As an active member of the American Red Cross at Yale (ARCY) here on campus, I volunteer regularly at blood drives. Being a part of this community and knowing that I am helping save lives has been an incredible experience. But recently, something happened that made me reconsider my membership in the organization. When I ask other students to donate blood, I’m not surprised when they respond with resistance. I typically get “I’m afraid of needles”, or “I’m too busy”, but one day I got something I wasn’t prepared for — “They don’t want me to donate because I’m gay.”
I am pansexual, and have always advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, so I was outraged when I first learned about the donation ban on gay men. I brought it up at one of the ARCY meetings, frustrated and angry, and my peers were very receptive. ARCY has historically swept this issue under the rug; we don’t make the rules, so it isn’t our problem. But this year we decided to address the argument and do some research before jumping to conclusions. Now I would like to tell you, the broader Yale community, what we discovered.
In the year 1980, AIDS was discovered in several primarily gay communities. Consequently, many people had labeled it as “The Gay Disease.” It quickly spread into other at-risk groups like substance users and sex workers, but the method of transmission remained a mystery. Suddenly, patients not belonging to these at-risk groups began showing signs of the disease—adults, children and infants, many of whom had hemophilia. During the early 1980s, thousands of people died due to donations containing infected blood. It wasn’t until 1983 that the transmission of HIV was discovered to be linked to blood transfusions.
When the means of transmission was discovered, the Food and Drug Administration immediately took action to reduce the number of blood donations from people living with HIV. The ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) was issued in 1985 due to the statistical difference demonstrating that gay men were much more likely to have HIV/AIDS than other members of the community. Although testing methods were designed to assess all donations for HIV, the MSM ban continued for many years until eventually members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community began to call for its removal. One such allied organization was the American Red Cross.
The FDA has reconsidered the ban three times: once in 1997, once in 2000 and most recently in 2015. Although the first two meetings led to the reaffirmation of a lifetime ban on blood donations from MSM, the ban was changed to a one-year deferral in 2015. In other words, any man who participates in oral or anal sex with another man must abstain from doing so for at least 12 months before donating blood. The ban also applies to women who have sex with MSM. While the queer in me is still outraged by this, the logical part of me is wondering, “Why 12 months?” Well, in part, the 12 months is due to current testing measures, which are incapable of perceiving HIV in blood when it is first contracted. The idea of pre-testing was proposed, but selective tests are expensive and very time intensive. But these methods are constantly improving. There is hope that one day we will be able to pre-test individual donors and be able to say with certainty that someone is eligible to donate, despite their sexual and social activity.
I am still angry about this ban. Nowadays, a large proportion of HIV cases are found in the heterosexual population, and 50% of all HIV cases in adults worldwide are in the female population. Specifically banning MSM seems a little extreme and unfounded.
But I am also disappointed by the ease with which the LGBTQ community points fingers at the Red Cross when, in actuality, the Red Cross is on our side and has been for years. Both the Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks declared the lifetime ban unwarranted, and are largely responsible for the decrease in deferral time. There is a greater chance of the FDA lifting the ban if the LGBTQ+ community and the Red Cross work together.
As ARCY concluded the Yale-Harvard Blood Drive this last week, we rejoiced in the number of donations we received, the number of lives we helped save. But we never shake the feeling that we could be doing more to help. We want to do more. To do so, we have to re-establish trust with the communities that have grown distant from the Red Cross. That begins now. I will be having a discussion tonight (Monday, February 4 at 9pm at the LGBTQ center), with further discussions pending, on this topic. I invite anyone who is upset about this ban to participate, and I also invite you to come help save lives through volunteering, even while this ban stands.
Natalia Taylor is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .