If you're a man who has had sex with another man, even once, you are not allowed to donate blood in the United States.
It’s a fact that stuns a lot of people, even though some lawmakers believe it is sound policy. In an era when the risk of HIV transmission can be cut to almost zero with antiretroviral medications, even among HIV mixed-status couples who have frequent sex, assuming that all gay men may be carrying HIV is insulting to people like Ryan James Yezak.
The 27-year-old Los Angeles filmmaker is using social media to launch a day of awareness about the issue on July 11. He has already recruited 1,000 people online who plan to make a bold statement while collecting blood for the many Americans who need it. Today is the last day to sign up to participate.
National Gay Blood Drive on July 11
On the 11th, Yezak will spearhead the second annual National Gay Blood Drive in cities nationwide. Gay and bisexual men will show their willingness to donate blood by bringing heterosexual friends or other supporters to donate in their place.
Last year, about 300 people participated in the National Gay Blood Drive. HIV activist groups across the nation set up mobile testing stations outside of blood donation centers. Men got tested for HIV, got their negative results, and went inside to attempt to donate.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established the no donations policy for gay men in 1983, when the government first learned that HIV could be transmitted via a blood transfusion. It was a time of fear and uncertainty, and HIV tests weren’t very sophisticated. The FDA updated the policy again in 1992, when the tests became more reliable.
But despite advances in treatment, prevention, testing, and education, the policy remains unchanged. “Today, the risk of getting HIV from a blood transfusion has been reduced to about one per two millions units of blood transfused,” the FDA states on its website. “FDA realizes that this policy leads to deferral of many healthy donors. However, FDA’s MSM policy minimizes even the small risk of getting infectious diseases such as HIV or hepatitis through a blood transfusion. Due to the generosity of millions of eligible donors, the blood supply in the U.S. has been very stable.”
Are Gay Men 'Second-Class Citizens'?
It’s a tough pill to swallow for some men who have sex with men. Many see stories on the local news during flu season, asking for people to come forward and give blood when local supplies dwindle. Yezak couldn’t believe it when he responded to the call and was turned away.
He took action by starting work on a documentary called “Second Class Citizens.” It chronicles the futile attempts of gay men trying to donate blood. It even landed him on the steps of the FDA, where he documented security telling him to leave because he did not have an appointment or the name and telephone number of the person he wanted to speak to.
“It pushed me over the edge,” Yezak told Healthline. “I’m very rational, and there is nothing rational behind this ban.”
A study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles concluded that while lifting the ban would only have a modest impact on increasing the nation's blood supply, it could be useful during times of low supply—after a natural disaster, for example.
Even the American Medical Association (AMA) last year adopted a policy opposing the lifetime ban, calling for “rational, scientifically based” policies on blood and tissue donation. “This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors based on their individual level or risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone," the AMA wrote.
HIV and Social Stigma
The blood donation ban is dangerous, Yezak said, because it perpetuates the myth that only gay people carry and contract HIV. By stigmatizing gay and bisexual men—and all people who are HIV positive—policies like this one discourage people from getting tested and treated for HIV, Yezak said.
More than 80 members of Congress sent a letter last year to Kathleen Sebelius, then the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asking that the policy be changed. The HHS has already launched research projects aimed at providing updated information about any risks associated with the policy change. Some groups have argued for deferring any man who admits to having had sex with a man for one year after the act. But Yezak believes that this does not go far enough to relax the ban.
“When the results and data from the studies are available and potential policy revisions are brought forward for consideration, HHS intends to provide opportunities for discussion in a public forum,” the FDA website says.
In the meantime, Yezak is urging HIV-negative gay men and eligible ally donors to sign up for the July 11 event. He will also be circulating a White House petition among registrants. The goal is to obtain 100,000 signatures within 30 days to get the Obama administration to review the FDA guidelines and issue a response.