On Friday, July 11, gay men and their friends will head to the Rhode Island Blood Center for the National Gay Blood Drive, an event taking place in more than 60 cities around the country. Now in its second year, the NGBD was created to draw attention to the little-known fact that gay and bisexual men are forbidden from donating blood in the United States. The drive’s founder, gay activist and viral video producer, Ryan James Yezak, argues that the ban promotes stigma and misinformation about gay men.
Blood donation eligibility is determined by the Food and Drug Administration, and every blood center in the country is required to adhere to FDA regulations. Current FDA policy dictates that any man who has had sex with another man — even once — since 1977 is forbidden for life from donating blood. (Female partners of these men are also forbidden from donating, but only for one year.) The FDA implemented the ban in 1983 to prevent the AIDS virus from getting into the nation’s reserve blood supply. Back then, early detection of HIV was not yet possible. In fact, it was only in 1983 that HIV was first discovered to be the source of AIDS.
Things have changed drastically since then. Testing methods are now highly accurate, and the “window period” — the early stage after the virus has been transmitted but before it can be detected — has closed considerably. There’s also a larger issue: gay men are not the only people to contract HIV. Statistics published by the RI Department of Health indicate that males accounted for only 73 percent of new HIV cases in the state between 2000 and 2010. Additionally, only 52 percent of those men were MSMs. (That’s the medical term for men who sleep with men, which is different than “gay” or “bisexual” since it includes men who don’t necessarily identify as gay or bisexual.)
The number of men affected by the lifetime ban is unclear. The FDA claims that men who have had sex with other men represent approximately two percent of the overall US population, although Center for Disease Control figures note that MSM make up about seven percent of the male population, or about 3.4 percent of the total population.
In 2013 the American Medical Association announced its opposition to the ban, calling it discriminatory and “not based on sound science.” The American Red Cross also opposes the ban, as do America’s Blood Centers (of which the Rhode Island Blood Center is a member), and AABB, once known as the American Association of Blood Banks. “We have long supported the change to a one-year MSM deferral,” the three organizations said in a joint statement issued in June.
For last year’s National Gay Blood Drive, HIV tests were given outside of blood centers, and anyone with a negative result then went in to donate blood. The HIV test results were collected and sent to the FDA as proof that healthy potential donors were being turned away. This year’s drive will be slightly different. Gay and bisexual men are encouraged to bring someone eligible with them to donate blood in their place. The banned men will write letters to the FDA, and everyone will sign a White House petition urging that the lifetime ban be lifted.