If it is progress to say to gay and bisexual men that it is OK for them now to donate blood, but not if they are sexually active—then, yes, today’s news that the FDA has lifted its ban on gay men donating blood is, indeed, a rainbow-flag waving bonanza.
Now, the FDA will accept blood from men who have sex with men, as long as those donating have been celibate for 12 months. Is this an evolution in health policy, or a clever right-wing plot—I can’t decide.
"Ultimately, the 12-month deferral window is supported by the best available scientific evidence, at this point in time, relevant to the U.S. population,” Dr. Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s biologics division, said, according to Reuters.
Of course, if this counts as progress, it also counts as a kick in the shins, too—a strange and discriminatory compromise measure.
“It is ridiculous and counter to the public health that a married gay man in a monogamous relationship can’t give blood, but a promiscuous straight man who has had hundreds of opposite sex partners in the last year can,” said Jared Polis, a Democratic congressman and co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, a caucus of openly gay members of Congress, again quoted by Reuters.
The gay blood ban came—meaningfully—into place in 1983, in the fledgling days of AIDS. It was instructive that the Reagan administration was so quick to exclude gay men from donating blood, and wretchedly, deliberately less galvanized as it watched them die painfully by the thousands, stigmatized and ignored.
Gay men are still being treated differently under the new policy. To suggest that only gay men who have not had sex for as year are “clean” enough to give blood is plain homophobic. Or, a mark of how lacking blood screening science is.
How is a gay man’s sexual behavior effectively patrolled, and deduced by the FDA? Truth serum? Lie detector? The presentation of clean underwear that can be carbon-dated?
Whatever, the message of the FDA remains as it ever was: Only gay men not having sex are good enough to give blood.
What is it about sexually active, heterosexual blood donors that automatically lets them in the door ahead of a sexually active gay man?
What does the FDA mysteriously know about gay and straight people, and how and when and with whom they have sex, before they’ve even asked them?
Perhaps, I’m not sharing the correct mood of celebration. Perhaps, all over the country gay men are now excitedly telling their loved ones and friends—and deeply pissing off their horny partners—with the pronouncement: “I want to give blood. And, fiddledeedee, my year of celibacy starts here.”
This “progress” measure still stigmatizes gay sex, and it still includes an incredibly narrow definition of what “gay sex” might involve. What if you are a gay man who does not have penetrative sex, but nevertheless considers the sex you are having with your partner to be fulfilling and meaningful?
Too bad, that’s “gay sex,” and you’re off the list.
What if you have penetrative sex, and that sex is safe?
What if you’re having any kind of sex?
Too bad. Go away. We don’t want your blood.
There are so many offensive and wrongheaded things about the insistence on gay celibacy when it comes to blood donation, but at its root the worst thing is it merely reinforces the prejudice that gay sex is wrong and bad.
The FDA’s message is simple: If you want to contribute to your community and do good for society by giving blood, the only way to do this is to renounce having sex.
Surely, the issue here isn’t the amount of sex gay men have or the kind, but the blood screening techniques of the FDA and the questions it asks of all donors, gay and straight, about the sex they’re having and with whom they’re having it.
Today isn’t a day of progress. Today is a day gay men are told they are kind of good enough to be blood donors, but kind of, really, not. It is as absurd of a position as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Clinton-era military policy of the 1990s.
The ultimate message of both is the same: We know you’re there, we acknowledge your presence and your use to us, but you’re still different, indeed inferior, and don’t you ever forget it.
If the FDA really wants gay blood, it should be on the same basis that it accepts heterosexual blood. And if that means asking heterosexuals difficult questions about their sex lives and sexuality, so be it.
Until then, the “gay blood ban” effectively stays in place, although now it comes with a patronizing pat on every good, virginal gay man’s head.