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The Ban on Gay Men Giving Blood Doesn’t Make Any Sense

It’s a holdover from the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

By Sarah Beller


People wait to donate blood at the OneBlood center on June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the tragedy this weekend — the worst mass shooting in United States history, which left 50 attendees dead and many more injured at a gay night club in Orlando — several hot-button issues came to the forefront, including LGBTQ rights, gun laws, mental illness, ISIS, and Islamophobia. The tragedy also highlighted the cruelty — and irrationality — of one particular U.S. policy: the Food and Drug Administration’s effective ban on men (and trans women) who have sex with men giving blood.

“Gay. Men. In. Orlando. Can’t. Give. Blood. To. Their. Bleeding. Battered. Community. Dear @US_FDA, CHANGE THAT NOW,” tweeted Brian Gerald Murphy, co-creator of Legalize Trans, a campaign calling for inclusivity of transgender people in the gay rights movement.

Many others also took to social media to point out that the ban was adding insult to injury at this incredibly painful moment.

The biggest blood banks in America (the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers) have officially called the bans “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”

After the initial wave of criticism, rumors circulated on social media that OneBlood, a non-profit blood donation clinic in Orlando, was going to accept blood donations from gay men — but it tweeted that the ban remained in place.

The ban began in 1983 in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when AIDs was heavily stigmatized as a disease primarily affecting gay men. At the time, blood screening tests did not yet exist. Now, however, blood testing technology is much improved, and the risk of receiving HIV from a blood transfusion is estimated to be one in two million.

Taking that into account, last year the FDA softened its ban — at least technically — by allowing men who have sex with men (MSM) to donate blood if they have been celibate for 12 months. In practice this still restricts the majority of MSM from donating blood. The FDA’s decision moves MSM to a lower “risk level” than intravenous drug users and sex workers, for example, who are still banned completely. It puts MSM on the same level as people who have received transfusions or gotten a tattoo.

The one-year deferral period puts the U.S. on a par with the United Kingdom, which adopted a similar protocol five years ago, as well as Japan and Australia. In countries including Russia, Spain, Italy, and much of South America, MSM have no restrictions on blood donation. Germany still has a ban on MSM blood donors, and Canada requires a wait of five years from the last time of intercourse before contributing to a blood bank.

It’s a terrible irony that many gay and bisexual men cannot help their friends and families who may have been victims of the attack, which occurred during LGBT Pride Month.

As Representative Jared Polis, who is gay and helped launch the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, wrote:

As another commenter elaborates, the ban illogically means that “if you’re a gay man in a monogamous relationship with your legally-married husband, you are ineligible to donate blood” but “If you’re a heterosexual man” who “has random and anonymous sexual encounters every week with women, step right up, you’re 100% eligible to donate blood.”

OneBlood, the blood donation clinic, tweeted repeatedly:

“Urgent need for O Neg, O Pos and AB Plasma donors following a mass shooting in Orlando” and “Dozens of people have been injured and taken to area hospitals. The need for blood continues.”

The biggest blood banks in America (the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers) have officially called the bans “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”

Yet the ban remains.



This story originally appeared in The Influence, a Pacific Standard partner site that covers the spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook and on Twitter.