In the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks, Americans were asked to light candles, say prayers, give money and donate blood. But where blood donations are concerned, only straights need apply.
The ban on blood donations from gay men has been in effect since 1985, when the Food & Drug Administration began asking all prospective donors if they are a "male who has had sex with another male since 1977, even once." At the time, anxiety about the HIV virus in donated blood was high.
Gays aren't alone on the Red Cross no-thanks list. Women are not allowed to give blood if they have had sex during the previous 12 months with a man who has had male-to-male sex since 1977. Naturally, people with HIV are barred, as are IV drug users, prostitutes, cancer patients and some less obvious people such as pregnant women, those who have active cold or flu symptoms, and those who've spent three months or more in the United Kingdom or six months or more in any one or more European country between the years 1980 and 1996—a regulation imposed recently because of "mad cow" disease.
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But it's the comprehensive ban on queer blood that some in the gay community consider discriminatory, an outdated rule that's overdue for modifying. "There's a large group of people who are willing to participate, but they're excluded," said Nathan Purkiss, a legislative aide for San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, on gay.com.
Many gay men—particularly those under 30 who largely missed the initial wave of AIDS hysteria during the early to mid-'80s—have discovered the ban for the first time in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The present FDA code stereotypically presumes that the blood of all gay men is contaminated, regardless of a person's monogamous long-term relationship, safe-sex practice or years of documented HIV-negative test results. Made hot man-man love during the waning days of the Carter administration and been celibate ever since? Sorry—unless you're a virgin or haven't had sex in a quarter-century, you can keep your blood. Even more draconian is how the FDA defines what "sex" is. Julie Juliusson, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross' Blood Services, Southern California Region, told the Weekly that "sex" means not only an exchange of body fluids but also any male-to-male oral/anal, anal/genital or oral/genital contact or "stimulation" (getting hard, we assume)—and even cancels queer blood donors if they've used devices such as dildos and vibrators on sex partners, condomed or not.
"We have to adhere to the FDA's guidelines no matter what, unless the rules are changed," Juliusson says.
Some people, though, aren't waiting for change. The Harvard Crimson last week reported that the head of the campus's gay student group was calling for its members to donate blood by lying on the screening questionnaire if they believe they are healthy and HIV-negative in an attempt to get around the FDA's policy.