of African or Asian heritage -- that the procedure had been done. I can see why the AAP would think this was okay, you can make the family happy without doing the damage that the actual mutilation technique does.

Except -- this is America, and we don't do that here. We do not think it's okay to surgically alter women's bodies to make it harder for them to have orgasms. The Psychology Today piece continues:
Apparently the pediatricians were having their own problems restraining their views. I just received an email saying that the AAP "reaffirms it's strong opposition to FGC and counsels its members not to perform such procedures. As typically practiced, FGC can be life-threatening. Little girls who escape death are still vulnerable to sterility, infection, and psychological trauma."The AAP does not endorse the practice of offering a 'clitoral nick.' This minimal pinprick is forbidden under federal law and the AAP does not recommend it to its members."

Here's how CNN presented the AAP's turnabout:
The American Academy of Pediatrics has rescinded a controversial policy statement raising the idea that doctors in some communities should be able to substitute demands for female genital cutting with a harmless clitoral "pricking" procedure.

"We retracted the policy because it is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world," said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey.

The contentious policy statement, issued in April, had condemned the practice of female genital cutting overall. But a small portion of statement suggesting the pricking procedure riled U.S. advocacy groups and survivors of female genital cutting.

In the April statement, the group raised the idea that some physicians should be able to prick or nick a girl's clitoral skin in order to "satisfy cultural requirements." The group likened the nick to an ear piercing.

On Thursday the AAP stated the group will not condone doctors to provide any kind of "clitoral nick." The AAP also clarified nicking a girl or woman's genitals is forbidden under a 1996 federal law banning female genital mutilation. Pediatricians now reject all female genital cutting

It is notable here that female genital mutilation has no religious rationale. Neither the Muslim nor Coptic faiths require it or endorse it, in fact, fatwas have been issued against it. It is a practice that goes back at least to the days of the Pharaohs.

The USA has always been a haven for immigrants, and when they come here they bring customs from their homelands -- and they give some up. There are some things we don't eat, for instance, monkeys and cats and dogs, lots of things. There are kinds of marriage practices that are fine where you came from, but you won't do that here. Some countries are banning burqas, we haven't gone that far but it could happen. And one thing we are not going to do in this country is let you cut up women's genitals to diminish their sexual response.

The AAP may have thought they had a clever way to make everybody happy, but unh-uh, it's not going to happen here.