I don’t remember the first time I donated blood in great detail because the process was much ado about nothing. I sat down to see a nurse, a needle, a band-aid. A thank you for my donation followed and I went about my day. It would take a very long time before it dawned on me that this moment could’ve been both more damning and memorable had the nurse asked me one question: Have you had sex with another man?
According to the American Red Cross, every two seconds someone in the United States needs blood. That means more than 41,000 blood donations are needed every day. These donations help the following people: those in need of blood cell transfusions, which average approximately three pints; those diagnosed with cancer, many of whom will need blood, possibly daily during their chemotherapy treatments; sickle cell patients who may require frequent transfusions throughout the duration of their lives; car accident victims, which might require as much as 100 pints of blood to treat a single victim.
This is what I had in my mind when I donated blood years ago, only at the time, I was still in denial about my sexual orientation, and thus, not having sex at all much less with men.
But with self-realization came a new reality: the FDA has banned me and other men who have sex with men from donating blood.
As it stands now, any man who has had sexual contact with another man since 1997 – yes, even once – is barred for life from donating blood. As Mark Joseph Stern reports at Slate, “The ban was instituted in 1983 in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when HIV testing was still rudimentary. It hasn’t been altered since.” In December, the Food and Drug Administration’s Blood Products Advisory Panel met to discuss lifting the government’s 31-year-old ban. It decided against a measure that would allow men who have been celibate for a year to donate blood.
If you find this ban to be equally archaic and discriminatory, you are not alone.
On Dec. 15, more than 79 Democrats in Congress sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, calling on her to end the donation policy that bans sexually active gay and bisexual men from giving blood. Among those was Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay U.S. Senator in history. In her letter, Baldwin writes, “If we are serious about protecting and enhancing our nation’s blood supply, we must embrace science and reject outdated stereotypes.”
Baldwin couldn’t be any more correct in her assessment.
In 2006, the AABB, Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers explained to the FDA their shared belief “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted.”
In 2013, the American Medical Association voted to oppose the FDA’s ban.
In a statement, AMA board member Dr. William Kobler said: “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science. This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone.”
Likewise, Robert Valadez, policy analyst for the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis, explained to ABC News: “The policy was formed at a time in our history when we didn’t have a name for AIDS or HIV. Our technology has advanced to the point where … it is antiquated to keep this policy in place and to keep those units of blood from entering the blood supply.”
The holiday season is typically a critical time for blood donation centers. There is a need and part of that need could be met with a policy that reflects where we are now. The stigma about gay men is not validated by the science. Let the unsubstantiated fear go. Change the policy.
Update: In a statement released Tuesday, the FDA announced that next year it will lift its lifetime ban on gay men from donating blood. Under the new proposal, gay men will be able to donate blood one year after their last sexual contact. While this is progress, the FDA still deserves challenging.
Speaking on the new announcement with the New York Times, I. Glenn Cohen, a law professor at Harvard University who specializes in bioethics and health, argued, “This is a major victory for gay civil rights. We’re leaving behind the old view that every gay man is a potential infection source.” He did go on to say that the policy was “still not rational enough.”