By Mark Bessen
I’ve got some damn good blood. I don’t mean genetically — but hey, shout-out to the ‘rents. I mean physically: That succulent red goo pulsing through my healthy, bulging veins is top-shelf: high in iron, low in cholesterol, disease-free.
But I still can’t donate blood.
I can’t donate blood simply and matter-of-factly because (drumroll please) I am “a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977.”
In 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted a law to prohibit men who have had sex with men (MSM) from donating blood. And, at the time, it made sense. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, any measure to limit new infections was justified. Scientific understanding of the transmissibility of the disease was tenuous at best, so an outright ban on blood donation by gay and bisexual men was deemed appropriate.
Almost two decades later, that ban is not only archaic, but discriminatory.
On Friday, July 11, 2014, the National Gay Blood Drive cast a spotlight on the issue. Its slogan: “Who will donate in my place?” That is, since gay and bisexual men cannot legally donate blood, they were asked to find “replacement donors” — heterosexual men and women, primarily — to donate in their place.
If the need to find “replacement donors” seems absurd, that’s because it is — and shedding light on that absurdity is the major success of the National Gay Blood Drive. If gay and bisexual men could donate blood, wouldn’t the slogan, “Who will donate with me?” rake in twice as many blood donations?
While the FDA hasn’t yet seen the light, the American Medical Association has opposed the ban since June 2013. According to AMA Board of Trustees member William Kobler, M.D., “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science. [The AMA] urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation status alone.”
Since all blood donations have been legally required to be screened for a host of diseases, including HIV, for years, the ban is obviously outdated. It’s detrimental not only to the queer men it discriminates against, but also to the American public at large.
The American Red Cross frequently declares shortages in the available blood supply for medical use, and is thus constantly soliciting donations. As the frequency and power of natural disasters have increased, it has become even more important to have sufficient blood stored to treat large numbers of victims at any given time. And, as cancer rates in the United States continue to increase, more and more blood transfusions related to chemotherapy or other treatments will be required.
The U.K., Australia and Canada have all revoked their bans on blood donation by MSM. And, as expected, there has been no increase in HIV transmission via blood transfusion.
So, if the AMA has vocalized opposition to the ban, and other nations have successfully removed it, why does it still exist?
Obviously, it’s largely a legislative issue subject to all the foot-dragging of Washington.
But it seems to be more than that. The ban’s survival illuminates the institutionalized homophobia still present and prevalent in the United States. Perhaps, on a cultural level, blood donated by gay or bisexual men is viewed as “gay blood.” Since a non-negligible part of the American population still believes homosexuality is a disease, there’s a fear that a transfusion of blood from a gay man would not only carry HIV, “the gay disease,” but gayness itself.
Frankly, though, that claim holds as much merit as thinking that blood from a black person would cause your skin to darken or that blood from a Parisian would grant you the ability to speak French.
And, in fact, HIV is no longer just a “gay disease” (if it ever was). While it is true that about 60 percent of new HIV infections are in gay and bisexual men, over 20,000 new infections occur in women and heterosexual men every year in the United States.
So clearly, the use of sexual preference history as a filter on blood donors is insufficient and discriminatory towards queer men. It’s also problematic that the ban is based on self-reported sexual behavior criteria: While openly gay and bisexual men are prevented from donating, those anonymous torsos on Grindr are free to donate as long as they publicly identify as straight.
Fortunately, even if straight men or women who donate blood are unknowingly infected with HIV or any other disease, all donated blood is put through an arsenal of tests before utilization in patients, and donors are informed of their infection.
The Red Cross needs blood. (Every two seconds, someone in the United States. needs a blood transfusion.) And, shocking as it may be, gay men have blood. Many, including myself, are more than willing and healthy enough to donate. Lifting the ban on blood donation would allow many of the estimated 1.5 million gay and bisexual men in the United States to donate blood, helping to relieve our national blood shortage.
It’s strange to think that I’m defending my right to be stabbed with a needle and drained of a pint of my own precious blood, but that’s just what I’m doing. Gay and bisexual men should have the same right to “do good” as any other American healthy enough to give blood. And, as is rarely the case, lifting the ban would be a win-win situation: Gay men would gain a basic freedom, and the American supply of blood for transfusions would increase.
If you agree that the FDA ban on blood donation by queer men needs to end, please sign and share this petition to the Obama Administration.
And then go give blood. That is, if you can.
Contact Mark Bessen at [email protected]