As the nation enters another blood crisis, fueled by a seemingly endless pandemic, sexually active queer men are still barred from helping to combat the shortage.
The Red Cross recently announced that the United States is experiencing the worst blood shortage in over a decade, with donations and supplies dangerously low as the pandemic rages on. Hospitals and doctors are yet again forced to make difficult decisions about who receives life-saving care in the form of blood. The organization itself was forced to limit its blood delivery to hospitals as it desperately tries to provide 40% of the country’s blood supply. The Red Cross and other blood collection organizations are begging for donations to help combat the shortage. Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds firm to its discriminatory and harmful policies, making the Red Cross’ job increasingly more difficult. While many blood collection organizations acknowledge the harm this policy presents to queer men and the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, federal law requires that they enforce it.
An outdated and frankly discriminatory law put in place by the FDA prohibits gay and bisexual men from donating blood within three months of their last sexual encounter with another man. The policy originates from the fears of the AIDS and HIV epidemic, where queer men were solely blamed for the spread of both diseases and, as a result, barred from blood donations. The original policy established a blanket ban on blood donations from high-risk groups, including intravenous drug users, recipients of animal organ or tissue grafts, and those who had travelled or lived in specific countries. This policy is understandable considering there was no way to test individuals for the diseases, blood donations or the blood supply as a whole. With advancements in testing and increased awareness of the disease, the FDA changed its blanket ban in December 2015, allowing queer men to donate blood with the clause that they are required to abstain from sexual activity with another man for at least a year. While this policy was a small step in the relative scheme of blood donation rights, the federal law remains discriminatory and harms not only the LGBTQIA+ community, but also the American public.
The FDA only recently revisited their policy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as blood donation organizations were forced to shut down blood drives across the United States. In 2020, the FDA announced that sexually active gay and bisexual men were still barred from donating blood; however, the period which disqualified them as eligible donors was lowered from a year to three months. While this revision is a positive step towards eliminating the discriminatory policy, it was driven not by the advancements in testing or preventative technologies, but instead, by desperation. Queer men only became viable candidates for donating blood out of desperation, yet they are still expected to sacrifice their sexual lives, regardless of the circumstances, in order to be deemed worthy of donating blood.
We are lucky to live in a time when an HIV diagnosis is no longer a guaranteed death sentence. While there is no cure for HIV, advancements in technologies and medicines have provided plenty of options for people living with the disease. There are HIV preventatives, like PrEP, which is a pill taken as an HIV preventative for non-positive individuals. There are also options for people with HIV that can lower the levels of the virus in their body and make it undetectable to our current tests, and therefore non transmissible to a partner. Testing for HIV has also seen significant advancements as they become increasingly more accurate. Yet, with all of these advancements and measures, our laws continually blame queer men for the spread of HIV and AIDS.
The FDA’s policy acts as a blanket ban, rather than analyzing on a case-by-case basis. It sets a dangerous and frankly harmful precedent for queer and LGBTQIA+ rights. What options do queer men have other than celibacy? Further, the policy isn’t actually enforced, meaning someone collecting blood cannot make assumptions about your sexual history and therefore prevent you from donating blood. However, it’s dangerous to establish a system where people are forced to lie to their healthcare professionals to do something as simple and selfless as donating blood. There is also no option for queer men who do not live a promiscuous lifestyle, such as those on HIV preventatives, those in healthy monogamous relationships or continually up to date on their HIV and other sexually transmitted disease statuses.
So, where does this leave queer men, and what are the possible solutions to the ban?
While I acknowledge there is a need to quell the spread of HIV, it doesn’t start with blood donations. We need proper LGBTQIA+ sex education in schools so queer kids can learn safe sex practices. There is also a need for general education about LGBTQIA+ issues like the transmission of HIV. The laws that still exist—which stem back from the AIDS epidemic, like the blood donation ban—often continue to exist because of ignorance and improper education.
In regards to the ban, the developments in technology have allowed us to gain greater accuracy in testing for HIV and other diseases in blood supplies and donations. There should be no need to disqualify an entire community as viable donors, especially to help end the current and future blood shortages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all blood donations are tested for diseases and pathogens like HIV. We possess the capabilities and policies to curb the spread of HIV in our blood supply, but the United States continues to cling to its discriminatory laws, which bar gay and bisexual men from donating blood.