Chad Walters’ story is a testament to the power of being heard.

At 17, Chad was unable to donate blood because of Canadian Blood Services’ donation eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men (MSM). For years, Chad felt resentful and targeted by what he felt was an unfair policy.

Chad expressed his concerns in an opinion piece published in his local newspaper. The article caught the eye of Dr. Dana Devine, Canadian Blood Services’ chief medical and scientific officer, who invited him to meet with her to share his concerns.

Following the meeting, Dr. Devine gave Chad a tour of Canadian Blood Services’ Network Centre for Applied Development (netCAD) facility in Vancouver. This research clinic and production laboratory uses blood donations from otherwise ineligible donors for research purposes.

“I was surprised by the invitation to meet,” Chad says. “But I also felt my voice had been heard, which was important to me.”

Chad has been a regular donor at netCAD since 2009. He’s also been able to step back from the emotion the policy provokes.

“I know now that it’s not about me being gay as much as it is the activities I engage in,” says Chad. “The difference is one is about an identity; the other is about behaviour and participation in a high-risk act. As soon as people think it’s about their identity, things get personal. It’s been an important piece of learning to divide the two.”

“When I hear people say gay men can’t donate, I chime in and say my piece,” says the 31-year-old social worker. “The anger is certainly there [in the gay community] and it’s palpable.That comes from the rejection and resentment. But some people are very responsive and excited by the prospect of being able to donate, even if it isn’t for transfusion.”

Chad’s blood was recently used in an HIV research project, which he is quite pleased about. The project will not only make scientific progress, but will ultimately help eliminate stigma.

In February 2015, Chad organized netCAD’s “rainbow blood donor clinic,” an event at which sexually active gay men who would otherwise be ineligible to donate blood had the opportunity to donate blood for research. A total of 34 units of blood were collected and 39 new donors were recruited.

“That event created a lot of stir, got people talking and saw a lot of new donors recruited,” says Chad. “It was beyond what we expected.”

His efforts were recognized at Canadian Blood Services’ national Honouring Our Lifeblood event last fall.

Although the eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men have evolved, Chad doesn’t feel the changes have gone far enough. He understands, however, the importance of incremental steps.

“I never expected to be so involved. None of this would have happened if Canadian Blood Services wasn’t so responsive and willing to listen to me. I’m grateful to them, which is interesting because I used to be so angry. It’s been an interesting shift.”