For Gay and Bi Blood Donors, New Rules but Same Ban

04/03/2015 08:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

If a blood transfusion could save your life, would the sexual orientation or gender identity of your donor matter?

According to our government, the answer is "yes." For over 30 years the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintained a lifetime ban on blood donations from all gay and bisexual men, even if they had sex with another man just once in their lifetime.

This policy is left over from the early days of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, before universal testing for HIV was incorporated in the battery of tests that are performed on all blood donations. In December, after years of protests against this discriminatory and outdated policy, the FDA proposed moving from a lifetime ban to a "deferral" that requires gay and bisexual men to be celibate for one year in order to be eligible to donate blood. Twelve months. Three hundred sixty-five days. This illogical and discriminatory proposal is the same lifetime ban, just dressed differently. Heterosexual men can have safe sex with partner after partner and still donate blood. Yet gay and bisexual men who have safe sex with another man just once a year -- even with an HIV-negative, monogamous partner -- are still banned.

Today the ban means over 360,000 gay and bisexual men who would be otherwise eligible and likely to donate blood are excluded. The result? A loss of over 615,000 pints of blood that could help save the lives of over 1 million people. Just as tragically, this policy promotes the dangerous stereotype that HIV is only a "gay disease."

To underscore the absurdity of the FDA's proposal, GLAAD, GMHC, and Saatchi & Saatchi New York created, a video campaign featuring Tony Award winner Alan Cumming as the head of the fictional U.S. Department of Sexual Abstinence, offering humorous alternatives to sex to help gay and bisexual men stay celibate for a year. Released on Feb. 19, this tongue-in-cheek video has been viewed by over 150,000 people and has generated nearly 17,000 signatures on a petition calling on the FDA to replace its outdated and unscientific blood ban with a system that screens all donors based on whether they engage in high-risk practices that could lead to HIV transmission, and not their sexual orientation or gender identity. After all, HIV is transmitted by what you do, not who you are.

Chile, Italy, Mexico, Spain, South Africa and other countries have implemented blood donation systems that screen all donors for behavior that could lead to HIV exposure. In fact, since Italy implemented this policy in 2001, blood transfusion-related transmissions have actually decreased. The U.S. should be leading the way in adopting the most scientifically advanced blood donation system. Indeed, every major public health organization that collects blood -- the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers, and American Association of Blood Banks -- has stated that the blood ban is discriminatory and scientifically unnecessary.

Yes, sexual practice is a risk element, but it pertains to all sex, not just sex between men. The FDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell should respond to the fact that the proposed one-year deferral perpetuates the false impression that only gay and bisexual men are at risk for HIV transmission. In fact, since the height of the crisis, at least 90,000 Americans have contracted HIV through heterosexual sex.

America needs blood. Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. is in need of blood. To put this in perspective, a single liver transplant alone calls for 300 pints of blood. In September 2014 ABC News reported severe blood shortages in major cities including Los Angeles, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore, with some hospitals reporting to being down to a single day's supply. Seasonal trends such as severe winter storms have the potential to impact regional blood supplies. In January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement that his city's blood supply was experiencing a shortage "due to cancellations related to inclement weather" and urged "healthy New Yorkers to help us rebuild our blood bank." And according to America's Blood Centers, only 63 percent of blood centers have enough blood to meet normal operating demands.

Gay and bisexual men want to contribute to America's blood stocks and have a vital role to play in keeping America healthy. We should demand that the FDA change its policy and keep stereotypes out of blood donation sites.