Why Can't Gay Men Donate Blood in Australia?

A law from 1984 still prevents gay men from donating blood.

17 June 2016, 12:00am

Gay men can't donate blood in Australia. Image via

After 49 people were shot dead and 53 others injured at a gay nightclub in Florida—the worst mass shooting in US history—clinics around Orlando were swamped by people wanting to donate blood.

But this outpouring of support also sparked anger from the LGBT community, highlighting that US law bars gay men from donating blood. While a lifetime ban on any blood donations was lifted in 2012, new regulations requiring men to wait one year after sexual contact with another man still remain on the books.

However, these laws aren't limited to the US. Australia also restricts men from donating if they've had oral or anal sex with another man in the past 12 months—even if they used a condom. The rules also apply to any woman who's had sex with a man who has—or even may have—engaged in sexual activity with another man in the past year.

These rules aren't explicitly advertised. In fact, they are buried deep on the Australian Red Cross Blood Service's website—only visible if you request "more info" about what constitutes "'at risk' sexual activity" in the Am I Eligible to Donate Blood? quiz.

Ben Thompson is an Australian man who was "infuriated" after watching gay men in Orlando rejected from giving blood. He tells VICE he hasn't been able to donate blood in Australia either, because of his sexual orientation. Ben says this issue is deeper than just a restriction on giving blood.

"Gay people are rejected from assisting their brothers and sisters in such tragic circumstances as Orlando. So many mixed messages out there still that stop gay people from feeling equal," he says.

"I keep thinking about the rates of youth gay suicide and so much of it must be related to the fact that they are told by important people like the government and the Red Cross that they are not equal."

The Blood Service says that it "does not discriminate based on sexual orientation." It's firm in qualifying that "if you're unable to donate, it's for safety reasons based on medical research."

The rules were introduced back in 1984, at the height of Australia's AIDS panic—following the deaths of three babies in Queensland who were given AIDS-infected blood, donated by a gay man.

CEO of Victorian AIDS Council, Simon Ruth, is worried that the deferral period is "perpetuating homophobic misunderstandings of the sexual practices and risk behaviour of gay men" and supports the move to reduce the "obviously discriminatory" deferral period.

And the Red Cross has concerns about this too. In 2012, 30 years after they were first introduced, the group launched an independent review of these deferral rules, admitting that "there is concern that deferral policies stigmatise groups of individuals as being 'unclean' and 'less worthy'."

However, when the Red Cross pushed to have the deferral period lowered to six months it was rejected by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Today, the Red Cross is resolute that there needs to be a deferral period just for people who show a higher infection risk because there is "no test, no matter how sophisticated" that can detect HIV after donating blood.

However, other donor agencies, such as the Organ and Tissue Authority, don't have the same restrictions on gay men. They say that while medical history is considered, sexual orientation is not a factor when donating organs.

Research from the Kirby Institute shows HIV risk in the gay community is still higher than the broader population, affected by approximately 70 percent of new HIV transmissions, according to a study by the Kirby Institute. But digging into this research it becomes clear HIV/AIDS is not the epidemic is used to be.

Most men use condoms when having sex with other men, with only 21 percent reporting having casual sex without a condom sometimes. And the men having unprotected sex report using one or more risk management strategies, such as only having sex with someone with the same HIV status or withdrawal.

On top of this, use of drugs such as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP—a tablet taken every day as a preventative measure against HIV—is also on the rise, although PrEP still isn't licensed in Australia.

Of course, Australia isn't the only country that still has these deferral laws on the books. Obviously they remain an issue in the US, and in Canada the period is five years. But there are many countries that have no restrictions on donation based on sexual identity—including South Africa and South Korea.

Ben Thompson says he hopes Australia will follow these countries' lead and change its laws soon. "If you grow up believing you're not equal to everyone else and you're told that by law I think that's a horrible thing," he says.

The Red Cross will re-submit their application to reduce the deferral period to six months in 2018.

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