In a matter of hours after the nation’s deadliest shooting in history, the death toll and sheer magnitude of the injuries became clear and the city of Orlando announced a severe blood shortage. Residents responded immediately, as Americans do in times of emergency, to donate blood.
The line of people at some centers stretched for more than a mile. They waited for hours to donate their own blood to save strangers that they had never met. But, in the wake of this terror, as the aftershocks were just beginning to be felt and understood by the LGBTQ community, gay and bisexual men seeking to help their partners, friends and neighbors were turned away. At blood bank after blood bank – they were told their selfless donations weren’t welcome, weren’t good enough. The message these men heard on Sunday was not one of empathy — and definitely not one of science.
The grief many in the Orlando LGBTQ community faced in the hours after the shooting was not ignored by Members of Congress. Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), joined by HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy, spoke out in front of the House of Representatives to urge a change to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) outdated,discriminatory blood donor deferral policy.
These stories of denial are not new. They reflect the terror of the early years of the AIDS epidemic when the absence of clear science caused the FDA to adopt a lifetime deferral policy. Since then, we have volumes of science about HIV/AIDS which led the FDA to take a small positive step last year to now only bar donations from men who have had sex with men within the past 12 months.
Unfortunately, this change continues to perpetuate a policy that has been characterized as medically and scientifically unwarranted by the American Red Cross, America’s BloodCenters, and the American Association of Blood Banks as far back as 2006. In practice, this policy continues to exclude any sexually active gay man and many bisexual men from giving blood regardless of their actual risk for contracting HIV.
Yesterday, the House members who gathered to ask the FDA to change the suboptimal donation policy joined over 100 of their colleagues on a bipartisan letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf requesting an update on the implementation of the current donor deferral policy. They also urged the FDA to actively work towards adopting a screening system that is based on individual risk factors rather than the current sexual orientation-based approach. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spearheaded a similar bipartisan Senate letter that was signed by 22 of their colleagues.
Many of the gay and bisexual men turned away last week were not even born when FDA’s original policies were designed. They were born and have come of age in a world where we can make policies based on knowledge, not fear. In one of the darkest hours that our community has ever faced, gay and bisexual men struggling to find their own place in our shared healing were turned away after responding to a call for blood donors in the wake of a severe blood shortage. We cannot afford to turn away anymore heroes who answer these calls.