Blood deferral policies still discriminate against gay and bisexual men.

The LGBTQ community continues to fight for overlooked issues regarding legal rights, equality, federal protection, and health care, with blood donation deferral being a present issue on campus.

HIV and AIDS paranoia began when the first cases emerged in the early 1980s. An edition from the 1983 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that most cases of reported HIV and AIDS were among homosexual men with multiple sex partners.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) then imposed a lifetime ban that barred gay and bisexual men from donating blood. This was because of a lack of data on the disease and a rash of blood transfusion patients diagnosed with HIV due to undetected, contaminated blood.

For Columbus resident Alexander Carey, the experience is one he understands firsthand.

Carey was a freshman in high school in 2015 when he donated blood at a drive held at his high school. He had not yet let friends or families know that he identified as gay.

When filling out a standard blood donor registration, Carey answered ‘yes’ to a question asking if he had sexual contact with another man in the past 12 months. When one of the technicians working at the blood drive confronted Carey to clarify, he was shocked.

“Nobody would give me an answer,” Carey said. “I think they were scared to say the wrong thing, I just wanted an answer because I didn’t understand.”

The technician gave him a slip stating that he was not eligible to donate blood and sent him back to class.

Carey was a closeted gay who was denied of what he thought was his civil duty and was made to feel ostracized from others. When questioned about why he wasn’t able to donate, he simply said he was anemic.

“You feel like there’s something wrong with you because they wouldn’t take your blood,” Carey said.

Carey said this was the first experience in which he felt different, not because he was intentionally discriminated against, but rather because he didn’t have someone to talk to about what had happened and couldn’t express how he felt.

It took him by surprise that he was denied from donating blood for having sexual contact with another man. He said no one knew what to say when he was looking for answers on why he was denied, and he didn’t know where to turn.

In 2015, the same year Carey was denied, the FDA updated their blood donor deferral policies to lift the ban in order to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood. It required men who have sex with men (MSM) to be celibate for 12 months before being eligible to donate.

Despite this, some in the LGBTQ community feel that the policy is still discriminatory because there is no scientific basis for a gay man to be deferred from donating blood, since technology has evolved to allow for the screening of blood for HIV much more quickly and effectively.

“We want to be accessed based on our risk factor, not our identity,” Jesse Keller, LGBTQ special projects coordinator at Ohio University, said.

The crux of his argument is that men or women who have had several sex partners are more of a health risk than a gay man in a monogamous relationship or one who practices safe sex. Yet only homosexual or bisexual men are deferred from blood donation.   

There is nothing about being gay or the act of gay sex that makes someone more likely to contract HIV than a straight man or woman, Keller said in an email. The LGBTQ center at Ohio U is attempting to stop the spread of misinformation to ensure that donors are being assessed based on actual risk factors and not prejudice without discouraging current donors from continuing to save lives.

Keller mentioned that a risk-factor assessment would be a more inclusive option to determine blood donation eligibility. A risk-factor assessment would allow men who have sex with men to be assessed based on their sexual health and relationships, which would depend on whether they are monogamous or not.

The FDA’s risk-factor assessments would be difficult to validate and implement in the current blood donor system due to resource constraints, according to the Revised Recommendations for Reducing the Risk of HIV Transmission by Blood and Blood Products.

Regardless of regulations, Keller said these policies propagate misinformation on how HIV and blood donation eligibility, often leading to the stigma of the correlation of HIV and gay men.

“There is still going to be that large culture of people who believe those prejudices, as long as government institutions such as the FDA continue to perpetuate those prejudices,” Keller said.

But sometimes, it’s not just about incorrect ideas and misunderstood concepts, Keller said. It’s about the fact that there is a lack of public education, a lack of conversations, inaccurate information conceived out of fear leading to prejudice, unknowns and apathetic arguments.

Situations like these discourage blood donation; Carey said he has never attempted to donate blood again because he didn’t want to relive the experience.

Keller said that in order to change the stigma, people need to be aware of misunderstood and biased attitudes. Knowledge is the greatest enemy of ignorance; in a culture where people are educated and conversations about sex and sexuality are prevalent, a drive toward change is eminent and welcomed rather than in a society that refuses to change or be open-minded, he said.

As of now, the FDA states that although the effectiveness of individual assessment of donor risk can be explored in the future, there isn’t a valid and accepted individual risk-assessment tool or questionnaire to change blood donor policies.

The FDA did not respond to a request for comment by the date of publication.

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