As Members of LGBT Community Fight for Their Lives, Men Who Have Sex With Men Still Can't Donate Blood

In the early morning hours on Sunday, in the middle of Pride month, at least 49 people, mostly members of the LGBT community, were killed when a gunman opened fire at Pulse, a popular Orlando hotspot that bills itself as “not another gay club.” In the aftermath of the attack, victims inundated area hospitals as health officials and politicians announced an urgent need for blood from eligible donors.


Thousands of people poured into local blood banks to assist victims of the horrific attack, but as details of the tragedy unfolded—including reports that the shooter espoused homophobic sentiments in the months leading up to the attack—the LGBT community expressed frustration over an archaic and discriminatory policy that prohibits gay men from donating blood if they’ve had sex with other men in the past year.

In 1983, during the rise of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, the FDA implemented a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. Last December, the policy shifted to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood provided they abstain from sexual relations with other men for at least a year before donating, but as the Red Cross acknowledges on its website, “It will take several months for the Red Cross to update computer systems, modify processes and procedures, train staff, and implement these changes which need to be made before donors affected by this change can be accepted for donation.”

The American Medical Association urged a federal policy change “to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone.” As critics of the 12-month deferral point out, low-risk men who have sex with men, including those who use condoms, take PrEP or maintain a monogamous relationship, are still barred from giving blood while women who have multiple partners are eligible to donate.

The Human Rights Campaign acknowledged the 12-month deferral is “a step in the right direction,” but added the policy "still falls short of a fully acceptable solution because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men.” National Gay Blood Drive and LGBT advocacy group said the shift is “still discriminatory,” writing in a statement, “While many gay and bisexual men will be eligible to donate their blood and help save lives under this 12-month deferral, countless more will continue to be banned solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and without medical or scientific reasoning.”

Indeed, members of the LGBT community expressed anger over the federal guidelines that prohibited eligible donors from giving blood, contrasting the year-long wait time with the country’s lenient regulations surrounding the purchase of firearms.

In the cruelest twist of irony, Pulse’s owner, Barbara Poma, had opened the nightclub in honor of her brother, who died of complications from AIDs. Poma hoped to promote “a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community.” Now, despite a rigorous standard screening for HIV and other communicable diseases, as well empirical evidence that switching to “individual sex risk assessment” does not increase the risk of HIV infections (Italy made the change in 2001; a three-year study in that country found no significant increase in the collection of contaiminated blood), the decades-old stigma surrounding gay and bisexual men continues to marginalize queer people, even as members of their own community fight for their lives.

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