Gay men haven't been allowed to donate blood since the AIDS outbreak of the mid-1980s. Then thought to be an exclusively gay disease, AIDS is still more prevalent among men who have sex with other men than any other demographic. But now that advances in testing have essentially eliminated the risk of infection via blood transfusions, blood banks and gay rights advocates say it's high time the Food and Drug Administration lift the lifetime ban on men who have ever had gay sex.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed letting gay men donate blood -- as long as they haven't had sex with other men within a year of doing so.
That leaves out guys in committed relationships who have practically zero risk of contracting or spreading HIV. It also doesn't bring blood drive questionaires up to date with the modern understanding of AIDS as having more to do with risky sexual behavior than sexual orientation.
"When you're going to give blood, you're going to be a part of something bigger than you, to donate your time and your body to potentially save someone's life, only to be outed by the questionnaire," said Blake Lynch, leader of the Banned4Life campaign to change FDA policies. "You leave there a little discouraged, you leave with a sense of ... maybe that you're unhealthy, or that you're dirty."
In 1998, City Pages wrote about 17-year-old activist Brian Gacek, who tried to bring attention to the homophobia behind preventing gay men from donating blood. He circulated petitions among his friends and created a website outlining the changes he wanted from the FDA. Later that year, Gacek died by suicide. He never got to see the swell of protests, gay blood drives, and social media campaigns that pressed the issue to the FDA.
"There are a lot of gay men who think the one-year deferral is one step forward, two steps back," Lynch said. "I'm happy. It's progress. It's much better than the lifetime deferral."