Why Won't the FDA Let Me Donate Blood?

I have type O-negative blood; I am what's called a "universal donor." My blood is the most sought-after because no matter what type of blood you have, you can receive O-negative blood. For that reason, in the event of an emergency, first responders bring O-negative blood to the scene.

I was in New York City on 9/11, and blood banks, which were inundated by people who wanted to donate, would only accept O-negative blood.

I am a happily married man; we've been together for seven years, and we are monogamous and happy. We live in a row house with a porch swing and a white fence; we volunteer in our communities; we both work in the public interest.

Our nation is facing a major blood shortage, "one of the worst [shortages] that the Red Cross has seen," according to the Red Cross.

But a blood bank won't take my blood, because they can't. I am a gay man, and the FDA forbids it.

I tell this to my straight friends, and they can't believe it, but it's true. According to the FDA:

Having had a low number of partners is known to decrease the risk of HIV infection. However ... [the FDA has been unable to] reliably identify a subset of MSM (e.g., based on monogamy or safe sexual practices) who do not still have a substantially increased rate of HIV infection compared to the general population or currently accepted blood donors.

You heard that right: Despite being in a seven-year monogamous relationship, I am still, somehow, at a higher risk of contracting HIV.

Recently, an FDA advisory panel considered walking back that prohibition by proposing a rule that would have allowed gay men to donate blood if they abstained from sex for one year. By their logic, if I stopped sleeping with my husband for 365 days, my risk for HIV would be magically reduced and I would be allowed me to donate blood.

The lack of logic, on its face, is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that both the American Red Cross and the American Medical Association have said that the ban is scientifically outdated and unnecessary.

But this is far more than just a policy relic that is caught in the slow churn of bureaucratic regulatory reform. No, this is of course another in a litany of double standards that the LGBT community faces.

Heterosexuals (regardless of their character) can serve in the military, but the LGBT community had to fight for our right to fight (and die) for our country. Heterosexuals (regardless of their character) can marry (and divorce) in all 50 states; the LGBT community has had to push -- state by state, one by one -- for our right to commit to the person we love. Heterosexuals (regardless of their character) can adopt; same-sex couples can jointly petition to adopt statewide in only 23 states and D.C.

On 9/11, after the towers fell to ash, I approached Second Avenue, headed toward the New York Blood Center. There were no cars on the streets, just thousands of people making a slow exodus north to their homes. The line to give blood was three blocks long.

Standing on the corner of 67th Street, I faced one of the most acute moral quandaries I've yet to confront: Do I lie about my identity to help my fellow brothers and sisters, or do I stay true to myself and know that the Red Cross would, by law, dispose of my blood?

* * *

The FDA recently rejected the Advisory Panel's one-year-abstinence recommendation and elected to keep the permanent ban in place.

One of the doctors who voted for the ongoing ban clearly found the debate to be an irritant; she was quoted complaining that "[i]t sounds to me like we're talking about policy and civil rights...."

Damn right. And no policy should force me to lie so I can give back.