I’m a civically engaged, community-minded, almost-30-year-old law student, and I’m in near-perfect health. I walk at least 3 miles a day, maintain a healthy diet and even floss after every meal. While it pains me to read in Monday’s Press Herald that our nation is suffering from a severe shortage of blood products, I can only say, “Sorry, wish I could help.”

Under current FDA policy, gay men can donate blood only if they commit to three months of abstinence beforehand. Jake Danna Stevens/The Times-Tribune via AP

How could someone with these attributes – a healthy person who claims to care about their community and country – not step up to the plate and donate blood when it is so desperately needed?

The answer is simple: I’m not allowed to give blood in America because I am a gay man.

Under current Food and Drug Administration policy, gay men are categorically banned from giving blood if they have sex with another man even once in the preceding three months. It doesn’t matter if that person is our monogamous partner of 10 years, whether we use protection every time or whether we are fully aware of our partner’s sexual history. It doesn’t matter whether we take a highly effective daily HIV preventative drug, like I and so many other gay men do. It doesn’t even matter whether we get tested for sexually transmitted infections every three months, a requirement we must comply with to continue accessing the preventative drug.

Conversely, if a man has unprotected sex with dozens of women during the preceding three months and has never visited a doctor’s office for sexual health testing in his life, he’s still eligible to donate blood at any time. The same is true of women who have sex with men, women or both.

When donors give blood, according to the American Red Cross, every unit of blood is tested for any possible presence of HIV, hepatitis, syphilis and other blood-borne diseases. Why does the FDA ban gay male blood donors as a class, while others who engage in significantly higher-risk activity are still permitted to donate blood? I struggle to find a scientific reason.

In direct response to a COVID-19-related drop in blood donations in April 2020, the FDA lowered the eligibility requirements for prospective gay male blood donors, saying that gay men can donate blood as long as they commit to a mere three months of abstinence beforehand.

Admittedly, this current three-months-abstinence policy is an improvement over the FDA’s prior lifetime ban for gay male blood donors (the policy from 1977 to 2015) or its more recent policy requiring yearlong abstinence before donating (the policy from 2015 to 2020). But requiring three months of abstinence for gay men – and only gay men – is still an unnecessary and discriminatory ban based exclusively on sexual orientation.

If you prick us, do we not bleed? 

The FDA’s current policy not only discriminates against gay men but also prevents any number of willing, healthy blood donors from volunteering to help address the nation’s dire need.

So, what’s the holdup in ending this discriminatory process for good? In December, the FDA announced a pilot study of at least a year to evaluate the possibility of using an individual risk assessment for each prospective donor in place of the current sexual orientation-based approach. The Red Cross supports this effort, affirming that eligibility for blood donors should not be determined by methods based on sexual orientation.

Based on the April 2020 policy change, the FDA is well aware that making gay men eligible to donate blood can help address the nation’s blood shortage. Do we really need a multi-year study to support an obvious, necessary and science-based policy change, particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic and blood shortage?

As soon as this discriminatory policy ends, I’ll sign up for a local blood drive to do my part. I’m sure that other members of the gay community will, as well.

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