Yesterday, the Federal Food and Drug Administration lifted the 32-year-old lifetime ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. Well, at least they formally lifted it. But in the formal ban’s place now reads a new discriminatory policy that's possibly worse. In the closing of 2015, a year that has yielded many victories for LGBT rights, a federal agency has implemented a new policy requiring gay men to remain abstinent for 12 months before giving blood.
In other words, gay and bisexual men can give blood, but only if they give up acting on “being gay.”
Even though a fourth-generation HIV test will pick up 95 percent of new infections within 28 days and a confirmatory western-blot test is 100 percent accurate, gay men are required to remain abstinent for one whole year. This is discrimination, straight up with no chaser.
I know I just said this might be worse, but I digress. This is without a doubt, fundamentally more homophobic, more damaging, and generally worse than the previous ban passed in 1987. Here’s why.
In 1987, the country was still in the throes of a widespread pandemic dealing with a new disease that was virtually untreatable and almost certainly fatal. At the time, there were nearly 150,000 new cases of HIV in the U.S. each year, almost all of which resulted in AIDS diagnoses. The administration under Reagan, not to mention the general population, was fiercely antigay and testing for HIV was in its early stages. There was such a gripping fear of gay men — even by some other gay men — and the scientific world was feverishly trying to figure out how the virus worked. HIV from hospital-administrated blood transfusions was an actual threat and Ryan White was in his final year of his far-too-short life. No one, not even gay and bisexual men, would argue against the drastic measures needed to get a handle on the spread of HIV.
Today, new infections have dropped to around 40,000 a year and we have the technology and medical resources to wipe out AIDS diagnoses for good. HIV is a no longer fatal, but completely manageable. With the approval of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and the science of treatment as prevention (TasP), gay and bisexual men can navigate their sexual lives with 100 percent certainty that they are HIV-negative. Yet, with the partial lift, the FDA intentionally established new policy that treats all gay men as if it is impossible to manage their HIV status and engage in safe relationships with HIV-positive people.
One Facebook user wrote, “So, if you’re a gay man in a monogamous relationship with your legally married husband, you are ineligible to donate blood. If you’re a heterosexual man who is legally married to a woman but has random and anonymous sexual encounters every week with women, step right up, you’re 100 percent eligible to donate blood.”
Interestingly enough, there was never movement to restrict African-American women from donating blood, though at one point this population represented the biggest increase in new HIV infection within the country. However, the idea of proposing a ban or enacting a policy requiring 12 months of abstinence from black women would be preposterous, not to mention completely racist. But a policy banning sexually active gay men? That is acceptable, and it is because rationalized homophobia is still acceptable so long as it is thinly justified.
Another Facebook user wrote, “If the requirements were the same for non-gays then that changes things. But calling it “gay blood” speaks volumes. Regardless of who donated, the blood is tested for variety of things, including HIV. What difference will it make whether of not someone is gay? This ruling needs to go a whole lot further.”
By the FDA’s own current safety protocols, every person who donates blood — gay, bisexual, heterosexual, or otherwise — will have their blood tested for infectious diseases including HIV. Plainly, the new partial lift of blood donations from gay men doesn’t reflect the current state of the disease. Instead, it perpetuates a rationalized phobia of gay and bisexual men and the stereotype that the majority of gay men are HIV-positive.
I am an HIV-positive man and I cannot give blood, nor do I lament it. I do, however, want an LGBT culture where HIV is no longer seen as a dark mark that gay and bisexual men should be ashamed of. I want government policy where intelligence, accuracy, and sensitivity are used to enable public health officials instead of instilling fear in them. Most importantly, I want a culture where young gay and bisexual men feel empowered through HIV prevention, and approach their sexual health without an irrational fear of HIV.
And this, my friends and allies, is a resounding step in the wrong direction.