Why the FDA’s “gay blood” ban is an obstacle to the LGBT rights movement
By Adam Polaski
Sitting in a waiting area where four other students were poring over bound-and-laminated pamphlets, I read through the eligibility requirements for donating blood to the American Red Cross. Admittedly, I was only half-reading the paperwork; I had donated before, in high school, and I knew the drill. If you’ve been to Africa recently, you can’t donate. If you have a new tattoo, you can’t donate. And if you have hemophilia, you definitely can’t donate.
But then one part of the guidelines took me by surprise, and I stopped reading:
“You should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV. You are at risk for getting infected if you … are a male who has had sexual contact [oral or anal sex] with another male, even once, since 1977…”
When I had donated in high school, I hadn’t yet become … ahem … a truly participating member of the LGBT community. I first donated in November 2007 and I met my first boyfriend the following summer; so when I previously donated, I didn’t really take notice of the “men who have sex with men” (MSM) clause.
This year, however, I definitely took notice, and I didn’t understand why my sexual orientation was being taken into consideration. I had been recently tested for STIs, and I was negative, as clean as I was when I donated the first time. At this drive, I asked the on-site medical practitioner why I was ineligible. He looked at me half-apologetically, explaining with a well-rehearsed response, “It’s an FDA-enforced ban that’s been in place since 1983. I advise you write to your senator and explain your feelings about the policy.”
I understand the primary reason gay men are not allowed to donate is the historical HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the gay community in the 1980s. The ban is currently enforced by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, to which all blood donation services have to report.
Josh Rosenthal, special assistant to the external affairs department at the Center for American Progress, writes articles for CAP about LGBT issues. He explains that the blood ban was “part of a series of polices enacted in the ‘80s when there was extreme paranoia about HIV and AIDS. People didn’t really understand it yet, so a lot of policies enacted really wide ‘protective’ sweeps to avoid doing anything that might be potentially dangerous.”
But it’s not the 1980s anymore, and HIV/AIDS is no longer a disease that almost exclusively affects gay males in America. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2007 over 13,500 HIV/AIDS cases were reported as a result of high-risk heterosexual contact, whereas almost 22,500 HIV/AIDS cases were transmitted from male-to-male sexual contact. Thus, while it is undeniable that HIV/AIDS still disproportionately affects the gay male population, it is also undeniable that the disease infects straight men and women as well. According to NPR, in 2007 the Red Cross, America’s blood centers and the American Association of Blood Banks collectively voiced that the ban is “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”
One of the largest incongruities of the blood ban debate is how the FDA handles women who have had sexual contact with MSMs. These women are deferred for one year, meaning if they had sex with a gay boy one night back in college, they can donate so long as it’s been a year since the encounter. So why isn’t there the same deferral period for MSMs? Why is it a life-long ban? And what happens to monogamous gay couples who have both tested HIV-negative?
These are the questions that the FDA struggles to answer. Basically there are two potential alternatives to replace the lifelong ban on MSMs: a one-year deferral period, equal to the period for female partners of MSMs, and a five-year deferral period that some researchers have deemed a safer amount of time.
The Advocate reports that earlier this year, Rep. Diane Watson of California submitted a letter signed by her colleagues to the FDA. The letter urged the organization to consider a one-year deferral period for MSMs, citing its success in the international community, from Argentina to Hungary to Japan, where the shift to the shortened deferral period resulted in no increase in the presence of HIV. The FDA responded with a forceful refusal, insisting that their research has indicated that a shortened deferral period would not be effective in keeping the blood supply safe.
Many Americans are not aware the ban exists, but when they do find out, there are two typical responses: one of outrage that such a policy is in place, and one that the FDA must have a good reason for their eligibility guidelines. The latter, Rosenthal says, “reinforces that men who have sex with men are dangerous and ‘other’ and frightening. Every time someone goes in to give blood, they see that automatic exclusion that says this is something that needs to be kept separate.”
That’s why gay rights groups have been active about spreading the word to make sure people have the facts straight.
The cause for concern is that instead of limiting blood donations from people based on their behaviors, the current policy of an indefinite ban for MSMs limits donations based on identity. Because the policy comes directly from an institution acting as an arm of the government, it reflects an official lack of understanding of gay men and promulgates the idea that gay men as an entire class of people are infected with HIV/AIDS and thus are to be feared.
Opposition to the ban has increased in recent months, with more biology academics than ever releasing statements that there is no scientific merit in the current policy. And with President Obama appointing more progressive leaders with extensive backgrounds in HIV/AIDS studies to head up the FDA and the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, the all-encompassing exclusion may be reviewed soon. Until that happens, it is just one more government policy that restricts gay men from obtaining true, unfettered equality.
Adam Polaski is a sophomore journalism major whose blood is both O negative and HIV negative. And that shit (could) save lives. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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