My blood type is O negative, I am healthy, I can run a half-marathon, I do not smoke or use drugs, I only have two to three drinks a week, and I am in a committed relationship. Yet, due to homophobic stereotypes and outdated policies, gay men like myself -- termed “MSM” or “men who have sex with men” -- cannot freely donate blood and soft tissue in America.
According to the most recent Food and Drug Administration guidance, updated last year, MSMs must undertake a three-month deferral from male-to-male sexual activity before blood donation. Shockingly, that’s an improvement on the original full ban on blood donation implemented in 1985 (for any male who had a sexual encounter with another male after 1977) and the 2015 version of the policy, which required a 12-month deferral.
Even further behind the science is the FDA policy governing soft tissue donation; it bans donations from gay men and transgender women who have been sexually active in the preceding five years. This rule has been in place since 1994, preventing countless people from receiving a life-giving gift of skin, heart valves, bones, veins and corneas from post-mortem donors. A study published last year on U.S. and Canadian cornea transplants found that in 2018 alone, between 1,558 and 3,217 potential donors were disqualified from donating due to the current ban.
These policies dehumanize the relationships and sexuality of gay men and transgender women in favor of outdated stereotypes and anti-LGBT hysteria. And they threaten the lives and well-being of countless would-be recipients.
While it is true that men who have sex with men are still the most affected group impacted by HIV and AIDS in the U.S., today’s advanced testing and screening methods should be enough to alleviate concerns of accidental viral transmission. Alternatively, the FDA can follow the organ donor policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees solid organ donation and has no current bans on gay donors. Instead, the HHS measures donor compatibility based on pre-existing medical conditions at the time of donation.
That’s as it should be. Blood and tissue donation should not be governed by someone’s standing in a particular identity group. Instead, science should be placed before homophobia, and tissue or blood donor compatibility should be measured by a donor’s health status or through identified risk factors, such as: having unprotected sex, exchanging sex for money, untested or prior HIV exposure and intravenous drug use.
That’s the recommendation in a resolution introduced this month by Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery,, among others to the American Medical Association House of Delegates, which sets policy. The resolution supports risk assessment based on current testing capabilities and best scientific practices and calls on the AMA to “lobby the United States Food and Drug Administration to use modern medical knowledge to revise its decades-old deferral criteria for MSM donors of corneas and other tissues.”
And last Monday, on World Blood Donor Day, the United Kingdom changed its rules to allow anyone who has been in a monogamous relationship for at least three months, or who is in a new relationship but has not had anal sex with that partner, to donate blood, platelets and plasma. The shift takes the focus off the gender of a partner and puts it on behavior that may carry some risk.
These are common sense changes that will save lives. What better time to make them than in Pride Month, when we reflect on the importance of LGBTQ+ Americans in our society?
I am accustomed to being mistreated and discriminated against based on my sexual orientation. Yet, it hurts even more to know that the homophobic bigotry I experience in life could extend beyond my time living – and potentially shorten the life of someone else who needs the donation I’m not allowed to give. It’s time these antiquated policies were reversed.
Greg Brightbill (GregoryBrightbill@gmail.com) is the owner of Bright Baltimore LLC, an LGBTQ+ Consulting Group, and the associate director for student leadership and involvement at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.