Riley Dehr: End the ban on gay blood

Thursday, October 31, 2019 - 6:07pm

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The confused and mildly embarrassed nurse rushed out of the tent. “I’ve never seen this before. Let me go get the doctor.”  

The computer I was doing my health evaluation on the minute before now read, “Error.

I had clicked through a few mundane questions to see if I could give blood in our high school’s annual blood drive, something of a senior class ritual. 

Male, Female, Other.” Male. 

Are you on antibiotics?” No.  

Then, it asked me a rather personal question.  

Have you been sexually active in the past twelve months?

I thought it was an oddly kinky question for the Red Cross, but I answered honestly.

Yes.  

The computer then began to hit on me: “Were you sexually active with men or women?

I knew it wasn’t a good sign that they were asking the question. But, I had recently learned to be proud of my gayness (a skill in rural Nebraska) and clicked the “Men” box with butterflies in my stomach. Immediately, the computer punished my honesty with “Please wait for a nurse.” 

Now, as I sat waiting for the doctor, I wished I would have lied. After 10 minutes, a young blonde woman in a crisp, white uniform walked into the tent. “I’m sorry it took so long, we’ve been swamped.” She looked at the computer and then down at me. I blushed at my answers and tried to hide my nervousness as I prepared myself for her reaction.

Luckily, she was sympathetic and explained to me the government’s ban on drawing blood from men who have sex with men. “It’s stupid. I know.” I nodded, pretending to listen as I panicked over what I was going to tell my friends and classmates waiting outside. She apologized and ushered me back out into the gymnasium, temporarily converted into a makeshift blood bank. My friends and classmates flocked around me, curious as to why I wasn’t giving blood after enthusiastically talking about it all week. 

 “I forgot I’m on antibiotics!” I stammered as I chose a suitable lie to save me from the embarrassing truth. I felt like I had been punished for trying to do a selfless deed. Even so, I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation as I remembered an episode of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (the one with wheelchair Drake) I had seen as an angsty tween that almost perfectly reflected my situation. The synopsis of the episode Moonlight Desires reads, “Marco is upset when he discovers he is unable to donate blood at the blood drive because he is gay and then catches Dylan in bed with another guy.” I couldn’t believe that my life had temporarily become a 2005 episode of a Canadian teen drama.  

The situation eventually lost its humor though, as it became replaced by a feeling of disbelief. Why was the government banning a high schooler from trying to donate blood?  The ban’s roots can be found in today’s decade of problematic nostalgia: the ’80s. 

 In order to stop the spread of AIDS, then a mysterious epidemic disproportionally affecting gay men, the federal government enacted a lifetime ban on drawing blood from men who have had sex with men, also known as MSM. Intended as a temporary policy, it became a permanent rule as the AIDS epidemic continued to rage on through the ’90s, killing hundreds of thousands. By 2015, the U.S. replaced its lifetime ban with a ban on men who had been sexually active with other men in the past 12 months. While it seems like a giant leap in the right direction (12 months is a lot shorter than a lifetime), it barely increased the number of eligible donors and amounted to a lifetime ban for most gay men.  After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, Orlando’s LGBTQ community rushed to donate blood for their friends and family only to find themselves barred from doing so. They protested the ban and pushed the Food and Drug Administration to review it, but as the article states, the FDA ultimately decided to keep it in place after deciding there “wasn’t enough evidence supporting the change.” While proponents of the ban tout it as necessary for public health, it is an archaic rule that harms more than helps. 

With mandatory HIV screening for all donated blood, modern technology has made the odds of a contaminated donation going undetected astronomically small. A blood transfusion is needed every two seconds in the United States, and with only 38 percent of Americans eligible to donate under the current ban, and other rules, blood shortages have become a frequent issue. Lifting the ban would alleviate this issue and increase the donor pool by about 130,000, potentially saving up to 390,000 lives every year. 

As nations like Russia use bans like ours to further discriminate against their LGBTQ communities, the concept of limiting blood donations from MSM has become less of a public health issue and more of a civil rights one. By needlessly “otherizing” gay and bisexual men, the United States is continuing its tradition of making HIV a point on which to stigmatize our community and perpetuate dangerous stereotypes. It is time for science to drive the policy behind this issue, not only saving lives, but saving students like me needless shame and humiliation. Like mullets and Long Duk Dong, the government’s gay blood ban belongs in the ’80s.  

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.