FIRST PERSON | Last year, I went to participate in a local blood drive. It was routine enough. The nurse checked my heart rate, weighed me, and then asked me a few questions. "In the last twelve months," she droned, "Have you had sex with an intravenous drug user?" No. "A person who has been exposed to HIV?" No. "A prostitute?" Of course not. "A man who has had sex with men?" I paused. My fiance is, like me, bisexual. Knowing that we were both perfectly healthy, I considered lying, but ultimately decided to be honest. "Yes," I told her, and was immediately brushed away and told that I couldn't donate.
Since the 1980s, people like me and my partner -- healthy adults with no blood-transmissible illnesses -- have been prohibited by the FDA from donating blood. The homophobic, outdated ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, as well as their female partners, is costing people their lives. The Red Cross is currently experiencing a significant shortage of blood donations, with donations dropping a full 10 percent in June, according to CNN. Their strict criteria designed to prevent the spread of HIV is likely contributing to the problem. The FDA forces organizations to refuse healthy donors because of these outdated fears and homophobic judgment.
A comprehensive report in 2010 examined the patterns of blood donation and eligibility among gay and bisexual men, demonstrating how essential it is for the FDA to lift this ban. The authors of the study estimated that some 2,603,004 healthy men would be eligible to donate blood in any given year if the ban were lifted, and nearly half of them would actually donate. This estimate accounts only for men who have sex with men. If the ban for their female partners were to also be lifted, it would open the door for many more life-saving donations from people like myself.
The blood donation ban for these men and their partners is based in bigotry, not science. Citing strong evidence of overall safety, the American Red Cross regards the ban as "medically and scientifically unwarranted." Since the 1980s, donated blood has been thoroughly tested for any trace of HIV or other transmissible diseases. Infection through donated blood is so rare in the United States that the staff at Harvard Medical School calls the risk "close to zero." Even if a person with advanced HIV were to donate blood repeatedly, it would be eliminated from the donation pool each time through rigorous testing.
The blood donation ban is grossly unfair in its stereotype of men who have sex with men. While gay and bisexual men do have slightly higher than average rates of HIV infection, many are diligent about practicing safe sex and routinely seek testing to confirm that they are free of the virus. Many others, including my own fiance, are involved in committed, monogamous relationships with partners -- male or female -- who have been confirmed to be virus-free. It is grossly unfair to lump all of these men and their partners into one "high risk" category, ignoring the factors that vary between individuals. It is also blatantly ignorant to exclude men who may have been with the same healthy partner for twenty years, while accepting men who might have had dozens of unprotected female partners in just a few short months. Unsafe sex is not limited to the GLBT community.
The Red Cross's recent shortage of donated blood has the capacity to cost people their lives. Unless the shortage is addressed promptly through an influx of new donations, people in desperate need of blood transfusions might die. Given this -- and the organization's own support of an overturn of the ban on gay male blood donations -- it's appalling to think that eligible, healthy donors are being turned away. I am a responsible adult with a desire to save the life of someone in need, and my donation is needed now more than ever. My orientation, and the orientation of the person I love, should not block me from being able to help another individual.
Juniper Russo is a freelance writer, health advocate, and dedicated mom living in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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