There's a twisted silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic: Some gay and bisexual men are able to donate blood for the first time.
Federal Drug Administration (FDA) rules long forbid men who have sex with other men from donating blood. The policy dates back to the height of the the AIDS crisis, when HIV was not well understood and there was fear of a "contaminated" blood supply.
Long after processes were created to test blood products to determine if they're safe, no matter who donates, there are still restrictions—albeit looser ones. In 2015, that rule was amended to allow gay and bisexual men to donate if they'd been celibate for a year.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the celibacy requirement has been lowered to three months. That has opened the door for more donors, as the pandemic alters people's dating lives.
Dave Bentlin, president of the Prairie Pride Coalition, recently donated blood for the first time in his life.
"It was a wonderful experience for me, but I have been healthy for all of the three decades that this policy has been in place," Bentlin said. "I could have given gallons of blood by now, and I was not able to simply because of a wrongheaded policy that's based on outdated statistics and outdated testing procedures."
The relaxed restrictions, which took effect in April, came as COVID-19 ravaged already low blood supplies in the U.S. Red Cross figures in March showed a drop off of more than 86,000 donations as blood drives across the country were canceled in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
Bentlin said it's ironic that gay men, long barred from donating, are now being called on to remedy the blood shortage. He notes that the new rule excludes those who are married, or who are in long-term monogamous relationships.
"It was one of the most rewarding things I have done as an adult—and I want to do it again. I want to be able (to) make a difference in other people's lives," Bentlin said. "I know a lot of my other gay and bisexual brothers would like to do the same thing. But as long as this policy remains in place, it excludes extensive numbers of us from giving."
The rule change also does nothing to address the barriers that transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming people face in donating blood.
Len Meyer founded the Central Illinois Pride Health Center, an organization aimed at addressing the LGBTQI community's health care needs. Meyer said the FDA and Red Cross only allow for two gender identities: male and female.
"They also ask prior names that they might have donated under, which forces those individuals to 'deadname' themselves," Meyer said. "Both of these issues are harmful to (transgender and gender non-conforming) people."
LGBTQI rights advocates say the policy needs to continually be revisted. At present, Bentlin said, it discriminates against a class of people instead of looking at behaviors and risk factors for blood donors. Bentlin adds some of the questions asked of gay and bisexual donors—including whether they are a paid sex worker—are out of touch with the reality of today's society.
The FDA is considering further lifting restrictions on gay and bisexual men donating blood. A pilot study will look at the risk of infection by transfusion-transmissible diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B.
In the meantime, Bentlin encourages anyone eligible to donate to do so. But he said many may not know this opportunity exists.
"This policy has been on the books for so long, I think that a lot of gay men—especially from my generation in life, who are in their 50s and even early 60s—are just assuming that they still can't give blood under any circumstance," Bentlin said. "I just I don't think that this policy is really on a lot of people's radars."
Bentlin said, to the Red Cross' credit, the agency has been cooperative and understanding about the inequality of the rule. About six years ago, the local Red Cross partnered Prairie Pride Coalition to host a gay men's blood drive, where participants recruited a friend who was eligible to give blood to donate in their place.
Bentlin said another educational blood drive is in the works for 2021.
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