Ramping up their fight to overturn a ban dating back to 1985 and the emergence of the AIDS crisis, gay-rights organizers are preparing an unprecedented “national gay blood drive” Friday to urge the federal government to change its donation policy and allow some openly gay and bisexual men to give blood.
None of the thousands of men expected to show up to blood donation centers is likely to be allowed to donate, but gay-rights activists are eager to show that the ban prevents countless units of healthy blood from being accepted into the blood banks.
This is “a demonstration of peace,” said Ryan James Yezak, organizer of Friday’s national gay blood drive.
Banning gay and bisexual men as blood donors promotes a blood shortage, creates a negative stereotype about the men and “is discrimination based on sexual orientation,” said Mr. Yezak, a gay filmmaker.
The blood drive — just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage and a May decision by Boy Scouts of America leaders to admit openly gay youths to their program — is the latest front in an expanding national push for gay equality.
The Food and Drug Administration’s blood donation policy says men who have had sex with men (MSM) even once since 1977 cannot be donors. Lesbians and bisexual women are free to donate blood unless they are ineligible for other reasons.
The policy stems from the 1980s, when thousands of hemophiliacs mysteriously began to fall ill.
Eventually, it was discovered that the AIDS virus was being given to them via blood transfusions. By the time HIV tests for blood were put into place, more than half of hemophiliacs — including 18-year-old Ryan White — had died of the disease. Another high-profile transfusion victim, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, worked to educate the public on AIDS before he, too, died of the disease.
Those deaths and others fueled public fears of accidental blood exposure in the 1990s. After basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced in 1991 that he had HIV/AIDS, some players refused to take the court with him.
In recent years, federal officials have discussed changing the MSM blood donation ban, but affirmed it — even though it was a “suboptimal” policy — in 2010, pending the outcome of new research.
The reason for keeping the MSM ban for now is that there is a high, and growing, incidence for HIV infection among MSM, especially in those younger than 24, the FDA said on its website. In 2010, “MSM accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S.,” it noted.
But gay-rights activists say there is a scientifically sound way to change the donation policy and permit some gay and bisexual men to become blood donors.
Gay blood drive
On Friday, gay and bisexual men will have specific locations in more than 50 cities to offer to give blood.
They are expected to go first to an HIV testing unit — some of which will be parked near the blood donation center — and get rapid-response HIV testing, which is performed with an oral swab. Within 30 minutes, each man will receive his results. Those with negative HIV tests will attempt to donate their blood.