In December 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a statement that proposed a change in its blood donation policy. Since the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1977, the FDA has banned any and all men who have had sex with other men from donating blood, since the transfusion of their blood has a higher risk of transmitting HIV and hepatitis B to recipients. The recommendation proposed last year suggested relaxing the blood donor deferral ban for men who have had sex with other men from lifetime to one year since the last sexual contact. According to the statement, the reform will be issued in 2015 if scientific research and evidence support the safety of blood donations from these men.
While the reform could potentially allow more gay and bisexual men to become blood donors, many have criticized the policy and pointed out that such a change would not eliminate discrimination. American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative representative Ian Thompson called into question the one-year deferral recommendation, explaining that most gay and bisexual men in relationships would not be celibate for a year to meet the requirement. Essentially, even if this proposal gets approved, a significant amount of gay and bisexual men will still not be able to donate blood.
The FDA’s blood donation policy not only singles out gay and bisexual men, but it also offers very limited clarification on the term “gay men.” Buzzfeed News pressed the FDA on this issue, as transgender people do not seem to fit into any of the defined categories. An FDA spokesperson stated that the official policy is “to designate by sex at birth.” This definition creates much confusion about the gender and sexual orientation restrictions for transgender people. Men who identify as females and have sex with men cannot donate blood because they were born males. However, women who identify as male and have sex with men are allowed to donate blood, since they were born females. The logic behind this is supposedly scientific, as the FDA recommends that “male to female transgender individuals should be regarded as males for the purposes of determining donor eligibility.” In a society where transgender people are already seen by many as outcasts and abnormal, this typology further ignores transgender people’s rights to choose their own identities. This policy automatically makes transgender males social pariahs, which is instituted by society’s failure to understand the backgrounds and health conditions of these individuals.
Identifying transgender women as gay males and banning gay and bisexual men from blood donation demonstrates severe victim-blaming and a violation of the human rights of the LGBT community. According to the Human Rights Campaign, under the strict current policy, 10 percent of HIV-infected units have slipped through despite having been run through HIV tests. Even though there is no published data to suggest that the 10 percent of donors were gay men, the FDA bans all gay men from donating blood to prevent future HIV-related instances. The FDA appears to believe that since gay and bisexual men historically have a higher risk of HIV infection, they are the main cause for the spread of the disease. The fundamental problem here is that these people are not eligible to be blood donors for reasons unrelated to their individual health risks. They have their rights taken away from them because they fall under a certain category of gender and sexual orientation.
The FDA policy officially bans males and transgender females who have engaged in sexual activities with men, but allows heterosexual males and females to donate blood, regardless of potential high-risk behaviors. On the contrary, two gay or bisexual men who have monogamous and/or protected sex cannot donate blood, whereas male and female heterosexuals who have unprotected sex with multiple partners are eligible, which is contradictory to the aim to protect blood recipients. As doctors and medical experts have stressed, a gay or transgender person’s risk of contracting HIV depends on his or her genetics and behavior.
To truly gather a large amount of donated blood and ensure the integrity of the blood, a more drastic amendment of the policy needs to be made. Stereotypes and fears, without sufficient scientific data to support them should not determine a person’s eligibility to donate blood. Rather, a system that puts risk level based on sexual behavior, genetics and drug use into consideration should be implemented. As the FDA and other organizations work to collect more data from scientific research and blood surveillance, a new policy that is free of discrimination will hopefully emerge.