If you’ve just been in a horrible car accident and you’re bleeding to death on a surgeon’s table, would you refuse a blood transfusion from a gay man?
Some might. This is largely because of a stigma surrounding the prevalence of HIV in the gay community, especially among gay men. In light of this concern, the Food and Drug Administration has enacted guidelines that ban sexually active gay men from donating blood.
But put it another way: Would you accept a transfusion from a black person? How about from someone (anyone) living in Washington, D.C.?
The number of refusals would surely drop, even though these groups are at an increasing risk for HIV, a rate fast approaching that of the gay community.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of all diagnoses in 2007 came from the black community. A full 3 percent of Washington, D.C., residents have HIV (4 percent among black residents), according to an article in Time Magazine. Middle-aged people in Washington suffer from HIV at a rate of 7 percent, and this is even higher in the middle-aged black community.
Granted, these figures are less than the double-digit infection rates of gay men in some communities, but unfortunately, they are quickly catching up.
So why not ban all black people from giving blood — or, even better, all middle-aged residents of Washington, D.C.? Because that would be an absurd and politically disastrous choice.
Singling out the gay community is a much easier and politically palatable decision for the FDA to make. These guidelines stem from the panic and rash actions that swept the nation in the early 1980s, after AIDS was deemed a “gay disease,” and rates began to soar (among all populations).
But to single out any group, “high risk” or not, is unnecessary. All blood donations are tested for HIV, along with hepatitis and other viral and bacterial infections.
Thankfully, the FDA’s ban is simply an added precaution. So, you wonder, how can an added precaution possibly hurt anyone?
Tens of thousands of people donate blood every day, a full 500,000 in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. Because of these FDA regulations, all male blood donors must indicate that they have not had sexual contact with another man since 1977. All female donors must declare that they have not had sex with a man who might have had sexual contact with another man during the past 12 months. (“I hope not” was not one of the answer choices.)
By exposing such a large number of people to questions like this every day, the FDA is perpetuating the false notion that AIDS is a gay disease. It clearly isn’t. Heterosexual sex is the fastest growing transmission method, and a lack of awareness about this issue is blamed for the pandemic-level infection rates in Washington, D.C.
The ban also adds to the chronic shortage of blood for the 4.5 million blood transfusions needed each year.
Ultimately, these regulations represent yet another facet of life that is unequal for gay people. The guidelines may have been enacted with the health of all Americans in mind, but the fact that they were enacted in a time of panic and bigotry is undeniable.
If a ban like this were placed on virtually any other group, there would be widespread anger and protest, but because of the long-standing stigma — perpetuated by the ban itself — it goes largely unchallenged.
We believe that it’s time to stop perpetuating this false stereotype and accept the gracious blood donations of any and all healthy donors.
Lifesaving does not have a sexual preference.