The issue of the 31-year-old ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood for life has gotten more and more attention in recent years, and activists hope to take it to another level with the National Gay Blood Drive, which hits the parking lot of TEN Atlanta on July 11.
Sixty cities throughout the U.S. will participate in the event, organized for a second year by Los Angeles-based filmmaker and activist Ryan James Yezak.
The event is different this year in that gay or bisexual men will bring an eligible ally along with them who will donate blood in their place. The gay and bisexual men will write a message to the Food and Drug Administration while the eligible allies will get a name tag saying “I donated for” followed by the name of the gay or bisexual man whose place they took.
Pictures of each pair will be taken for sharing on social media, and they will also sign a White House petition requesting a change to the ban. If 100,000 signatures are received during the month of July, the Obama administration has to respond.
GAY BLOOD DRIVE EVENT SPRANG OUT OF ‘UNCOMFORTABLE, ALIENATING SITUATION’ The FDA’s official position on the matter is that they do not allow donations from any men who have had sex with men since 1977, citing the increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and other infections that can be transmitted through transfusion.
The idea for the National Gay Blood Drive came about when Yezak was asked by his boss at MTV, where he worked at the time, to donate blood with her.
“It created this uncomfortable, alienating situation, which I realized was based on discrimination based on my sexual orientation,” Yezak, who is gay, tells the GA Voice.
It set him on a quest to create a documentary on the subject called “Second Class Citizens,” a response to his inability to get anyone at the FDA to agree to an interview on the issue and instead referring him to the FDA’s website.
“I had questions and they wouldn’t answer them,” Yezak says. “I was looking for a way to change the ban and it’s so gridlocked under the FDA and HHS [Department of Health and Human Services]. I thought the best way to do that is to get as many voices as possible to weigh in on it.”
So the National Gay Blood Drive was born.
Last year’s event was successful, but after later meeting with the American Red Cross and members of Congress and organizing a blood drive with Viacom, they found they would exceed their goals by having a two- pronged approach—raise awareness with the gay and bisexual men taking part, while employing eligible allies to give blood.
“That led us to this year and bringing someone to donate in our place,” Yezak says. “Everybody wins.”
Gay Atlantan Ben Nicoara took part in last year’s event and volunteered to become the Atlanta organizer for the 2014 version.
“The idea is to show the FDA how many people are willing to give blood because of this outdated ban,” Nicoara tells GA Voice. “It’s not like the blood goes straight from a tester to the person needing it. We were in the dark then but we clearly have the means now to make sure that blood donations are safe.”
FDA AVOIDS SPECIFICS ON POLICY CHANGE The GA Voice ran into the same difficulties as Yezak in getting specific answers from the FDA on several questions, except to say that they are open to continuing to look at new data.
“The Agency welcomes scientific and public input and will continue to reevaluate donor deferral policies as new data become available to ensure the safety of blood and blood products for patients who need these products,” FDA press officer Jennifer Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez also put the onus on a committee in the HHS saying, “FDA intends to follow the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability (ACBTSA) and conduct the studies necessary to fill the identified gaps in information.” The ACBTSA’s next meeting is this October.
The FDA states on their website that the current HIV risk is 1 per 2 million units of blood, and that that risk is “almost exclusively” from “window period” donations. The window period for an HIV antibody test is about three months, so the obvious questions became, “Why not exclude only those men who have sex with men [MSM] who have had sexual contact with another man in the last three months? Or six months to be safe? Or even a year?” This would appear to decrease the HIV risk to nearly zero while not discriminating against a significant number of people.
The FDA spokesperson refused to answer these questions, instead quoting from the FDA’s website and saying the policy will continue to be evaluated.
MAJOR ORGANIZATIONS BACK REMOVAL OF LIFETIME BAN The spotlight on the issue has gotten bigger and bigger in the last few years due to the number of organizations who have come out against the ban. The American Association of Blood Banks, American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers all support a one-year deferral from the time of sexual contact for gay and bisexual men.
And last June, momentum picked up when the American Medical Association announced that it opposes the lifetime ban, calling it “discriminatory and not based on sound science” as AMA Board of Trustees member William Kobler, stated at the time.
The AMA recommends evaluating donors according to the individual level of risk and not on sexual orientation alone. It was considered by many to be a significant moment in the movement because the AMA not only came out against the ban from a scientific point of view, but also took it a step further by publicly declaring the lifetime ban discriminates against gay and bisexual men.
The group behind the Gay Blood Drive has no formal stance on what exactly the policy should be changed to for MSM who donate blood, or how long the wait should be after sexual contact. But they know what they don’t want it to be. “I don’t think it should be based on sexual orientation,” Yezak says. “I think there’s a way to change the ban based on sexual behavior, whether you have protected or unprotected sex, how many sexual partners, how long you have to wait after sexual contact.”
However, Yezak admits he thinks it will be a step-by-step process, with the FDA moving toward a year deferral before eventually taking sexual orientation out of the equation.
Nicoara, organizer of the Atlanta event, echoes Yezak in saying it shouldn’t be based on sexual orientation, but says he thinks there should be a 90-day wait after sexual contact in order to give blood.
“The truth is gay men are not the only ones that can become HIV positive,” Nicoara says. “The idea is to show people that it’s not a gay disease and that everyone can be affected by it so we should all be treated fairly when it comes to blood donation.”
National Gay Blood Drive July 11, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. TEN Atlanta 990 Piedmont Ave. Atlanta, GA 30309 www.gayblooddrive.com