Today, June 14, is the World Health Organization's World Blood Donor Day, and the irony doesn’t escape me. Not only can I not give blood because of my sexual orientation, but neither can the hundreds of gay and bisexual men who wanted to give blood to support their queer brethren injured in the mass shooting in Orlando this past Saturday. My ineligibility didn’t used to bother me, though. The reason for this was simple: I always lied.
The first time I outright deceived the Red Cross, I was a freshman in college. They asked if I'd had sex with man since 1977, and I didn’t miss a beat. “Nope.” They then took my blood and thanked me profusely for donating.
I knew of the eligibility criteria prior to donating, but made the decision to hide a large component of my identity because I knew my blood had the potential to save a life. I also knew the rules were rooted in homophobia, as opposed to actual research. So every year while I attended college, I donated blood. Every year, I looked the phlebotomist right in the eye and lied.
“No, not me. I've never had a sexual relationship with a man.”
When I began working at Massachusetts General Hospital after graduation, I stopped giving blood altogether. I had a irrational fear that it would in some way come back to me, and I would get into trouble. Working at a hospital, and specifically with HIV patients, I didn't want my lie to detrimentally affect my career. So I stopped donating. I was upset, but figured there really wasn’t much I could do, so I did my best to not let my anger consume me.
I know my status. I have protected sex and I take a very effective pill to ensure that I will forever remain HIV-negative. Still, I cannot give blood. Not only that, but every woman I’ve slept with in the past year can’t give blood either.
Then, last December, the FDA pretended to give me and my queer family an olive branch, when what they actually did was slap all men who have sex with men (MSM) in the face. They changed the blood donation eligibility criteria. We can donate blood now, as long as we haven’t had a sexual relationship with a man in the past 12 months. It led Alan Cumming to create the video below.
Now I was livid. This was even more insulting. Instead of using the opportunity to challenge stereotypes about sexual orientation, the FDA instead decided to reinforce the idea that MSM have HIV. It’s not sleeping with men which makes you vulnerable to HIV; it’s unprotected sex. Women have HIV; in fact, one in four people in the U.S. who have HIV are women. And most new HIV infections for women in the U.S. are attributed to heterosexual sex. Straight men have HIV, too. We all are at risk for HIV if we have unprotected sex or take intravenous drugs.
Even though the MSM population has a higher prevalence of HIV, it's not being gay or bisexual that causes HIV acquisition. It's sexual risk, and that's what the Red Cross should be screening — not sexual orientation. They should be asking if you’ve had unprotected sex in the past year. They should ask if you’ve been tested for STIs, including HIV, in the past year, and what your sexual actions have been since you were tested. Besides, all the blood donated is tested for HIV. Yes, there can be false positives; but only one in two million donations might carry HIV and transmit HIV if given to a patient. The likelihood that you'll acquire HIV from a blood transfusion is lower than your risk of getting killed by lightning.
As a bisexual man, I’ve had both anal and vaginal sex with various partners in the past year, but I also always use condoms. I also take Truvada — a miracle drug that decreases the chance that I'll acquire HIV by 92-99 percent — daily, and get tested every three months on the dot (which is actually a requirement for being on Truvada). So while I have significantly more anal sex than the vast majority of straight men, I am the safest one can be in regards to my sexual behavior. Because of this, I’m not at high risk for contracting HIV. I know my status, I have protected sex, and I take a very effective pill to insure that I will forever remain HIV-negative.
Still, I cannot give blood. Not only that, but every woman I’ve slept with in the past year can’t give blood, either. Women are ineligible to give blood if they've had sex with a man who’s had sex with another man in the past year.
I’m open about my bisexuality, but due to homophobia, biphobia, and bi-erasure, many men are closeted. Hopefully, they can get to a place where they’re proud or open, but the fact remains that there are thousands of women out there who give blood without knowing that they’re technically ineligible. Many women don’t know if they’ve had sex with a man who’s had sex with another man.
The FDA is supposed to run on research and data. The data on HIV acquisition is in, and has been for quite some time. Yet they continue to ignore how HIV infection actually occurs, and instead continue to perpetuate the idea that all MSM are sex addicts who have unprotected sex with any hole they can.
In the wake of the Orlando massacre, there were rumors floating around that the ban on MSM donors had been lifted in the area. For a brief moment, I had hope. Perhaps in the face of tragedy, I thought, the FDA would reassess their asinine logic and let us help our people. Then I read that these rumors were false, and that Florida and the rest of the U.S. will continue to enforce the ban on MSM donating blood.
It’s infuriating. It’s insulting. It’s nonsensical to ban a group of healthy men who can give blood. Telling men they can’t give blood based on their sexual orientation, instead of their sex practices, is blatant government-condoned discrimination.
So after three years of abiding by the rules, I can’t stand idly by any longer. I will return to donating blood. I’m not willing to let homophobia and biphobia prevent me from saving a life. My blood is just like every other O+ sample out there. Besides, I'd like to hear from the people I help. I doubt they'll mind that the blood which saved their life was given to them by a man who has sex with men.
Images: Zachary Zane