We Need the Blood, But That’s Not Really the Issue

09/08/2011 11:54 AM |


It was announced today that gay men can donate blood now in the UK. Well, technically. Men who have sex with men are still deferred for a year after they have last had sex with a man. I can’t imagine that the blood banks of the British Isles are going to be flooded with the blood of celibate gay men, but,

The gay rights group Stonewall said the move was a “step in the right direction”.

And it’s still much, much better than our policies here, where men who have sex with men are “permanently deferred.” Yes, that’s correct: if you’ve EVER had gay sex, you can never, ever give blood. This seems ridiculous. Not just because blood banks need all the blood they can get—even Mayor Bloomberg gives blood, and you would think that his blood would have been replaced by some kind of special rich people superblood long ago.

No, it’s ridiculous because even though men who have sex with men are infected with HIV at a higher rate, straight people are being infected with HIV at a not-insignificant rate. According to that CDC chart, in 2009 17,005 people were estimated to have been infected with HIV through homosexual sex, as compared to 10,393 people through heterosexual sex.

Of course it is crucially important to have a clean blood supply, and minimizing risk makes total sense. But if we’re trying to minimize risk, why not ACTUALLY minimize risk? Taking a looksee (careful! pdf!) at this FDA donor screening questionnaire, it seems like people are being asked about their medical history, their travel history (having lived in the UK can actually get you a permanent deferment, because of the risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease), whether they’ve used needle drugs, whether they’ve been incarcerated recently, whether they’ve ever exchanged sex for money, whether they take certain medications, and whether they’ve had sex with men (if they’re male) or had sex with men who have sex with men (if they’re female).

At no point are straight people asked if they’ve had unprotected sex with someone of the opposite sex. Does that strike anyone else as odd? As far as I understand it, that is a major way to, you know, get HIV. I’m not sure what science can defend that, and even the UK’s new, slightly more relaxed rules have the same problem. As Stonewall CEO Ben Summerskill points out:

“A gay man in a monogamous relationship who has only had oral sex will still automatically be unable to give blood but a heterosexual man who has had multiple partners and not worn a condom will not be questioned about his behaviour, or even then, excluded.”

Listen, this matters. Like I said before, I am completely behind being extra super careful with the blood supply, but if you’re going to be extra super careful, it needs to extend to everyone. We live in a world where gay men are executed for being themselves. It’s hard for me to see this policy as anything other than a holdover from the days of science-free AIDS panic, and it sends the message that gay men are somehow inherently “tainted” or yucky. Not cool, FDA. Time to seriously re-think those deferment policies.

3 Comment

  • Let’s get this out of the way: super pro lgbt(q,b,a, whatever else is new), yada yada.

    Now to math! You’re using some of those statistics wrong. Yes, the numbers for total cases might be similar, but you have to consider population sizes. Self-identified MSMs account for only 2% of the population, which is quite nearly two orders of magnitude smaller while having 70% more total infections.

    From the CDC:
    “[MSMs] comprise 2% of the US population, but accounted for more than 50% of all new HIV infections annually from 2006 to 2009”

    Also from the CDC:
    About 1 in 5 MSMs have HIV, and of those, 44% don’t know they are HIV+

    That means you’ve got about a one in 10 shot of unknowingly donating infected blood. Furthermore, we still don’t have great technologies for identifying HIV+ blood in its early stages.

    Is all of this situation super f’ed up? Totally! Blame centuries of oppression leading to secretive and unsafe sex practices. Will this hopefully even out over time? Of course. But that doesn’t make this particular aspect a civil rights issue. It’s just depressing math.

    Save the fight for marriage in more states!

  • Oh, also important to note: the ban (here or there) is not against gay men, it’s against men who have sex with men. An important distinction!

    You can be a gay man (love other men, Gaga) and donate blood if you are celibate or really unlucky.

    If you are straight but have had sex with a man (plenty out there) you cannot donate. It’s not a restriction based on orientation but rather on penetration.

  • Yes, what NoStatsThisTime said.

    You can’t compare the 17,005 vs 10,393 unless you take into account the relative population sizes so that you can arrive at the infection rate. When you do that you find that the percentage of men getting HIV from gay sex is very significantly higher than the percentage of heteros getting HIV from hetero sex.

    The fact of the matter is, gay men are still much much more likely to have HIV than anyone else (needle users excepted).

    We can debate the policy sure, but it is certainly more than “a holdover from the days of science-free AIDS panic,” and we shouldn’t value political correctness more than people’s lives.