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Opinion: Gay and bisexual men still face barriers in donating blood 

click to enlarge The FDA reduced restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood and plasma. - WAVEBREAKMEDIA  / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • wavebreakmedia / shutterstock.com
  • The FDA reduced restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood and plasma.

In December of 2019 (remember, when we weren’t yet panicking about a pandemic and all we cared about was drinking peppermint schnapps?), I was chatting with a friend who was low on cash. I brought up the possibility of donating plasma.

“In college, I had tons of friends that gave at least twice a month to get some extra cash,” I told him.

“I can’t,” my friend said with a look of shame that appeared odd for the conversation. “Because I’m gay, I can’t give blood or donate plasma.”

What?

It took me till the ripe age of 29 to learn that sexually active gay and bisexual men are banned from giving blood. I added it to my ever-growing list of “gay things I should know about,” like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the last winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The conversation led me into a black hole of articles and data, as I added this injustice to my other list: “shit queer people have to deal with.”

Well, then COVID-19 happened, and I had more important things to do, like binge Avatar: The Last Airbender and water my houseplants. But my attention was recaptured when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is in charge of creating blood donation recommendations, changed its policy on April 1, 2020.

In 2015, “men who have sex with men” (MSM) were barred from giving blood or plasma unless they abstained from sex for a whole year. (Because it’s totally feasible that people are going to not have sex with their partner for a year just to give blood. “It’s for a good cause, babe!” Said no one ever.) With these new changes, brought on by blood shortages caused by the pandemic, MSM now have to wait three months.

As crazy as even this policy may seem, from 1983 to 2015, if you were a man and you’d had sex with a man ever, you were barred from giving blood for life. No exceptions. Requiring men to wait a year after their last sexual encounter was considered progress at the time.

The initial policy came from the hysteria surrounding HIV/AIDS (you know, that other pandemic the country pretended didn’t exist until it was too late), specifically in 1982 when an infant contracted HIV via blood transfusion.

But why is a fear of HIV preventing gay and bisexual men from giving blood?

According to hiv.org, there are 38,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. each year; 70 percent are attributed to gay and bisexual men. But in a world where technology is advancing so quickly, can’t blood donation centers test every donation?

Actually, they do. Every blood donation is tested for lots of potential health dangers, including HIV. But that still isn’t enough.

According to a 2016 FDA-funded study, HIV-infected blood can still escape detection through nucleic acid testing, which is one of the methods used to test blood for viruses. The only way to prevent HIV in blood donations is by combining testing with a questionnaire that bars certain individuals from giving. This includes MSM, as well as people who have recently gotten a tattoo, drug users and sex workers.

For this reason, the FDA does not plan to allow MSM to donate blood without conditions. They will keep both the questionnaire and testing to protect blood donation recipients.
So why the sudden change to a three-month deferral? It wasn’t based on FDA research.
The April 1 FDA recommendation says it made the switch to three months because that’s what Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are doing.

And so far, those countries haven’t seen HIV enter blood circulation.

A spokesperson for Vitalant, a national organization operating a blood center here in Colorado Springs, said in a statement: “Vitalant supports and appreciates the FDA’s recent policy change to a 3-month deferral for men who have sex with men (MSM). Through our affirmative and transformational research, our goal has always been to rationalize deferral policies, based on data-gathering, assessment of international best practices and community consultation. We celebrate alongside LGBTQ+ community members now able to join us in our life-saving mission and give back to the communities they love.”

In spite of the relaxation of the FDA’s policy, the LGBTQ community and its advocates aren’t happy. The Human Rights Campaign and politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker called the three-month deferment “discriminatory,” demanding better policies that include LGBTQ people.

Maybe all this pressure is working.

“The FDA is working to commence a pilot study that will enroll about 2000 men who have sex with men and who would be willing to donate blood,” says FDA spokesperson Emma Spaulding. “This study… could generate data that will help the FDA determine if a donor questionnaire based on individual risk assessment would be as effective as time-based deferrals in reducing the risk of HIV.”

The change, though a step forward, is complicated at best, and leaves complicated feelings in its wake.

It literally took a pandemic to change policy, and the message that communicates to LGBTQ people is, “Oh, now our blood is good enough.”

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