In 2015, Alice James returned for another plasma donation session at CSL Plasma’s Duluth location. At the time, CSL paid people about $30 per donation, so it was a nice way to make extra cash while contributing to a good cause.
She entered her information at the donor kiosk, like she usually did. But this time she was summarily locked out of the system. A CSL employee informed her it was because she was trans.
James had been donating since 2011, usually two times a week. Though she identifies as a woman, the center initially required her to designate herself as “biologically male” on the intake form in order to participate. By that day in 2015, she’d been marking “female” on the form again. That's when she heard the center “indefinitely deferring” trans people from donating.
The root of the issue goes back to 1992, when the Food and Drug Administration – which regulates CSL – recommended plasma collection companies screen out men and trans women who have had sex with men. Not specifically because the donors were gay or trans, but because of risk factors the FDA associated at the time with those communities. This would be the HIV panic of the mid-‘80s, which had queer men at the epicenter.
This guideline, however, specified that “the focus should be on behavior and not stereotypes.” In other words, screeners should ask whether a trans donor has been having sex with men before turning her away.
James has “never had sex with a man,” according to a complaint filed by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on Thursday. But that didn’t matter to CSL.
So she filed a discrimination charge against the center with the Department of Human Rights in 2016. In response, CSL acknowledged that it had a “flat ban on all transgender donors,” but didn’t budge. Even after the state found probable cause in 2017 that CSL was discriminating, the donation center refused to settle the case.
Not much has changed since. James checked into CSL’s Minneapolis location in 2018 and got turned away again.
Now the Department of Human rights is filing suit against CSL for violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act – turning James away because of her gender identity. If the suit is successful, CSL could be required to pay James up to three times what she lost in donation money, plus damages for mental anguish and suffering.
The center would also have to pay a penalty to the state, change its stance on trans donors, and train employees accordingly.
Deputy Commissioner Irina Vaynerman says she hopes the public nature of the suit will compel CSL to finally “come to the table.” The department, she says, is “deeply concerned” that all Minnesotans can “live a life free of discrimination.”
CSL spokesperson Robert Mitchell said in a statement that the center "acted lawfully" and disputes the Department of Human Rights' case.
"CSL Plasma policies have evolved since the FDA updated its guidance on donor suitability in December 2015," the statement said. "Since that time, CSL Plasma has put in place policies that support self-identification based on gender preference."
According to the statement, CSL claims that Minnesota "made no efforts to discuss this matter" in advance of filing suit, but "nonetheless," the center would work with the Department or, otherwise, defend its policy in court.