Most Gay Men Still Aren’t Allowed to Donate Blood

By
Image
Photo: Gerardo Mora

There is, as all of us know too well by now, a sense of helplessness that transpires in the hours after yet another mass shooting, an emotion that is compounded this time by the fact the attack early Sunday morning at a gay nightclub in Orlando is now the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Alongside the helplessness is often the competing urge to do something, and one concrete thing that Orlando residents could immediately do in response to the tragedy is donate blood, something one blood center in that city expressed an “urgent” need for on Sunday.

The irony, as many on social media have already noted, is this: Much of the very community that was harmed in this attack isn’t allowed to help in this very necessary way. According to standards set in December by the U.S.Food and Drug Administration, gay and bi men are welcome to donate blood — if, and only if, they have refrained from having sex with men for one full year. It’s a rule many gay-rights advocates and medical experts say is both arbitrary and needlessly discriminatory.

The roots of this standard date back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the FDAinstituted a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men — that is, if you were a man who had ever had sex with another man, you were ineligible as a donor for the rest of your life. At that time, no test existed for identifyingHIV in blood donations.

Today, however, there are tests that can identify the virus within nine to 11 days, and though the 12-month deferral period brings the U.S. policy in line with those enacted in many other Western nations, including the U.K., many gay-rights advocates argue that there’s no scientific rationale for the year of celibacy prior to donating. “There are irrational aspects of the policy,” Sean Cahill, of the Boston-based research and advocacy center Fenway Institute told Vox last year. “If you are a heterosexual man who admits to having unprotected sex with a sex worker or prostitute, you can wait one year and donate blood. But a gay man who has been in a monogamous relationship and who tests negative for HIV still can’t.”

Instead of a blanket ban, many advocates argue that the donation question should be individualized, a change Italy made in 2001; since then, that country has not seen a significant increase in HIV infections. The FDA, for its part, said in a statement last year that the agency had “carefully examined and considered the scientific evidence” before making the change. (One 2010 study conducted by the Australian Red Cross, for instance, found evidence for the safety aspect of a 12-month waiting period, as it did not result in any significant increase in HIV infections after Australia made this change to its donation policy.)

The truth is that blood banks in Orlando are now saying they don’t need extra donations, and have in fact been “overwhelmed” by the community response. But it’s exactly that response that’s at issue for many here — that gay men aren’t even allowed the chance to help their community in this way.