I love giving blood.
That didn’t use to be the case — in fact, despite my years of experience getting allergy shots every week when I was young, I used to hate needles. But all of that changed when I wrote a article in 2019 about a local woman who needed a batch of immunoglobulin every week just to stay alive; I learned that while about 38 percent of the population is actually able to donate blood, the Red Cross estimates only about 3 percent actually do so. That spurred me to pull up my big boy pants and finally give it a shot, so to speak.
Since then, I’ve donated more than a gallon of blood, and my personal best time is 4 minutes, 35 seconds, just a few seconds shy from my personal goal. Got to stay hydrated!
But every time I go in to donate, I’m sadly reminded that not everyone is able to do so — not because they’re sick or have a condition, but because of their sexual preferences.
If you’ve donated recently, then you’ve come across the same screening question I have: “In the past 3 months, have you had sexual contact with another male?” (Or, if you’re a woman, “In the past 3 months have you had sexual contact with a male who has had sexual contact with another male in the past 3 months?”)
Answering “yes” to the question will disqualify you from donating blood at that time, forcing you to wait another three months before being able to do so (and avoiding sexual contact with that other person).
To be fair, it used to be that gay or bisexual men couldn’t give blood at all — that all changed in 2015, when the Food and Drug Administration updated its policy to allowing those men to donate blood so long as they had not had sexual contact with another man for the last 12 months.
The FDA changed its rules again in April 2020 to the current policy; according to them, this eliminates 90 percent of donors who may be carrying a blood-borne disease, specifically HIV.
This may be the case, but it doesn’t address the fact that the federal government continues to treat gay and bisexual men differently than any other group of blood donors, and it’s time that inequality was addressed.
The current argument for keeping men who have sex with men out of the blood donor pool is due to blood-borne diseases like HIV — it’s estimated that 1.2 million people in the country live with HIV, the vast majority (912,000) being men, according to the CDC; about 680,000 of those men were infected by male-to-male sexual contact.
However, with an estimated 3.9 percent of U.S. men identifying as LGBTQ (or 12.8 million people), this means that just about 5 percent of gay and bi men have HIV.
Should such a relatively small group of people really be the basis for a policy that defers nearly 13 million people from giving blood?
If the worry really is HIV and other blood-borne diseases, then we shouldn’t be screening people based on who they have sex with, but how they have sex, risk-wise?
Let’s take condom use as an example. According to a 2012 study, “A comparison of sexual behavior patterns among men who have sex with men and heterosexual men and women,” men who have sex with men reported using condoms 80 percent of the time when it came to being in a three-month or newer relationship, compared to 57 percent of heterosexual men and 44 percent of heterosexual women.
When the relationship is longer than three months, about 48 percent of men having sex with other men report condom use, compared to 24 percent of heterosexual men and 20 percent of heterosexual women.
Putting aside HIV rates, then, the gay and bisexual male community is actually less risky than their heterosexual counterparts when it comes to condom use.
In short, it’s not the sex itself that makes gay and bi men blood donor risks, but what risks are being taken during sex —very specifically, whether protection is being used.
“Human Rights Campaign believes that the updated policy, like its precursors, does not treat persons with like risks in a similar way. It also believes that donors are deferred based on their membership in a group — in this case, all men who have sex with men — rather than engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex. For example, a man who has had protected oral sex with another man once in the 3 months [is] currently barred from donating blood. Yet a woman who has had unprotected sex with multiple partners over the same time frame with no knowledge of their personal histories remains in the donor pool.”
“HRC believes that the integrity and safety of the blood supply in this country should be preserved, strengthened and maintained. Any change or alteration in the regulations governing donor suitability must be based in science. The federal government must invest in new research to study risk behavior. HRC has strongly encouraged FDA to revise the donor questionnaire based on an individual risk assessment of sexual behaviors upon which all donors are evaluated equally, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
It’s my privilege, honor, and duty to give blood and save lives. Every other able-bodied American should be able to do the same.