Those who lived through the harrowing AIDS Crisis of the 1980s remember first hand just how their lives and those of their friends drastically changed. HIV and AIDS swept through the gay male community and others, taking with it nearly a generation of precious lives.
The crisis forever changed the nation, too, including its laws and policies. A travel ban was put in place. Nefarious HIV criminalization laws were passed. Gay men — or any man, for that matter, who had ever had sex with a man since 1977 — were banned from donating blood and blood products.
Some of those laws have since changed. The travel ban, for example, came to an end in 2010. But most are still in place, including the ban on gay blood donors.
‘Desperately needed money’
The gay blood ban reaches to other blood products, including plasma donation. While many advocates have focused on the overarching negative message about gay men sent by the ban, lost in the cracks are low-income people who depend on the extra money plasma donation can bring.
Isahia (we’ve changed his name), a gay 22-year-old man in Charlotte, regularly donates plasma. In return, he receives up to $60 each week.
“I was unemployed for a while,” he says. “I didn’t have any kind of income, so I desperately needed some kind of money to help me get on my feet and support myself.”
Isahia’s first five visits to a local plasma donation center resulted in $50 payments each time. Afterwards the amount dropped slightly, but the money was still essential. He was living with his grandmother and she couldn’t support all his needs on her own.
“My grandma can’t do it all,” he says. “I had to find some way to support myself — clothes, food, toiletries. Transportation for the bus was the most helpful part.”
But donating plasma meant Isahia had to lie when staffers ask him about his sexual history. He’s not out to family or friends and disclosing his sexual orientation or full sexual history to staffers would mean a loss of what little income he had.
Isahia says the question isn’t fair and he’s seen other donors or potential donors react negatively to the question.
“Some people get frustrated. They don’t answer the question. They get upset and leave,” he says. “I’ve seen a couple guys break into tears outside. They don’t feel comfortable. They should be able to feel comfortable with who they are and they feel like going in and being asked that question, that’s just them being judged.”
Soon a change?
The gay blood ban was passed by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1983. At the time, there was no way to effectively detect HIV infection in blood products. That changed in 1985 with new HIV tests and was further improved with new technologies in 1999. Yet, gay men are still banned by the FDA — sparking a movement from various groups and activists to repeal the prohibition.
The FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have been considering revising the ban since 2010 and on Nov. 12, the department moved forward with a 16-2 advisory panel vote to scrap the total ban in favor of a one-year deferral. If adopted, the new rules would allow men who have had sex with a man to donate after remaining abstinent for one year.
Advocates have admitted the move is a step forward, but most are still condemning the lasting stigma even this change will bring.
“This recommendation — although nominally better than the existing policy — falls far short because it continues to stigmatize gay and bisexual men, preventing them from donating life-saving blood based solely on their sexual orientation,” David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s government affairs director, said in a statement. “The current policy, adopted in the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the new recommendation are both simply wrong and can no longer be justified in light of scientific research and updated blood screening technology. It’s far past time for this stigma to end.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has also spoken out.
“Criteria for being a blood donor should be based on science, not discriminatory stereotypes and assumptions,” ACLU Legislative Representative Ian Thompson said in a release. “It is promising to see that the U.S. appears poised to move away from the current lifetime ban that prevents gay and bisexual men from donating blood. However, the proposed one-year deferral will prevent two men who maintain a committed, monogamous relationship from ever donating blood. This proposed policy does not distinguish between high risk and safer sex practices.”
Other countries have changed their policies, transitioning to a focus on more attentive to actually risky behavior. In Italy, for example, donations are banned from anyone who has recently engaged in unsafe sex. : :