Why the Hell Can't You Donate Blood in America If You've Had Sex with Another Man?

If you are straight and haven’t used condoms with multiple partners: Donate blood! If you had sex with a sex worker of the opposite sex: Donate blood! If you had sex over a year ago with a partner of the opposite sex who is HIV-positive: Donate your blood!

But if you are a man, and you ever had sex with another man? The new rules say you’d better keep your blood to yourself, if you’re in America.

After a meeting of the blood products advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the chances of the United States adopting even a new, slightly less homophobic blood donation policy – allowing men who haven’t had sex with other men in the last year – are slim, and the lifelong ban looks like it’s here to stay in all its ugly glory.

There has been a tremendous amount of effort to change blood donation policiesin the US, particularly over the last year, to mirror the more science-based and progressive ones in countries like Japan and Australia – where the policy hasn’t led to any increased risk. And, in its wake, the US department of health and human services’ committee on blood and tissue safety and availability recommended last month that the policies be softened and men be allowed to donate blood after a year of abstinence. 

The American Association for Blood Banks, America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross have urged the FDA to change its policy since 2006, calling the lifetime ban on male blood donors who ever had sex with another man “medically and unscientifically unwarranted”. In 2013 the American Medical Association took the call even further and labeled the ban just plain discrimination.

And, in 2014, all blood that is donated is tested thoroughly, so the chances of getting blood that is HIV-positive is so minuscule that it’s rendered the ban on certain men’s donations archaic and, when compared to who remains allowed to donate, the clear, ongoing discrimination against men who have ever had sex with men is almost funny.

But it’s not – not when someone like Dr Susan Leitman, a member of the FDA panel, can oppose the abstinence waiver policy and say: “It sounds to me like we’re talking about policy and civil rights rather than our primary duty, which is transfusion safety.”

When the ban on male donors who had ever had sex with men originated in the early 1980s, the reason was actually logical: HIV wasn’t very well understood and technology didn’t yet exist to screen blood very widely nor detect small virus loads, and the FDA didn’t want HIV-positive blood to make its way into blood banks and then to the public. But it does now – and we know that is does. The ban is simply discrimination

While men who have sex with men are at higher-than-average risk for acquiring the virus, that risk comes from actions beyond simply having sex with other men. But when we base a policy on whether a man has, even once, had sex with another man, that is about identity, not risk factors.

To be a man and have sex with another man is not to put yourself automatically at risk for HIV – this is 2014, and we all understand how HIV is transmitted. It is no longer the “gay cancer”. To have sex with another person who has the virus (or whose HIV status is unknown to them or you) without any barrier method of protection is to put yourself at risk – whether you are gay, straight, bi- or even pansexual.

But these are the crumbs that many of us are willing to accept – the crumbs that cement our second-class treatment, even after our big fight for marriage equality. Even by accepting a one-year abstinence waiver in lieu of a life-long ban, we are accepting prejudice against us over science that, in many ways, once freed us from fear. Gay men have for too long gotten crumbs while others get a seat at the table – and a microphone at the FDA to preach their unscientific prejudice. It’s time to pull the plug.

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