Blood banks are running out of blood. So why can’t I donate?
By: Lincoln Mondy, Advocates for Youth
As the COVID-19 crisis worsens and many are confined to their homes, blood bank supplies are running dangerously low. Organizations like the Red Cross have been forced to cancel thousands of blood drives, and are pleading for healthy people to donate blood. From the podium of a recent pandemic press conference, Surgeon General Jerome Adams reminded Americans that one blood donation can save up to three lives. His call urged people to consider doing their part to help save lives during this unique crisis — a call that excludes gay men.
Like many young people right now, I’m trying to find ways to help my community as we face a global pandemic. I’m healthy: I’m 26, I don’t have any chronic diseases, and I haven’t traveled out of the U.S. I meet all the criteria for giving blood except one: I’m a gay man.
The FDA doesn’t permit men who have had sex with men to donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for one year. That arbitrary year-long period presumes that gay men like myself have a higher risk of contaminating the blood supply. That’s regardless of testing history, relationship status, or any other lifestyle factors. It’s an outdated, stigmatizing policy that makes no sense in the world we live in now.
In 1983, when we knew much less about HIV, there was a blanket ban on gay men donating blood. In 2015, the ban was adjusted down to a ban of 12 months, not for scientific reasons, but because the ban had been condemned so widely as discriminatory. At that time, the American Public Health association pointed out that since very few adults are celibate for one full year, the ban’s effect is nearly the same: it prevents nearly all gay men from donating blood. It creates a stigma around all sexual activity between men and around gay and bisexual identity. All blood that enters the donation pool is screened for disease. And an HIV test can find the virus in blood within 11 days of exposure. Another basic sex education fact that seems to have eluded the FDA is that an HIV negative person who is only having sex with another HIV negative person cannot acquire or transmit HIV.
I have many friends who are heterosexual men and women who have never been tested for STIs, who lead normal dating lives. They can walk up to a blood bank and donate anytime, after answering a few questions. Even if they have been treated for an STI, they can still donate a year after treatment. They don’t have to be celibate for that year: they can go about their normal lives. By comparison, I’ve recently tested negative for HIV and all sexually transmitted infections. Yet to be eligible to donate blood, I’d have to stop having sex entirely for a full year — regardless of my testing status or that of my sexual partners, and regardless of if I use condoms.
Homophobia isn’t merely unjust, it’s a serious health concern. Homophobia means 7 states still have laws on the books that LGBTQ identity can’t be discussed in sex education. Homophobia means that many are afraid to be honest with their health care providers. Homophobia has led to increased suicidal ideation in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens. Gay men do have a higher risk of acquiring HIV in our lifetimes, and our government and our society are contributing to that problem. But it’s inaccurate and dangerous to assume that every gay man individually, or gay sex itself, is a danger to public health.
The ban on gay men donating blood isn’t based in science — it’s steeped in fear. Even as the American Red Cross urges that blood donation eligibility shouldn’t be determined by sexual orientation, and experts report a lift on the ban would increase blood supply by 600,000 pints a year, the FDA is allowing a draconian ban to block life-saving donations.
I’m practicing social distancing and doing what I can to help stop the spread of coronavirus. I’m helping out friends and family when I can safely do so. Like many young gay men, I’d love to do more, by giving blood. But I won’t be able to, as long as the FDA classifies my very existence as unhealthy.