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Discrimination and the FDA

When HIV was first diagnosed in America, the FDA forbade gay or bisexual men from donating blood for life.  If you were a male who had any kind of sexual contact with another male at any point in your life (including that time you and Tommy Freedman fooled around in the garage when you were twelve just to see what it was like), you could not give blood--or donate organs.  The ban did not apply to straight men, straight women, or lesbians.  Even after it became apparent that HIV wasn't connected to sexual orientation, the FDA clung to the ban.  Even when all donated became subjected to careful HIV testing, the FDA clung to the ban.  Even when the blood supply dwindled to dangerously low levels post-911, the FDA clung to the ban.

When you donate blood, the recipient organization was required to ask males:

Have you ever had sexual contact with another male, even once?

If the answer is "yes," then you couldn't donate. 
They did not and do not ask this question of women.  So you could be a women who had unprotected sex with forty or fifty different men in your life and still give blood, but just one instance disqualified you if you were a man.

The ruling did not change after same-sex marriage became legal in state after state.  You could be a gay man, HIV negative and married to your husband for years and still be barred from donating blood, but a straight man who cheats on his wife could give several gallons.  And it didn't change when marriage equality became law in the entire country.  I'm in a monogamous marriage, but I can't donate blood.  A single man or woman with a dozen-odd partners in the last year--as long as they're of the opposite sex--can give all they like, even though my risk factor for HIV is zero and theirs is considerably higher.

For the last year or so, the FDA has noodled around with lifting the ban, and a few days ago, it announced the ban was indeed lifted.

Sort of.

Gay and bisexual men can now give blood if they haven't had sexual contact with another man for at least one year.  Yeah, you read that right--no sex for a year lets you give blood.

Let that sink in.  "Okay, honey, they're doing a blood drive in October at work, and I'd really like to give this time, so we can't have sex for twelve months. Got it?"

"Have you had sex with another man in the last year, even once?"  "No.  Take as much blood as you want because when you're done, I'm going home to kill myself."

The ban is still effectively in place.  It's certainly in place for a married gay couple, and those are the ones in the lowest risk group.

There's no scientific reason for this ban.  It's indefensible.  The sole reason is homophobia and an assumption than gay and bisexual men will lie.

And so people will die.  They will die because of a lack of emergency blood.  They will die because of a lack of donated organs.  They will die because the FDA continues to be a discriminatory body that should know better.

So far it's no skin off my nose.  I won't be sitting for an hour while some inexperienced bloodletter pokes around in my arm.  My body won't be sliced up by a doctor digging for organs after I die.  Good for me!  Though if someone I know and love needs blood or a kidney, I can't help.  By law.  Unless I lie about it, and I'm not about to do that.

Thank you, FDA, and Merry Christmas.  When a movie theater gunman shoots your daughter, I hope you don't need my blood to save her.


A woman of my acquaintance contacted me about the above entry. She wanted to remain anonymous, but she wrote:

"They did not and do not ask this question of women." Well, they asked a variant question for a long time. I always answered truthfully, that I *had* had some sexual contact with bisexual men. (Often I had not learned they were bisexual until months after the initial contact. Men lie often by omission to women. I suppose the reverse must be true, too, but I've done my best never to do it.) At any rate, they usually accepted my blood. Proving again the point you're making in your article. However, one nurse made a face and then said to me, "I have to think of whether I'd give your blood to my children. And I just couldn't." She rejected me, and I did not donate again for nearly ten years, partly because I wanted to avoid the humiliation I felt when I heard her words, in case anybody else said something similar.

Finally, a friend was dying of a disease that could be helped with blood transfusions. . . . I decided to brave the system again. Part of the interview is always, "Have you been rejected in the past as a donor?" So I told my story. THIS time the nurse looked horrified that I had been subject to this, and said she was sorry I had not reported the nurse to her supervisor -- this was NEVER the policy of the Red Cross or any legit blood bank. She thanked me and approved me as a donor. So I went back to donating blood, but I kept having to tell the story at every interview.

Finally I asked, "How can I answer this question appropriately without giving all these embarassing details?" It was suggested that I merely say, "I was rejected because of my answer to a question which is no longer part of the standard donation protocol", or some such phrase, and that's what I still say.

When I worked at [a tech company], I had many openly gay male colleagues, and I knew this was an issue for them. And I've always felt bad for closeted men, who might get pressured to donate [during company blood drives]. It's clear from the protocol, with its many private opportunities to say, "don't use my blood", that this is a genuine problem.

I was also a fertility patient, where donated sperm was frozen and quarantined for MONTHS until it was certain that the donors were not HIV-positive. Glad that there are faster tests now. But it's certainly well past time -- it's been past time for 30 years, actually -- for the FDA to put their policies in line with science.

Thank you for sharing that, ma'am.  I'm sure there are many, many others like you, and it's wrong.  It's not just a matter of saying, "Oh well--I won't volunteer to give."  There's also humiliation and degredation from blood donor staff going on, and also gay men who want to remain private about their orientation and have to come up with excuses not to donate at company blood drives without looking like creeps.  ("Fred NEVER donates at the company drive. Not only do we not make our charity goal, it's clear he's being a jerk!  What kind of ass doesn't want to save a life?")  It's clear the FDA's hurtful policies have been behind the times for decades, and they need make a real change.


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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 23rd, 2015 04:51 pm (UTC)
While I understood the reason for the ban in the past (ditto the "have you lived where mad cow disease was an issue" question), the development and refining of tests has made it much more of a non-issue, and this latest backfill after the lifting of the ban is nothing but bullshit.

In my non-medical but longtime blood-donor opinion, anyway.

(and yes, they do ask that Q of women still, but answering yes (an ex was bi), most of the intake people just nod their head and make a mark, I presume to add an extra test, and that's it. Which is as it should be. I suspect.
Dec. 23rd, 2015 04:53 pm (UTC)
Hey, you get to give blood once a year. In Canada we can only once every five years.


(head desk)

Did you ever see this? https://youtu.be/bYXxMO_mTBY

Dec. 24th, 2015 04:29 pm (UTC)
I have! I was going to post it here and forgot. It's awesome!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
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