In a significant reversal of their long-criticized policy, the FDA has released newly drafted guidelines that would allow gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships to donate blood — though equality advocates like New York State Senator Brad Hoylman say there is still much progress to be made in treating gay donors fairly.
As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, sources close to the FDA told the outlet that the agency would adjust its longstanding restrictions on blood donation to include gay and bisexual men who are in monogamous relationships. The FDA’s policy, established in 1983 at the height of the AIDS crisis, previously banned any donation from men who have sex with men and in 2015, allowed gay and bisexual men to donate only if they had abstained from sexual activity for a full year.
Senator Hoylman, an openly gay legislator who has long advocated for adjusting the policy told W42ST: “It’s gratifying to know that the FDA is finally making a change that is aligned with countries across the globe and scientific evidence — and will end this discriminatory policy, particularly at a time when we have had, and continue to face, blood shortages. I welcome it, and it has been a long time coming.”
The FDA’s newest reversal is the second policy shift in two years. After the COVID-19 pandemic created a significant blood shortage, the agency reduced the deferment period to three months, but left those in long-term relationships stranded without an option to donate openly. In 2020, W42ST profiled an anonymous West Sider in a long-term relationship who chose to donate his antibody-filled blood for plasma therapy without fully disclosing his identity as a gay man.
The Hell’s Kitchen resident, a cancer survivor who based his decision on wanting to make sure others could receive help in the wake of the pre-vaccine COVID wave, told W42ST: “A big part of me thought that I could just protest [the ban] and add my name to the growing list of folks that have written articles and gone on social media.” Instead, he chose to donate and “potentially help four people that are in the ICU and struggling to take a breath.”
Senator Hoylman — already a strong advocate for the development of the COVID-19 vaccine and one of its trial volunteers — raised his frustration with the policy after being turned away from a blood bank because he is gay. “There’s a massive blood shortage in New York, and I tried to do my part by donating,” he posted on Twitter in May 2020. “I was turned away for being gay — turns out, the FDA hasn’t implemented the new criteria for LGBTQ donors they announced last month.” Despite being barred from the process, the senator went on to encourage others to donate “for those who can’t.”
Fed up with being turned away from helping fellow New Yorkers in a time of need, Hoylman wrote to FDA commissioner Stephan Hahn in May 2020 to argue that the agency’s adjustments still presented a discriminatory policy without scientific evidence to support their regulations. “In New York City, there are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who might be interested in donating blood, but are unable to because the FDA continues to treat gay men like second-class citizens,” wrote Hoylman.
“As New York’s only openly gay Senator, this is a personal issue for me: my husband and I would like to help our community by donating blood — yet your agency refuses to let us do so unless we remain celibate for three months, a requirement that the FDA would never consider imposing on heterosexual donors.”
Hoylman referenced a UCLA study stating that allowing gay and bisexual men nationwide to donate blood would add as much as a four percent increase in the country’s blood supply, adding: “The FDA claims each blood donation saves three lives, meaning gay men donating blood could save more than 1 million lives.”
All donated blood is tested rigorously by the FDA for a variety of infectious diseases, including HIV. Hoylman added “the FDA’s existing policies for screening and testing blood donations virtually eliminate the likelihood of HIV entering the blood pool. The Nucleic Acid Test (NAT), which the FDA currently uses, detects HIV in donated blood with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, the FDA estimates the risk of HIV infection from blood screened by NAT is only one in 1.47 million.”
And while Wednesday’s news was seen as a significant step forward in LGBTQIA rights, advocates emphasized that there were still miles to go in achieving a truly fair and inclusive policy. Said Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD in response to the news: “While today’s reports of an overdue move from the FDA is an important step, our community and leading medical experts will not stop advocating for the FDA to lift all restrictions against qualified LGBTQ blood donor candidates. As LGBTQ leaders and medical experts have been saying for years: bans and restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men are rooted in stigma, not science. Giving one set of rules to some people, and another set of rules to others, based purely on identity, is blatant discrimination. This fight is not over until all LGBTQ Americans who want to donate blood are met with the same protocols as other Americans. All potential blood donors, whose donations could save lives, should be treated equally. There is no excuse for choosing stigma over science in 2022.”
Hoylman agreed: “I still think there’s a stigmatizing effect in that the men who are who are allowed to donate now have to be in monogamous relationships. Frankly, I don’t know of any other class of Americans who are viewed by the number of sexual partners they have — I don’t think that same question is asked of heterosexual couples,” he said. “It’s a step forward, but I think we need to continue to press the FDA for full acceptance on this issue.”