Yesterday’s horrific mass murder in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, prompted much comment in social media, which I noted, as Denver has been a much-loved, long-time base for me. Much of the discussion was about gun control, of course (I’m still not getting the part about “the right to bear semi-automatics”), but I also found some interesting discussion on Facebook about blood donations.
Not surprising, as the casualties were rushed to hospitals, the public call went out for blood donations, and conscientious Coloradans responded. What some (mostly younger) gay men discovered, however, was that their blood was not wanted. They were turned away, and they were shocked.
It was their first encounter with the regulation, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1985, that bans gay men from donating blood. Wait. It’s more than that. The specific question in the pre-screening asks, “Have you had sex with another man since 1978?” Just one. Just once. No subtleties, no nuance. No “but.”
Of course, some of us understand the origins of the rule. It was the early years of the AIDS epidemic. There wasn’t much scientific understanding yet, but there was much fear and panic. Especially toward gay men. In 1981, when the disease was first identified, lest we forget, it was called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The name AIDS came later.
In fact, there were four affected groups identified early on: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians, and intravenous drug users. Nobody understood there was a virus involved but, aside from the then-inexplicable Haitians (who turned out to be a harbinger for what would eventually explode in Africa), it wasn’t too much of a stretch for thoughtful people to imagine something was involved in bodily fluids.
I had donated blood routinely through the 1970s, but once I understood the implications, I stopped—like many other conscientious gay men. Soon after, around 1982, my father needed surgery, and the doctor approached family members for pre-surgical blood donations “because of the risks in the blood supply.” Hell, I wasn’t even out to my family yet, but I knew I had to say, “I can’t.” What went unsaid was: “I could be that risk.” It hurt. It was humiliating. (Once the crisis passed, my coming-out followed.)
Only later came the discovery of the virus, and then the HIV test. Since I was already part of a longitudinal, psychological study of gay men in New York, I was among the first to experience that strange ritual: the cautious drawing of blood, labeled only by number, then cross-referenced by other numbers to ensure privacy, followed (too much later) by a face-to-face meeting with a counselor to learn whether a mass-murderer lurked in my veins.
It did not. And I don’t like to talk about it, except in the most intimate circumstances. I am lucky. One out of three men in that longitudinal study tested positive. One-third of my cohort. The study was disbanded during the worst years. But we know what played out.
Fast-forward more than three decades: my HIV status has not changed, but neither has the HHS policy toward blood donation. I am banned for life, regardless.
This has led to some interesting situations in community-based or company blood drives, especially when they encouraged peer pressure to achieve donation goals. The experience can be humiliating. I got into trouble once (in Denver, I should say) when, facing a company poster that cheerfully encouraged participation in a blood drive, I added a sticker that said, “Gay Men Need Not Apply.” This upset a younger gay man, who apparently was first seeing evidence of discrimination. I was called to the carpet, but shrugged and pointed out this was the fact. So I was sternly told never again to deface company communications. And there were no more company blood drives.
What disturbs me most, from the beginning, about the HHS policy is that it only discriminates against honest gay men. For those of us with long memories, lack of candor has been one of the great perpetrators in the spread of AIDS. Gay men have learned to protect themselves, no matter what a partner may say. One hopes the guardians of the nation’s blood supply do the same.
And, with all the technologies available for screening donated blood, why continue a rule that only serves to humiliate gay men, to tell us our blood is no good, and prohibit us from making a useful contribution to society?
Why indeed? In 2010, HHS formed a committee to review the policy; the committee voted to retain the ban on gay men. The review wasn’t widely reported, but I was intrigued by an article in the conservative Washington Times that stated, “In a statement released after the vote, the conservative Family Research Council praised the decision.”
Makes you wonder what really went one here. Why would the allegedly Christian and notoriously anti-gay FRC be so prepared? What part did they play in the process? Is this yet another example where bigotry trumps science? Where dogma prevails over fact? Maybe it’s time to ask your member of Congress.
I can offer my prayers for the victims of the Aurora shooting. I’m sure the FRC will do the same (and issue a press release). But I expect them to load a lot of blood donors on to buses and send them north from Colorado Springs, to make up for all the Denver-area gay men who can’t donate blood.
And tell me—with a straight face—that the blood is clean.
Religious nonsense. They test all donated blood anyway, so there’s absolutely no need for that question. There own version of God should be pretty disappointed with his chosen ones…
Ed, how powerfully painful and what an excruciating waste. One more frightful boundary to stopping the carnage or easing the aftermath. Thank you for reflecting and sharing that with the world. Truth to be heard.
Isn’t all the blood taken first tested for various infections before it is given to someone else? This should be more than enough of a safeguard without isolating and humiliating gay men. Are you asked “Have you ever used intravenous drugs?” or “Are you of African descent?” when giving blood? It’s time to remove the fallacy that AIDS is a gay disease. After all these years and demographic studies one would think we had moved beyond such ignorant fearfull reactions. What are the chances of someone with AIDS giving blood anyway? There are not many people already infected who would choose to engage in such a deceptive act. It’s time to reverse this policy NOW!
Thoughtfully written and educating article. I recall reading at some point over the years that the Scientific Community believed that lots of things other than HIV could be passed through blood and organ donations including predisposition to diseases not in the original genetic makeup of the person receiving the donation. I also was under the impression that ALL blood was screened for HIV and later including screening of other diseases routinely after the initial lawsuits when the HIV virus was traced back to blood donations. If that is fact, and the screening/testing is viable then it would seem to me that this is discrimination as well as waste. Thanks Ed.
You would think, right? In doing some unrelated research not long ago, I found out that the policies regarding organ donation (also set by HHS) contain no similar ban. Specifically, persons with HIV or other potentially infectious diseases are banned from donating their organs (which makes sense), but there are no questions about sexual orientation or history that would categorically block gay men. Makes you wonder.
Thank you for the details, here, Ed. I knew the basics, but you helped me put some flesh on the bones of this problem. Contacting our congressmen is a good start. Are any of them already moving to reverse this? I guess I’ve known about this a long time, but now you have me asking, what do we do next?
Good question, my friend, but I have to admit I hadn’t thought much further. I usually figure the place to start is to ask the question “Why are we treated differently (under the law)”, and then find the person(s) who might know the answer. In this case, I think I think we need to locate who sets or influences policy, and see where their explanation leads. Any ideas?
Not yet, but it’s something to research. Internet breakdown at my house. New connection starting tomorrow, so I’ll be back to this. Thanks!
My minister, Ann K-E, put me on to this. Thank you for your reflections. I think it should be changed. Charitably, I guess one could argue that they do not want patients turning away from blood given due to (unfounded or not) fears of contamination. Hence, the question may be more about maintaining a view of blood supplies as “above question always.”
As to the legal question, I might guess that blood banks are often run as non-profits and are not government agencies. They may also be all locally controlled or in federations with binding governance rules internal to them. This may make organizational change more difficult than it would seem from the outside.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!You’re right, of course, about the myriad agencies involved at the blood-collection level, but all of them now simply point to the HHS regulation and shrug, “What can we do?” (I’ve asked.) So it seems to me that the core issue is an outdated rule that does nothing to safeguard the blood supply (which we all want) while demeaning a part of the population that is eager to contribute. What’s the point? Who makes this stuff up? Seems like the place to start.