N.Y. lawmaker says blood bank turned him away 'for being gay'

Tim Fitzsimons

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, whose district includes many of New York City's historically gay neighborhoods, said he was "turned away for being gay" when he tried to donate blood at the New York Blood Center, even though he meets the new FDA criteria.

"There’s a massive blood shortage in New York, and I tried to do my part by donating," he wrote on Twitter. "I was turned away for being gay — turns out, the FDA hasn’t implemented the new criteria for LGBTQ donors they announced last month."

The new criteria, updated on April 2, shortened the sexual abstinence period for men who have sex with men to three months from 12 months, a restriction that is not imposed on sexually active heterosexuals.

“The New York Blood Center estimates we have a blood supply that will last only one to two days,” Hoylman told NBC News. “In a typical month there are 9,500 donations. This past month, when I tried to donate, they got fewer than 2,000 donations.”

“A regular month they host about 600 blood drives; last week they hosted two,” Hoylman continued. “I find it insulting and hurtful that gay and bisexual men can’t contribute blood during a national pandemic.”

In a May 12 letter to the CEO of the New York Blood Center, Hoylman noted that he tried to donate as soon as he became eligible after the FDA reduced the required abstinence period “because I qualify under the new guidelines.”

“Nevertheless, I was rejected as a donor because NYBC continues to use the outdated screening guidelines of a waiting period of one year instead of three months for gay and bisexual men like me,” Hoylman wrote.

On the same day Hoylman sent his letter, the New York Blood Center warned of “dangerously low” blood bank reserves and called for increased donations even while admitting that it is still unable to accept blood donations from gay and bisexual men, despite the new FDA guidance.

“We expect the new changes to be implemented in June,” the center announced on April 28, adding that they “sincerely apologize” to potential donors and said that the blood bank “will require time to update policies, operational procedures and information systems, train staff and revise donor questionnaires.”

Hoylman said the new three-month abstinence policy for gay and bisexual blood donors, while an improvement, is still discriminatory and unscientific.

"The whole policy needs to be thrown overboard, given that it is based on homophobia and outdated science from 30 years ago," he said.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio on Thursday said he would contact the FDA commissioner to advocate for fully lifting the restrictions on blood donations from sexually active gay and bisexual men, joining a growing chorus of health officials and lawmakers who say that the current three-month ban is exacerbating an acute blood shortage.

“I’m grateful to Mayor de Blasio for joining this fight,” Hoylman tweeted on Thursday.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A 2014 study by UCLA Law's Williams Institute found that fully repealing the gay and bisexual blood donation restrictions could potentially unlock over a half million blood units per year from men who have sex with men — a total increase of 2 percent to 4 percent in the blood supply.

In recent weeks, gay and bisexual men who have recovered from COVID-19 have sought to donate their antibody-rich blood for experimental convalescent plasma treatments and have been rejected, adding urgency to these new calls for reform.

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