Gay and Bi Men Still Turned Away from Blood, Plasma Donations

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday April 16, 2020

Gay and bisexual men - and MSM, or Men who Have Sex with Men, though they might not identify as gay or bi - might have thought that they could lend a hand, or at least some antibody-rich plasma, with the current COVID-19 crisis after the FDA eased restrictions around donating blood earlier this month.

But despite that adjustment to the rules - which still remain stricter for MSM than for others - a bureaucratic hurdle remains in place that stops now-qualified donors from being able to contribute.

NBC News reports that gay, bi, and other men who have sex with men remain stymied because blood donation staff and computer systems have yet to be brought up to date on the revised rules.

NBC reports that:

...despite the rule change hundreds of the nation's blood centers are still unable to accept blood from gay men, even though there's a desperate need for blood at U.S. hospitals and a desire to get plasma with antibodies from COVID-19 survivors. Both the Red Cross and America's Blood Centers, which together represent 800 banks nationwide, told NBC News they haven't been able to accept donations.

NBC News recalled that:

In 1985, as a way to block the transmission of HIV, the FDA blocked all men who had had sex with other men after 1977 from donating blood. The rule was changed to sex within the past 12 months in 2015, and then to sex within the past three months on April 2.

The FDA's rules have long been criticized as biased and unnecessary, given that modern testing techniques can detect HIV in a donor's blood less than a week after that person's exposure to HIV, the virus that caused AIDS.

Even if men who have sex with men are partnered and exclusive, they are still, under the new rules, denied the chance to donate blood unless they have no zero sexual contact with another man in the last three months. Similar requirements are not in place for heterosexual men, however. The underlying assumption seems to be twofold: Namely, that MSM cannot manage to be as exclusive as heterosexual men; and that heterosexual men who may have engaged in promiscuous or risky sexual behavior are somehow less likely to pass along HIV despite modern testing techniques.

Though the revised guidelines are arguable a step forward, they have still come in for criticism on the same grounds as before.

Such a ban is problematic in ordinary times, as blood banks are forever in need. But in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for donations - and especially for plasma- is greater than ever. NBC News noted that plasma donations from people who have had and recovered from, the new coronavirus are thought to possibly offer antibodies that could help gravely stricken people recover.

NBC News also took note of how gay and bi men "immediately" started trying to donate blood and plasma when the rules changed earlier this month - but in practical terms, they are still not welcome.

One gay man who had recovered from COVID-19 and reported to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he was put through a screening process and only then turned away, told NBC what happened when he disclosed his sexuality.

"It was like I was radioactive," Lukus Estok, 36, recalled.

Mt. Sinai has also become embroiled in another controversy. The hospital, facing a deluge of COVID-19 patients, partnered with a religious charity group, Samaritan's Purse, which is headed by evangelical leader Franklin Graham. Samaritan's Purse set up a tent in Central Park to treat the hospital's overflow of COVID-19 patients - but some criticized the partnership, since Samaritan's Purse requires volunteers, including medical staff, to sign a "Statement of Faith" that denigrates GLBTQ people and their families, and consigns non-heterosexuals to "Hell," an afterlife that some Christians believe offers fiery torment for people they deem to be immoral.

Though the group claims not to deny care to anyone, concern remains around their refusal to accept the efforts of qualified medical personnel who might be LGBTQ or have their own deeply held moral or religious reservations about signing on to - and thus endorsing - the anti-LGBTQ views set out in the "Statement of Faith."

Graham took to Facebook and Fox News recently to decry what he deemed to be "harassment" over the controversy.

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.