In the aftermath of the tragic mass shooting at LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando this weekend, one of the first requests from aid workers was for blood donations. With 50 dead and even more wounded, many feared that Orlando-area blood banks would run dry. After passionate requests from people as diverse as soccer star Alex Morgan, trans activist and actress Laverne Cox, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, heartwarming articles about the outpouring of support from donors proliferated on the internet. Orlando-area blood donation charity OneBlood even had to turn people away after it could no longer handle the influx of donations.
Yet, while much was made of this feel-good story, one sobering barrier remained for many people closest to the victims: the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay men. Although 2015 saw the regulations reduced from a lifetime ban, any man who has had sex with another man (referred to as MSM) in the last year remains banned from donating blood. This effectively bars any gay man from donating unless he is completely abstinent for a year.
The FDA’s gay blood ban is a painful reminder of the stigma that the LGBTQ community—and gay men in particular—continue to face as unhealthy carriers of disease. The ban was first put in place in 1986 as a necessary public health measure during the height of the AIDS epidemic. People began contracting HIV from blood transfusions at a time when the disease was still poorly understood, and medical professionals took emergency steps to control the spread of the virus. Although HIV is far from eradicated, the fear and uncertainty of the AIDS epidemic is long gone. All blood is now screened rigorously for the virus, and the government’s own website AIDS.gov insists that it is no longer possible to contract HIV from a blood transfusion in America. Yet the ban remains.
Yes, gay men are still a “high risk” group, more likely to be HIV positive than the population as a whole, but this risk varies greatly. A man having unprotected anal sex with multiple partners would be at high risk, but two gay men who practice safe sex in a long-term, monogamous relationship stand essentially zero chance of contracting HIV. And while it would be very easy for blood banks to identify risky sexual behaviors during the screening process, gay men are instead automatically lumped into the banned category, alongside IV drug users and straight people who have unprotected sex with many partners.
So what does it demonstrate about our country that members of the very community that is suffering and bleeding are legally barred from giving their perfectly healthy blood to help? Institutional homophobia affects and manifests in modern medicine: the view that gay people are promiscuous disease-carriers is still pervasive, as evidenced by this very law.
What does it demonstrate about our country that members of the very community that is suffering and bleeding are legally barred from giving their perfectly healthy blood to help?
Since its inception, HIV has been intrinsically linked to homosexuality in the minds of Americans. Early medical diagnoses even referred to the disease as GRID, or gay-related immunodeficiency disease. Over the years, many politicians and religious leaders have claimed that AIDS is a punishment for being gay, a belief that a 2014 Huffington Post poll found that 14 percent of Americans still hold.
Even controversial Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson recently implied that AIDS and other STIs were God’s punishment for immoral behavior. “Now to me either it’s the wildest coincidence ever that horrible diseases follow immoral conduct,” he said in 2014, “or it’s God saying, ‘There’s a penalty for that kind of conduct.’ I’m leaning toward there’s a penalty for it.” What’s most amazing is that sentiments like this still exist despite HIV never being a gay disease. It’s shown up more prominently in MSM due to its easy transmission from anal sex, but it has always—and will always—affect people of all sexual orientations.
Working towards ending this stigma is one of the many fights that the LGBTQ community has left to face. The murderous rampage at Pulse nightclub, and the community’s painful inability to help due to outdated and homophobic government policy, is just another reminder of how far we have to go. To channel Lin-Manuel Miranda, blood is blood is blood is blood, and your ability to donate it shouldn’t be determined by who you love.