On Dec. 30 I organized a protest outside the FDA field office in Philadelphia to raise awareness about their ongoing ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. The ban has been in place since 1983 and excludes men who have had sex with men since 1977 from donating blood. The ban also applies to anyone who has had sex with a man who has had sex with a man since 1977.
Recently, the FDA announced that it will "loosen" the ban (after reaffirming it only a few weeks prior). However, the "loosened" restrictions will have little effect, as they require men who have sex with men to remain celibate for one year prior to donating. This one-year waiting period is puzzling, considering that HIV is now detectable within about two weeks of infection.
During the protest, several reporters asked why we were protesting if the ban was being "loosened." The simple answer to that question is that the ban still prevents most men who have sex with men from giving blood due to the year-long celibacy requirement. When it comes to heterosexuals, a donor's risk level for HIV is determined on a case-by-case basis. For example, a heterosexual person engaging in sex with an intravenous drug user would be unable to donate.
However, all men who have sex with men are simply lumped into one group and automatically deemed "high-risk" without being asked questions about their behavior to determine risk level. So a single heterosexual person engaging in frequent casual sex would be able to donate, yet a monogamous gay couple who have been together for 25 years would not be able to do so, even though their individual risk level for HIV is clearly lower.
The FDA has said very little about their decision to "loosen" the ban, so I was absolutely shocked that the FDA actually gave Philadelphia's WHYY News a statement regarding our protest! According to WHYY:
In a statement, the FDA said it had considered individual self-assessments, but did not find them reliable.
"Assessment of high-risk sexual behaviors would be highly burdensome on blood donation establishments and potentially offensive to donors," the agency wrote.
The FDA also said there is not yet enough evidence to reduce the waiting period to less than one year.
The FDA's response is utterly puzzling on several fronts. How can they claim that individual self-assessments are unreliable and burdensome when they already use them to determine risk levels for heterosexual donors? Are they saying that gay people will lie? Who's offended? Also, anyone who has basic knowledge about HIV testing knows that the claim that there is not enough evidence to reduce the waiting period to less than a year is a blatant, outright lie!
It seems to me that this is all the more reason to continue pushing the FDA to extinguish the ban entirely. If men who have sex with men must be celibate for a year before donating, then everyone else should be held to that standard too. If they can determine risk level for heterosexuals on a case-by-case basis, then they should do it for men who have sex with men as well.
Finally, the ban is a joke anyway, because anyone can lie on the questionnaire. It's time that the FDA just lifted the ban completely and put an end to this blatant discrimination against men who have sex with men. Assess the risk, test the blood, and treat everyone the same. It's really that simple. There are plenty of men who have sex with men who are willing to donate, and I am one of them, but I refuse to have to lie in order to do so.