Today is World Blood Donor Day, and that fact couldn't be more cruelly ironic for America's LGBTQ community. The campaign, started by the World Health organization in 2004, is a reminder to donate blood to those who need it, yet queer men across the country remain barred from doing just that days after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 people dead and 53 injured.
Currently, any man who has had sex with another man in the past year is prohibited from donating blood, per FDA guidelines. Those policies were updated in December 2015. Prior to that tweak, the organization banned gay and bisexual men from donating outright. David Stacy, who serves as the government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, stated in a press release at the time that it "falls far short of a fully acceptable solution." Anthony Hayes of Gay Men's Health Crisis told Newsweek that it was a "de facto lifetime ban."
In the wake of the Pulse shooting, public health advocates and activists are calling on the FDA to strike down a ban they view as discriminatory, stigmatizing, and based on outdated science.
Where does the FDA blood ban come from? According to Diane Anderson-Minshall of HIV Plus Magazine, these policies are a remnant of the AIDS panic of the Reagan Era, when men were dying in the streets with little idea about how to stop the spread of the disease. "Those policies were all set up in the 1980s," Anderson-Minshall said. "They were a response to this vast fear that was out there, a lack of scientific knowledge, and a lack of treatment." The initial ban, announced in 1983, stated that men were barred from donation if they had sexual intercourse with another man after 1977, the year the virus first began to circulate.
The current policies also affect transgender men, transgender women, sex workers, intravenous drug users, or anyone who has sexual contact with a man who has sex with men (MSM). EJ Dickson, who is the connections editor for Mic, told VICE that she was once banned from giving blood because she stated on the donation form that she'd been intimate with a bisexual man. The FDA policies also apply to organs and bone marrow. Erik Sudduth, a schoolteacher who works in New York City, wanted to give marrow last year to the eight-year-old daughter of a friend, who had recently been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Because Sudduth is in a long-term same-sex relationship, he was not allowed to do so.
"In this day and age, it's a bit ridiculous," Anderson-Minshall said. "One of the things they say is that the reason they don't let them donate is so that they don't miss anybody when [they do] HIV screenings, but HIV screenings are so good." Testing for HIV has improved dramatically since the 1980s. Today, medical professionals can detect the presence of the virus within 2 to 3 weeks of infection, which Anderson-Minshall explained has greatly reduced the risk of transmission. In 2016, just 1 out of 2 million blood transfusions will result in the transfer of the HIV virus. "We can test HIV incredibly fast and incredibly well," she said.
That's why many countries, including France, Argentina, and Italy, have struck down their blood bans in recent years. In 2001, Italy changed its policy to determine donation eligibility based on "individual risk assessments," which also apply to heterosexuals. This has not led to an increase in HIV transmission over the past 15 years. The current FDA policy is similar to regulations in Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, which also mandate a one-year period of abstinence for MSMs who donate blood. The waiting period in Canada is five years.
Magda Holberg, the chief clinical officer at Howard Brown Health Center, told VICE that the updated policy "isn't based in medical fact." She said, "If we have the technology to test and reduce the window in terms of testing for HIV, this doesn't make sense." Holberg stated that this is because the policy remains rooted in societal homophobia, as well as the perception that gay and bisexual men are more promiscuous. "Many people don't want to receive transfusions from gay people," Holberg stated. "It's not about what's transmitted from that. It's about the fact that this is a population of people that isn't respected."
Holberg explained that these policies have a way of stigmatizing a community that's already subjected to widespread societal shame, which may encourage MSMs to be dishonest about their status or not get tested. Donte Oxun, a New Orleans DJ and longtime public health advocate, told VICE that he lied about his sexual orientation in order to donate blood as a teenager. "It was important for me to be a part of something," he said. Holberg said this is common, especially in the wake of tragedy. "Many people don't want to be dishonest, but this is a very concerning situation when people feel that their emotional response is to try to donate," she said.
Following the Pulse shooting, reports circulated that OneBlood and other donation centers in Florida would temporarily ignore the FDA policy in order to allow MSMs to donate. That rumor, however, turned out to be false. Daniel Ibrahim Abdalla, a PhD student living in Orlando, Florida, told VICE that he was one of the many people who found that they couldn't donate over the weekend, as gay and bisexual men were turned away.
Pat Michaels, the spokesperson for OneBlood, told the Washington Post that its system hasn't even been updated to reflect the FDA's one-year window, although the organization will be making the switch this year.
Anderson-Minshall said, though, that the Orlando shooting could be a tipping point in encouraging the FDA to repeal its policies once and for all. The organization reportedly met on Sunday to discuss the blood ban and "didn't put out a statement all weekend" on enforcing its guidelines. "They're testing the waters with this," she predicted. If that's the case, striking down the ban could have a huge impact on the amount of blood donated in the United States: UCLA's Williams Institute reports that it could "increase the total annual blood supply by 2 to 4 percent." That would mean up to 615,300 additional pints available each year.
For gay and bisexual men, finally being allowed to donate would mean getting to aid their community during a time of incredible need. "It was a tragic reminder on an already tragic day," John-Paul Brammer, a columnist for the Guardian, told VICE. "It really compounded the sadness for me—recognizing that we have all these structural barriers in place that prevent us from being truly equal." Oxun said it was just another reminder of the way society looks not only looks at queer men but people living with HIV. "You're impure, you're unclean—that's the message we're sending to people," he said.
Thirty-three years after the original FDA policy was put in place, it's time to allow queer people to give the victims in Orlando the most sacred gift of all—life.
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