The first time I tried to give blood, I was turned away.
It was my freshman year of college. A friend in my dorm told me about an on-campus blood drive and asked me to go with her. I’ve never been good at blood draws so I’d never tried to donate, but this time, maybe due to my status as a newly freed teenager, I thought I’d give it a try.
As I filled out my paperwork at the drive, I came across a question I’d never been asked before in a setting like this: Are you a man who has had sexual relations with another man since 1977? Along with being a newly free teen, I was also a newly proud gay man, so I marked “yes” with no hesitation. When I returned my paperwork to the student volunteer, she scanned it and within five seconds said, “Sorry, we can’t take your blood.” I asked why. Her response: “AIDS.”
In 1983, around the onset of the HIV pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration banned men who have ever had sex with other men from donating blood as a way to lower the risk of HIV transmission through blood transfusion. At the time, very little was known about the virus, and access to technology to adequately test blood was hard to come by. So, in many ways, the ban made sense back then.
But this is 2014. AIDS is no longer (and actually never has been) just a “gay cancer,” as it was painted to be in the early 1980s. As time and the virus have raged on, we have learned that HIV does not discriminate based on gender or race or sexuality.
The FDA now requires that donors be prescreened based on risk factors related to HIV and other infectious diseases, covering areas like drug use, medical history and current health status. Based on these answers, most people, depending on their risk, are given varying times during which they can donate. For example, someone determined to be low-risk could give blood that day. A heterosexual woman who possibly had been exposed to HIV would be deferred for a year and then allowed to donate.
But a man who has had sex with another man indefinitely is banned from giving blood—regardless of HIV status.
In 2006, the American Association for Blood Banks, America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross urged the FDA to change its policy, calling the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” In 2013, the American Medical Association took the call even further and labeled the ban just plain discrimination.
On Friday, a National Gay Blood Drive will be held in the hope of raising awareness around this issue. Gay and bisexual men are urged to bring friends who can donate to blood banks to show just how much more potentially could be given—up to 219,000 pints each year, according to a 2010 report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Now that same-sex marriage is rolling across the country, I think it’s time we all start looking at what other work needs to be done. Allowing gay and bisexual men to donate is a cause that could help save lives. HIV doesn’t discriminate—and neither does blood.
Zach Stafford is a RedEye special contributor. To learn more about the National Gay Blood Drive and find a donation location near you, visit gayblooddrive.com.