Banned 4Life Fights FDA Blood Ban

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday July 4, 2013

Blake Lynch was just trying to help his friend Emmy, who is living with sickle cell anemia, when he went to donate blood this February. But after he was turned away because of his sexual orientation, he formed Banned4Life, an organization set on ending the ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood. Now, he and his partner Brett Donnelly travel around educating people about the FDA's policy and collecting signatures for their petition.

"When I was turned away from donating blood because of my sexual orientation I was embarrassed and angry. At first I was angry at the blood banks but I found out that the MSM blood ban is an FDA policy," said Lynch in a recent interview.

He noted that the Red Cross and America's Blood Centers have been trying to end the FDA's current blood ban since 2006, but they have to abide by the FDA's policy, which assumes that all gay/bisexual men are HIV-positive, stating that MSM "comprise about 50 percent of all HIV infected persons in the U.S. and account for more than 50 percent of all new infections." The policy was adopted in the 1980s, in response to the AIDS epidemic, and is widely considered outdated. All blood donations are currently tested for more than a dozen diseases, including HIV.

Lynch, who is a nursing student at the University of Central Florida, sought the help of his friends and colleagues to pass a resolution in April 2013 that had the National Student Nurses Association calling for a revision of the MSM policy. He said the resolution passed with 91 percent of votes -- and a standing ovation.

"The H in HIV stands for Human, Not Homosexual," said Lynch. "The policy does not really affect me, but it affects my friend Emmy and all the other individuals who require blood transfusions."

Lynch and his partner have traveled to Pride celebrations in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge, Pittsburgh, Disney, Darden and Rockville to raise awareness and collect more than 10,000 petition signatures.

On June 6, they sent out a Banned4Life representative Bobby Tollefson to make a statement at the Health & Human Services meeting on Blood Safety and Availability in Rockville, Maryland. And on June 30, they addressed the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami during a special Pride worship service.

Board member Luigi Ferrar, program director at Prideline Youth Services, led the service, which was geared to lift up the church's principles of "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," and "justice, equity and compassion in human relations." A coalition of South Florida LGBT organizations met after the service to explore ways to advocate for changing the policy.

In addition to their efforts to change the FDA’s current discriminatory policy, Lynch and Donnelly still encourage eligible donors to give blood in the place of those who have been "banned for life" and is planning several upcoming charity events and blood drives.

Lynch’s friend Emmy Derisbrun said that doctors were not completely sure of how to treat sickle cell, and could only provide fluids to prevent dehydration, pain medication to relieve excruciating pain and blood transfusions if needed.

"I have been battling this disease all my life, and sometimes blood transfusions are vital to my recovery. I’m afraid that one day I will be told that there is no blood available for my transfusion when needed most," said Derisbrun.

"Banned4Life is not only about encouraging the FDA to revise the blood donation policy on gay men, but to encourage those who are eligible to donate blood in place of those who are Banned4Life. Maybe one day, I will rely on your blood to help me."

Lynch is currently working with the America’s Blood Centers and OneBlood (Florida’s Blood Centers) on helping organizations make their blood drives more inclusive, saying, "We believe that everyone should participate in this life-saving process, eligible or ineligible. Banned4Life has partnered with CampusPride in organizing Banned4Life Blood Drives at universities around the nation."

They also stress blood drives as part of the corporate culture, saying that "Until this policy is changed MSM people should inspire eligible donors to donate blood in their place."

The biggest of these blood drives will be taking place on Oct. 19, 2013, a date the organization has coined as National Donate 4 All Day, a day described as a time "where businesses, organizations and universities will host community blood drive events around the nation."

For now, Lynch and Donnelly continue to collect signatures, with the goal of gathering 100,000 by October. They hope that their efforts will help retire the FDA’s outdated policy regarding MSM, allowing Lynch to help his friend Emmy and others with lifesaving blood donations.

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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