Healthy Gay Men Must Be Allowed to Donate Blood, Says GMHC

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Friday Mar 8, 2013

Tired of the bureaucratic foot-dragging, the Gay Men's Health Crisis has teamed up with the Sarah Lawrence College Student Life Committee and the Student Senate to create a We The People online petition to demand that the President Barack Obama urge the Food and Drug Administration to reform their policy preventing gay men from donating blood.

"GMHC has been leading advocacy around the reform of the blood ban, and we are continuing to build momentum with the petition," GMHC Policy Analyst Robert Valadez told EDGE. "We chose the We The People site because if it gets 100,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House must respond, they must have an appropriate analyst assess it, and the president must make a formal comment on how to move forward on it. Last we checked, we have over 7,000 signatures, and hope to get the full amount within the 30 days."

Gay men have been prevented from donating blood since the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic first began. In 1986, the FDA enacted guidelines that instructed blood banks to ask male donors if they have had sex with a man, even once, since 1977. If the potential donor responded yes, he was removed from the donor pool forever. No other potential donors were asked any similar questions -- not even whether they had had unprotected sex with HIV-positive partners.

"This identity-based policy leads the public to a false sense of security, to thinking that screening donors based on who they are is somehow safer than basing it on what they do," said GMHC's new Director of Public Policy Jason Cianciotto.

Experts at GMHC stressed that they did not want to repeal the FDA's policy to allow all gay men to donate blood, but rather to change it to one based on behavior rather than sexual orientation, so it allows for equal treatment of all potential blood donors.

"The position of the agency is to preserve the safety of the blood supply, and so we don't encourage all gay men to donate blood, because we realize that we are a high-risk group," said Valadez. "But we want to change the policy so it is behavior-based, and to incorporate a system of deferrals."

Valadez said that the American Red Cross was in favor of this year-long deferral.

U.S. Legislators Agree: Ban Is Unnecessary, Outdated

In June 2012, a group of 64 U.S. legislators led by Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D.-Ill.) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, encouraging that they move forward with a study that could end the ban.

"We remain concerned that a blanket deferral of MSM for any length of time both perpetuates the unwarranted discrimination against the bisexual and gay community and prevents healthy men from donating blood without a definitive finding of added benefit to the safety of the blood supply," the letter said.

Patients across the country desperately need life-saving blood transfusions, yet perfectly healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on sexual orientation, said Rep. Quigley in that letter.

"Equality for the LGBT community is closer than ever but outdated and discriminatory policies like this must evolve to match advancements in science and technology," Quigley added.

The letter was prompted by a 2010 coalition, led by GMHC and a coalition of other nonprofits, who urged Congress to pressure the HHS to end the ban. The ABA concluded that the ban was "suboptimal," but nevertheless decided to keep it in place.

"Available scientific data are inadequate to support change to a specific alternate policy," the expert committee determined. HHS promised to conduct feasibility studies to determine whether there was a subset of the gay male community that would pose little or no threat to the blood supply. But three years later, the HHS is still determining the criteria of whom to study. According to public policy experts, the proposals for these pilot studies are addressing completely tangential issues, and are in no way helpful to their goal.

GMHC suggested that the revise the policy to consider eligible gay men who had only had one sex partner in the past year. In countries like Spain and Italy, everyone is held to the same standard, regardless of sexual orientation.

In the decades since federal guidelines were enacted, scientific advances have allowed for the positive screening of HIV in donated blood, within days of infection. And blood banks across the nation, including the Red Cross, have called the ban "medically and scientifically unwarranted," and continue to oppose the FDA’s ban.

In June 2012, The Association of Blood Banks issued a statement asking the FDA to reconsider its position, saying that the, "AABB supports the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in activities posing similar risks. AABB maintains its recommendation that FDA amend the indefinite deferral currently in place for a male who has had sex with another male to a 12-month deferral."

On American Red Cross Month, Time for a Change

Upholding a 70-year tradition, President Barack Obama proclaimed March American Red Cross Month, saying in his 2013 Presidential Proclamation that, "This month, we honor men and women who deliver relief to communities around the world, and we renew the compassionate spirit that continues to keep our country strong and our people safe."

But the Red Cross continues to suffer from a shortage of blood donations, with local chapters campaigning to get more people to donate. With national disasters like Hurricane Sandy still fresh in everyone’s mind, the need for blood donations is higher than ever. And gay men could help meet this need.

"A lot of groups are getting traction from Obama’s open declarations of support for LGBT groups during his State of the Union address, and now is the time to strike, while the iron is hot," said Valadez. "We know that the blood supply is very safe, and the likelihood that you will contract any known pathogen is very minimal. And although there are other high-risk groups for HIV, like African-Americans, we are not asking for a permanent ban on anyone, but rather equitable treatment across the board."

A 2010 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles estimated that if gay men who had no sexual contact for the past 12 months were permitted to donate blood, more than 53,000 additional men would likely make more than 89,000 donations. This could help meet the need of blood supply shortages.

"Again, we want to be clear: we don’t think all gay and bisexual men should donate, but the majority of those who are HIV-negative should be able to," said Valadez. "It is not so much an LGBT rights issue, but primarily a public health issue."

For now, do your part to help the petition garner the necessary signatures by visiting

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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