Gay, bisexual men can give blood for the first time after the FDA eased its donation policies. Here’s how they feel.
For many queer men, donating blood has been an impossible dream until now.
Jeffrey Marks, a 62-year-old writer living in Cincinnati has bittersweet feelings about the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to ease restrictions on queer men donating blood.
When a close friend fell ill many years ago, Marks had tried donating blood at the friend's request but he was turned away from performing the potentially life saving act because he was gay, despite having been in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man for years. Ultimately, the friend died from his illness.
Now, as Marks prepares to donate blood for the first time in his life, it feels like a full-circle moment. "I’ll be a little emotional thinking about him and being able to finally help people," he tells Yahoo Life. "I’ve already created a blood bank account."
The decades-long FDA ban on queer men donating, begun in 1983, was in direct response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men. It started as a lifetime ban that lasted until 2015, when the requirements were reduced to a 12-month celibacy period. Later, in 2020, it became a three-month period, due to an increased need for donations in the early days of COVID.
Then, on May 11, the FDA enacted a plan to lift all restrictions that directly target gay and bisexual men, choosing instead to assess all donors equally, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. Still, the impact of those changes won't be seen for about four to five months, notes Dr. Jed Gorlin, chief medical officer at America’s Blood Centers, which provides 60% of the nation’s blood supply. First, community blood banks must undergo a transition process involving computer system updates, form revisions and staff trainings.
But when the time comes, Tanmoy Das Lala, a 33-year-old New York City doctoral student and queer-health activist, will be ready. He has wanted to donate blood for years but never could because he is gay. Now, he and his husband plan to donate for the first time, together, as soon as they're able.
From being called a F*GGOT to my face on the #subway, to receiving "no one wants your AIDS blood" DMs, the toxic rhetoric continues. But I'm focused on tuning out the noise and looking forward to donating 🩸 (for the FIRST time!!) and help save lives. 🙏 @US_FDA 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/RYqKjGb5PA
— tanmoy das lala 🏳️🌈 (@TanmoyDasLala) May 11, 2023
“I imagine it will feel very emotional as the weight of the moment sinks in,” he tells Yahoo Life, noting that while not everything about the new policy is perfect, it feels “more inclusive” than before.
Cole Williams, the 22-year-old founder of the student-led Pride & Plasma campaign, agrees. For years, the Chicago resident has fought alongside his peers to eliminate the stigma of queer men donating blood, and when he heard about the FDA lifting its ban, he says he was at a loss for words.
"Oh, I cried," he tells Yahoo Life. Like many other men, he's "looking forward" to donating blood as soon as possible. “Giving blood is a selfless way to pay it forward. The change in the rules reflects a wider trend and viewpoint shift in the public, and demonstrates how far queer acceptance has come.”
These rule changes are part of a larger trend happening around the world, including in the United Kingdom and Canada, both of which implemented similar changes last year. And for Callum French, a 21-year-old biotech student in Canada, the eased restrictions allowed him the opportunity to donate blood for the first time in his life, which he did in February.
“Giving blood is a selfless way to pay it forward in your community,” he tells Yahoo Life.
What the blood-ban changes mean
The FDA's new changes eliminate all gendered language previously targeting queer men. Now, donors will be assessed by their own "individual risk" of contracting HIV, based on various questions relating to their most recent sexual history — regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
Anyone who’s had a new sexual partner (not a monogamous long-term partner) or has had anal sex in the last three months with a new partner is prohibited from donating blood. Still banned from donating will be people living with HIV (even those who are "undetectable" and cannot transmit the virus through sexual intercourse), as well as those taking PrEP, a daily pill that, when taken as prescribed, makes it virtually impossible to contract HIV during sex. Also, some cancer survivors and those living with specific chronic infections are also banned.
Why some still aren't happy
As a PrEP user, Calif. state Sen. Scott Wiener, a representative from San Francisco, is unable to donate blood. The concern among experts, he explains, is that some users may not be taking the daily medication as prescribed because they're "rationing" or "skipping doses" for various reasons. During these lapses, the risk of contracting HIV may increase. But he offers a simple solution.
"The way to address that is by adding questions that assess PrEP adherence, whether someone is taking PrEP as directed — not through a blanket ban on the people most engaged in HIV prevention," he tells Yahoo Life. "There is no reason someone taking PrEP as prescribed should be banned from donating blood, even if they’re having anal sex with more than one partner."
Tony Morrison, senior director of communications at GLAAD, a leading LGBTQ media advocacy group that placed pressure on the FDA to implement the changes, calls the policy shift a "monumental step" in the fight for equality. Yet, as someone living with HIV and who's been undetectable for nearly 10 years, he may never have the chance to donate blood in his lifetime.
According to the FDA, while "HIV is not transmitted sexually" by those who are undetectable, that's not the case with blood transfusions, which are administered intravenously and involve a larger volume of blood (1 pint) compared to any amount that could be exposed during sexual contact.
"The best thing queer men can do right now is to physically show up in their communities to seek out their nearest blood donation facility to see how they can help," Morrison tells Yahoo Life. "Blood banks and donor locations operate at the mercy of FDA guidelines. Reach out and see how you can work together on a local level to create meaningful relationships that will impact your community."
To that end, Gorlin says part of his work at America's Blood Centers is to help engage the next generation to be volunteer blood donors. "We do that by inclusivity," he notes of the policy change. "But we must also make sure that we are maintaining an incredibly safe blood supply."
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