On Sunday afternoon, my Twitter feed was filled with pictures from blood banks around Orlando. Massive lines curled around buildings and parking lots, snaking out of view. In the wake of a tragic shooting at an LGBT nightclub early that morning, local hospitals needed blood, and the people of Orlando responded in droves, ready to help their fellow Floridians in a show of solidarity. As a bisexual woman, I cheered on those who stepped up to the plate to help my community and mourned those who were lost.
But the irony of the moment was not lost as social media quickly lit up with reminders that although the donated blood was needed to help victims of a hate crime against LGBT people, men who sleep with men are still banned from donating blood if they have not been celibate for at least a year.
Much of the outrage following the massacre in Orlando has, rightly, focused on the problem of gun control. But in the aftermath of this hate crime, it's important to see how homophobia is still guiding our laws, preventing our community from gaining full equality.
In 1981, the CDC discovered and reported the first known cases of an immunodeficiency syndrome that would later become known as AIDS. The vast majority of the first cases of this new illness were gay men, which led to the conclusion that AIDS was a disease of the gay community. (A 1981 New York Times headline reads, "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.") The later finding that AIDS was also common among and intravenous drug users did nothing to dull that initial link of the disease to gay and bisexual men. This association, when combined with homophobia and a lack of information about how the disease was transmitted, created an atmosphere in which simply being gay was considered risky by the public and medical professionals alike.
Then, in late 1982, an infant who had received a blood transfusion was discovered to have AIDS. In a 1983 report, the CDC reported that blood transfusions were one of the main methods of AIDS transmission. A prevalence of the disease among gay men and the inability to test donated blood for that specific illness created a fear around letting men who sleep with men donate blood. That year, the Food and Drug Administration instituted a lifetime ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood, out of fear that HIV would be carried through blood transfusions.
The ban has long been seen by the LGBT community as an unjust characterization of gay and bi men — simply because of their sexual orientation, these men are "high risk" for contaminated blood donation, regardless of the nature of their sexual relationships. Just over six months ago, the FDA issued a revision of the ban following a 10-year study of blood testing methods and the effectiveness of the ban. According to the revision, men who have sex with other men can now only donate blood if they've been celibate for a full year prior to donation. The shortened deferral window is a step in the right direction, but now, in light of the Orlando massacre, we're seeing why it's not nearly enough.
In the '80s, when sexual health education was not widespread and many LGBT people were forced to keep quiet out of fear of discrimination, gay sex was secretive and protection frequently wasn't part of the discussion. This is part of why AIDS became an epidemic. But, in 2016, it is outrageous that the FDA still characterizes a man having sex with a man as a "high-risk" behavior, regardless of protection used or the sexual health status of the individuals involved. While male-to-male sexual contact remains a factor in the transmission of HIV, sexual contact between men and women accounted for 1 in 4 new cases of HIV in 2014. But heterosexual sex isn't considered
a major risk factor and it isn't grounds for immediate denial of a blood donation.
The simplicity of the question — "Are you a man who has had sexual contact with another man in the past 12 months?" — fails to capture the behaviors that actually are higher risk for HIV: repeated sex with an HIV+ person, multiple partners in a short period of time, unprotected sexual contact, or sex with partners of unknown HIV status. At-risk behaviors aren't limited to one gender or another, and perpetuating the idea that any vague form of "sexual contact" between men is immediately "high risk" perpetuates a homophobic myth.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) summed up the ongoing problem in a comment to in November 2015: "It is ridiculous and counter to public health that a married gay man in a monogamous relationship cannot give blood, but a promiscuous straight man with hundreds of partners in the last year can."
In light of tragedies like the one in Orlando, it is abundantly clear that gay and bisexual men and those who love them are still treated as pariahs. The LGBT community needs to be able to lift each other up during the grieving process, and having this ban still in place robs us of the ability to physically help each other in a time of crisis. A young man whose husband is gravely injured cannot donate to help save his partner's life. To be banned from helping other people, to be unable to provide for them, solely because of a stigma associated with sexual orientation, is a major blow. It says that our bodies, our very blood, is unclean. And it has to change if we hope for an equal and just society.