Wait, What?

Congress Clueless on Gay Blood Ban

The blood drive in the wake of the mass murder at a gay club in Orlando has opened an old wound for the LGBT community—a wound many lawmakers on Capitol Hill had no idea existed.

06.14.16 10:00 PM ET

Even as members of their community are still bleeding from the savage shootings in Orlando, many gay men were turned away from donating blood to assist in the medical response.

The bipartisan response from top lawmakers: ‘What gay blood ban?

“What now? I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never heard of that! It’s crazy! It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“I didn’t know there was a ban,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I would urge them to reconsider it.”

The FDA put a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood during the rise of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. The FDA loosened this restriction in Dec. 2015, allowing gay men who have been celibate for a year to donate. Despite scientific developments in blood screening technology, the FDA continues to ban many gay men—including those in monogamous relationships—from donating blood.

This has incensed gay rights advocates, who insist that policy should be based on whether individuals have engaged in risky behavior, rather than sexual orientation. Straight male blood donors, for example, don’t have to be monogamous for a year before donating blood.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a news conference on opioid and heroin abuse, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Alex Brandon/AP

“In the wake of [the shootings] folks wanted to go donate and couldn’t,” said Anthony Hayes, Vice President for Public Affairs and Policy for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization focused on HIV/AIDS issues. “We want the ban overturned, to have a blood donation policy in America that is both safe and inclusive.”

Especially among the LGBT advocacy community, it’s a key issue. But in the halls of the Capitol on Tuesday, which happens to be World Blood Donor Day, the subject brings up puzzled looks and refrains of ‘please-call-my-office.’

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who has spent nearly a decade in the Senate, told The Daily Beast: “I don’t know about those topics off [the top of] my head,” and referred the question to his spokesperson.

Added Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, “It’s an issue I’ve never even really considered.”

This is a major challenge for gay rights advocates inside and outside Congress, who have spent years urging the FDA to change their policy on who can contribute blood—and now believe that the shooting in Orlando can galvanize change.

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“The cruel irony of this… policy is personified by this particular terrorist attack, where the victims were targeting for being members of the LGBT and the gay bisexual men who wanted to donate blood of those in need were banned from doing so,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic member from Illinois.

Democratic members of Congress huddled in front of the House of Representatives Tuesday afternoon, in front of a posted: “Blood is Blood,” it reads, on a rainbow background, “Gay or Straight.”

“There were so many gay victims involved with the attack, and so many of their loved ones were moved to step up and help their fellow Americans—but were unable to,” said Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado. “All of the pretenses of this policy are gone—it was never based on science in the first place. One year is a completely arbitrary period, obviously, and straight people are not required to abstain.”

But these lawmakers have not proposed any legislation to force the FDA to change its policy, despite having worked on the issue for years. Bills are commonly written, for any number of issues—including many which have no chance of ever becoming law—so it is perplexing that none has been introduced in this case.

“We… recognize that legislation takes a long time,” California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee said. “This is an emergency. An executive order should be issued, an administrative change should take place right away.”

The White House pushed back Tuesday on calls for the administration to do just that, telling reporters at the daily press briefing that they have no plans to make any changes.

It was, in essence, a slap in the face to a community already deep in mourning.

—Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting to this article.