“I’m sorry. You can’t give blood today.” As the words fell out of her mouth, I sat there feeling foolish, ashamed, and judged. I was aware of the FDA’s ban on blood donation from men who have sex with men (MSM); I shouldn’t have bothered taking the 15-minute trek from my dorm room to the blood drive.
The catch? I’m not an MSM. I’m a woman.
You see, in addition to asking if you are a man who has had sex with a man anytime since 1977, the pre-donation questionnaire asks if you are a woman who has had sexual contact with an MSM in the last 12 months. In a rare show of upstanding citizenship, I truthfully answered “yes” to this question ― indeed, I had recently had sex with a boy who I knew had had sex with another boy a few days prior. I was expecting a few follow-up questions, maybe a weeks-long deferral, but I was shocked when the blood drive worker told me that I couldn’t give blood for an entire year after my sexual contact with an MSM.
Arguments against the ban range from social (it stigmatizes and discriminates against gay men; we should take into account individual risk factors rather than profiling an entire population) to practical (all blood is tested anyway, so since there is a shortage of blood, why not let as many people donate as possible?) and more. Such arguments, which resurfaced in full force during the aftermath of the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting, have been brought to light repeatedly by members and allies of the LGBT community, politicians, medical associations, and others. It amazes me that all these pieces of evidence are still not compelling enough to lift the ban once and for all.
I share my particular experience to add yet another argument to the mix: This ban alienates populations of potential blood donors beyond the MSM population.
When the Red Cross, master of persistent phone calls, called me a few days after my embarrassing incident asking if I would like to schedule an appointment to donate blood, I said that I had been deferred for a year. The woman on the other end asked why, and when I detailed the exact reason, she stammered an apology and quickly hung up ― clearly she had not been expecting my answer.
And yet, in the age of casual hookups, increasing rejection of the gender binary, embracing of gender fluidity, and sexual openness, I am sure I cannot be the only non-MSM to have been affected by the ban. In this age, not only is the FDA ban obsolete, but it has the potential to bar many people other than MSMs from giving blood. Of course, here it is worth noting that the screening system for blood donors is based almost entirely on self-reporting ― which in itself renders the MSM blood ban ineffective as a precautionary measure. Honest, HIV-free gay men who want to donate blood would not cause any dangers to the blood supply; if anyone really wanted to harm the blood supply, they could easily find another way.
Which brings me to one last point I’ve been thinking about lately: Those who defend the ban have cited “maintaining the safety of the blood supply” as a chief concern. First of all, MSMs who give blood aren’t going to be HIV-positive revenge mongers trying to sabotage the blood supply. Just like everyone else who gives blood, they know that HIV-positive donations are not allowed. Second, as someone who has worked in hospitals, community health settings, and research labs that use human biological samples, I know that most of these places interact with HIV/AIDS patients and handle hundreds of HIV/AIDS blood samples every day ― without any breach of safety. These institutions do not turn away patients if they have HIV/AIDS. Why should blood donation practices be held to any standard lower than that of hospitals? Are blood donation organizations so careless with blood storage that if there happened to be an accidental HIV-positive donation, it would endanger the rest of the blood supply?
Since my own one-year ban, the lifetime ban on MSM blood donations has been replaced with a deferral rule stating that MSMs who have not had sex with men within the past year may donate blood ― but it is hard to believe that any MSM (or women who have consistent MSM partners) in their right mind would give up sex for a year just to give blood once. This measure seems less like a step forward and more like a thinly veiled attempt at hushing the grievances of the LGBT community.
Discrimination against historically oppressed groups still pervades every aspect of society. In the weeks since the Pulse shooting, many more bloody events have already occurred ― much of this bloodshed due, ironically, to a brand of discrimination not unlike the very kind that prevents so many of us from voluntarily shedding our blood.