I started having (safe!) sex with my boyfriend earlier this year, but when I went to the Blood Drive at Frist, I was denied because I am a male who has had sex with another male. I was sad, because I have given blood since high school and I felt like I was being lumped together with the “drug users and prostitutes” on the form. Is this allowed, and if so, what is their reasoning?
— The Universal Donor
Firstly, it is important not to blame yourself about this — you have done nothing to be ashamed of. It is unfortunate since it seems that donating blood is something that is important to you, but the current policy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is to permanently defer any male who has had sexual contact with any other male since 1977. This policy was enacted primarily in reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Restrictions on blood donation have always been a complex and often political question. While the blood is now tested for HIV and other viruses, these tests are not 100 percent accurate. If they do test positive, often large batches of blood must be thrown out, and therefore pre-screening becomes very important. Authorities are caught between trying to prevent a recipient of a blood transfusion from contracting diseases and making donation open to as many people as possible. Since men who have sex with men (MSM) are at a higher risk of having HIV than the average donor, the FDA has decided to defer these donors. It is important to note that the designation of MSM is unrelated to a person’s sexual identity — a male who identifies as gay but is celibate is not considered MSM, whereas a male who identifies as straight but has had sexual contact with other men is considered MSM.
However, this restriction is not based on particular sexual acts per se, but rather on demographic data. It is not a question of what kind of sex people are having; instead, it is based on the fact that MSM people are more likely to have HIV. This has led some LGBT advocacy groups to argue that the policy discriminates against gay males as a stigmatized group of people. These groups believe the policy does not take into account the practice of safe sex and it does not allow deferred donors to give blood again after a period of time. In fact, the Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks have recommended that a 12-month deferral instead of a lifetime deferral would be more appropriate. This represents the difficulties inherent in public health policy, which is based on abstract demographics that can leave individuals feeling ignored or forgotten.
If blood donation is important to you, I recommend that you do more research into this complicated issue. I advise you to visit the website of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an early and strong HIV/AIDS awareness advocacy group, as well as the FDA’s website. Many people are not aware of this ban or its extent, and it is good to learn about it so you can inform others and serve as an advocate for what you think is right — just remember to “B-Positive!”
— The Sexpert
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