Congressional Democrats Urge FDA to End MSM Blood Donation Restrictions

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 8, 2020

In the wake of the FDA's easing of restrictions around gay and bisexual men donating blood, congressional lawmakers are now seeking an end to all restrictions that single out men who have sex with men, reports political news outlet The Hill.

Representatives on the House Oversight and Reform Committee - all Democrats - sent a letter in which they argued to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn that the restrictions around gay and bi men donating blood be completely stricken.

The FDA implemented a ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men during the height of the AIDS epidemic. That ban remained in place even as demand for donated blood grew and testing technology - not to mention routine screening for HIV and other pathogens - in donated blood became more sensitive.

Eventually the FDA amended the restriction, no longer barring MSM from donating blood for life... though, for most people, the ban might as well as remained that way; the first revision of the ban required that gay and bisexual men refrain from sexual contact with other men for at least a full year, regardless of whether they engaged in risky conduct or were in committed, exclusive relationships.

Similar restrictions did not apply to heterosexual men regardless of marital status or sexual conduct. prompting critics to note that a straight man could have sex with a prostitute and still donate blood while married gay men would still be excluded.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA revised their policies again, reducing the mandatory period of celibacy to three months - though again, no such window of sexual refraining applied to heterosexual men.

Medical interest in the therapeutic possibility of antibodies in the blood plasma of people who have contracted the novel coronavirus and then recovered from it prompted many gay and bi men to offer their blood, only for MSM to be turned away even if they qualified under the revised requirements.

The Democratic lawmakers who signed on to the letter took note of this, The Hill reported. The lawmakers wrote:

"There is no scientific justification for denying MSM who have recovered from coronavirus the opportunity to safely donate plasma. Yet, gay and bisexual men who have recovered from coronavirus and attempted to donate have been turned away in accordance with FDA's blanket deferral recommendation.

One celebrity who has encountered the exclusionary guidelines is out talk show host Andy Cohen, who recently recovered from a bout of COVID-19. As previously reported at EDGE, Cohen - who has been carrying on with his talk show from home - recently tried to enroll in a program that could potentially offer treatment to gravely ill COVID-19 sufferers by using antibodies derived from the blood plasma of people who have had the illness.

But Cohen was turned away from that program because he's an openly gay man. Cohen noted on his show that modern testing techniques can detect HIV in donated blood less than a week after any potential exposure to HIV by a donor.

"I was told that due to antiquated and discriminatory guidelines from the FDA," Cohen related on his show, "I am ineligible to donate blood because I am a gay man."

That segment from "Watch What Happens With Andy Cohen Live" led to Cohen's CBS This Morning appearance, where he told host Gayle King that he was "disappointed" about being turned away from the program.

"I've known in the past about the fact that gay men cannot donate blood," Cohen said, "but I think we're in an unusual situation right now. We're in a war against a disease that we don't know a lot about, and there's an urgent need for the antibodies that [are] in people like me - who's survived coronavirus."

The Hill identified the signatories of the letter to the head of the FDA:

The letter was sent by Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.).

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.