Opinion: The bad blood between LGBTQ men and discriminatory donation bans

Daily+Egyptian+file+photo

Daily Egyptian file photo

By Danny Connolly, Staff Reporter

I donated blood for the first time last month. While preparing to stick a needle in, the nurse said to me, “You’re a really good candidate for donating blood.” I laughed a little to myself while putting my earbuds in, queueing up my playlist and squeezing the stress ball. 

The nurse was right to some degree; I am a healthy person with type O positive blood, a normal blood pressure and very defined veins for a nurse to push a needle into. But one thing that didn’t appear in my application is that I’m gay.

Since 1983, all men who have had sex with a men (MSM), or women who have knowingly had sex with a man who previously had sex with a man, were barred for life from giving blood due to risk of HIV transmission. In 2015, the FDA changed it to a year wait since having sex, and in April 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing a shortage in blood, they changed it to a three month wait.

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Even deferring three months from sexual activity, this ban from MSM is discriminatory and outdated. 

For example, two LGBTQ men in a committed sexual relationship are banned from donating blood by the FDA. Even if they both are HIV negative, even if they wore protection. If they have had any oral or anal sexual activity in the past 3 months, they cannot donate.

Compare that to a heterosexual man or woman, who can be unsafe with multiple sexual partners, and still donate. The blood donor pool isn’t necessarily any safer by not allowing sexually active gay and bisexual men; it’s simply smaller and more heteronormative. 

Even with donors not knowing their HIV status, all blood undergoes both antibody and nucleic acid testing for a variety of diseases before being given to a patient, including HIV. While all blood tests are not perfect, the blood test for testing HIV has a false negative rate of under one in a million. 

In a 2020 research paper published by Blood, researchers found there was no statistically significant increase in HIV presence in donated blood after the FDA implemented a one year deferral policy.   

The Human Rights Campaign, a non-for-profit LGBTQ advocacy group, supports a more personalized look at a potential donor’s sexual behaviors to determine eligibility to donate blood. 

“HRC has strongly encouraged FDA to revise the donor questionnaire based on an individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors upon which all donors are evaluated equally, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity,” it says on their website. 

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Even the Red Cross acknowledges that this policy has caused more harm than good.  

“The Red Cross recognizes the hurt this policy has caused to many in the LGBTQ+ community and believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation” they say on their website. “However, as a regulated organization, we cannot unilaterally enact changes concerning the MSM deferral policy.”

The Red Cross has recorded a decline in giving blood due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March and June 2020, over 37,000 blood drives were cancelled, leaving hundreds of thousands of blood donation appointments unfulfilled. 

According to America’s Blood Centers, a national organization overseeing independent blood centers, 4 of their 19 blood centers in the Midwest have less than a one day supply of blood. 6 have a 1-2 day supply of blood. 

“[Centers] with only a 2-day supply are running low and need blood donations. Centers with a day or less of blood are critically low on blood and need donations as soon as possible.” America’s Blood Centers’s website reads.   

 This is on top of the fact that the Red Cross estimates that while 38% of all Americans are eligible donate blood, only 3% do. 

A community that blood banks can tap into is MSM who have not been sexually active in 3 months. Yet, the public health community may need to put in more outreach than just loosening restrictions.  

When posting on social media about donating for the first time, two gay SIU alumni privately commented about me donating blood. One assumed I lied about my sexual history to donate blood, and the other mentioned that he would never donate blood due to the ban. 

To the first alumnus, I assured him I did follow all FDA guidelines to donate blood. To the second, any civil disobedience of refusing to donate blood will only hurt people in need of transfusions, not the intolerant policy makers.  

I do understand both of my friends though. I remember reporting on a blood drive for River Region Evening Edition and interviewing the organizer. She recommended donating blood after interviewing and I stammered through a “I have to get back to work” excuse, too embarrassed to say the real reason why I couldn’t donate blood.  

I really enjoyed donating blood, saving lives and eating a good cookie for being a good cookie. Reflecting on it, I have wondered if it is worth it for me to be abstinent to donate blood again, or to lie if I am sure I am still negative for all STDs. Weighing these consequences have made me very jealous of my straight and lesbian friends.   

I am glad I was able to donate blood and help save lives, especially in this time of extreme healthcare disparities, but in the future, I would like to donate blood regardless of my choice of safe sexual behaviors, just like my heterosexual peers.

The CDC recommends everyone sexually active to be tested for HIV, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

To get tested in Jackson County, you can call the Health Department to set up an appointment at (618) 684-3143 ext. 155. SIU students can also get tested at the Health Center and can call (618) 536-2371 for an appointment. 

Staff reporter Danny Connolly can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DConnollyTV. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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