By Mathew Lasky
Last week during the president’s COVID-19 briefing, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams called on healthy Americans to band together and donate blood to help alleviate shortages caused by necessary social distancing measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But giving blood is a privilege for many people, and I, like many other gay and bisexual men I know, was immediately reminded of an uncomfortable truth about living in 2020: We’re still not allowed to donate blood.
In fact, I’ve never donated blood in my life.
The first and only time I tried was in 2008, during one of my first weeks as a freshman in college. A classmate knocked on my door and asked if I’d like to come with them to give blood in a dorm-sponsored blood drive in the lobby of our building. I agreed.
Soon, I found myself sitting alongside my new friends, skim-reading a waiver I would have to sign in order to donate. That seemed obvious, something I’d done hundreds of times before at various medical check-ups and appointments.
However, this time, I noticed an advisory: You may not donate blood if you are a man who has had sex with a man.
At 18, I was barely out of the closet — I’d only harnessed the courage to come out to my very closest friends, not even my family. When I realized that I wasn’t allowed to donate blood, I panicked. I had to get out of the situation, but I wasn’t ready to out myself to my new neighbors.
I decided my best course of action was to falsely confide in one of my dormmates that I was afraid of needles, and flee to the elevator and back up to my room. I quietly cried myself to sleep that night, hoping my roommate wouldn’t hear, convinced that everyone had seen through my excuse and knew that I was gay. I felt ashamed about who I was.
I haven’t tried to donate blood since.
Shockingly, since 2008, not much has changed for gay and bisexual men, and some other members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to donate blood.
The ban that prevented me from donating blood at 18 was originally put into place in 1986, during the throes of the AIDS crisis. At the time, there was no timely blood screening for HIV available. Out of the panic that ensued around potential contaminations in blood transfusions, gay and bisexual men, amongst others, were permanently banned from donating blood.
This permanent ban lasted until the final days of 2014, less than a year before marriage equality passed nationwide. It was then that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) amended its policy from a lifetime ban, to a deferral for men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months. Yet even that small step towards destigmatization is still incredibly lacking in practice, and rendered all the more archaic when you consider that men who have sex with men can donate organs and bone marrow without any such restrictions.
In order to be eligible to donate blood in the United States, any man who has had sex with a man must abstain from sex with a male partner for an entire year, an absurdly restrictive and meaningless amount of time. According to the American Red Cross, all donated blood is currently screened for HIV (as well as Hepatitis A, B, C, and syphilis) before it’s used in any blood transfusion. New blood testing technology is also able to identify HIV in the bloodstream in less than 45 days, rendering the 12-month deferral timeframe even more inane. (Other countries use a “risk-based” assessment test to screen potential donors.)
Even leading medical groups have debunked the idea that the FDA’s ban is effective. The American Public Health Association has stated that the ban is “not based in science,” and in 2019 the American Red Cross recommended that “blood donation eligibility should not be based on sexual orientation.”
If all blood is tested regardless of the donor, we can identify HIV in blood in weeks rather than months, and leading public health groups have spoken out against the ban, then why are gay and bisexual men still forced to wait an entire year after their last sexual encounter to donate blood?
The answer is unequivocally discrimination.
A 2014 study by the Williams Institute estimates that if the FDA’s ban were to be lifted, an additional 365,000 men would donate over 615,000 pints of blood a year. This alone could save the lives of over 1 million people. And, as the number of people identifying as LGBTQ+ continues to grow in the United States, those estimates are likely low.
To combat this discriminatory ban, and to allow gay and bisexual men, as well as others in the LGBTQ+ community, to donate blood and help save lives, GLAAD has launched a petition urging the FDA to immediately lift the ban 12-month deferral on men who have sex with men from donating blood.
It’s hard to believe that my experience of being turned away from donating blood at 18 would still stand today, as I approach my thirties. Today, at a blood drive somewhere in the country, an LGBTQ+ youth could be learning that they’re ineligible to donate blood based on a discriminatory and baseless policy, just like I did 12 years ago.
Policies grounded in stigma rather than science don’t just hurt LGBTQ+ people, but all Americans, especially now. For the sake of all Americans, the FDA must lift its ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. All of our lives depend on it.
Mathew Lasky is the Director of Communications at GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization. He was previously a Communications Consultant for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.