'Blood Work', A Performance Art-Action by Thomas Mars

DuPont Circle, Washington DC, June 11, 2017

Currently in the United States, the Food & Drug Administration have a strict set of regulations in place for those who wish to donate blood. The FDA recommends that blood establishments defer potential donors who meet this criteria:

  • Defer for 12 months from the most recent contact a man who has had sex with another man during the past 12 months.
  • Defer for 12 months from the most recent contact a female who has had sex during the past 12 months with a man who has had sex with another man in the past 12 months.

These regulations were implemented in December 2015, replacing the previous policy which placed a lifetime ban on blood donations from ‘men who have sex with men’ or MSM, the medical umbrella term, which encompasses a broad variety of people such as gay, bisexual and trans men. This updated policy, seen by many as a step in the right direction, is actually just as stigmatizing and discriminatory as the lifetime ban, first implemented in 1983. The FDA still categorize gay sex with unsafe or risky sex, as part of their “lifestyle” criteria. What this means is that ‘MSM’ who practice safe, consensual sex or live monogamous lifestyles are considered to be more high-risk than current heterosexual blood donors who engage in unsafe sex with multiple partners.

Since the 1980s, significant medical advancements have been made in HIV testing and prevention, now making it possible to purchase rapid home testing kits, the HIV preventative pill PrEP (also known as Truvada), as well as tests that detect the virus within 3 weeks of contraction. Since the discovery of the virus, all donated blood is rigorously tested for HIV, as well as other bloodborne diseases. According the Red Cross, the chance of an HIV transmission via transfusion is one in two million.

The current exclusions from the eligibility criteria not only keep the national blood supply dangerously low, they also have serious effects on the mental well-being on LGBTQ+ youth. The policy in the United States is also recognised in the UK and in my home country Australia, where my own sex education at high school was so piss-poor and hetero-focused that I had convinced myself that I already had or would contract HIV/AIDS in my lifetime and if I attempted to donate blood, I would be outed and shamed, due to the volatile, homophobic nature of the classroom. I have a vivid memory of being in health class listening to my classmates laugh and joke about how AIDS is a ‘gay disease’, without any sort of correction from the health teacher. We were not provided with any valuable information about HIV/AIDS, all I knew as a teenager was that it killed a bunch of gay men in 80s and 90s and that celibacy was the surefire way to prevent contraction. During my research of this issue, I have connected with many young people who have also told stories of how blood drives visiting their schools and places of work have turned them down, in an uncomfortable or awkward fashion and how the impact of being ostracised affected their self-worth, their eventual coming out as well as their overall mental health. Without health programs in place that provide sex education from a non-heterosexual perspective, young kids are not equiped with adequate knowledge on how to keep themselves safe, or to feel accepted by society. Celibacy is a societally regressive idealism and is not the answer.

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On June 12th, 2016, the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States took place; An attack targeting The LGBTQ+ community, on Latin night at Pulse Nightclub, Orlando. Because of the current FDA regulations, members of the community lining up outside blood banks were left to feel helpless after being turned away from donating to their critically injured friends and loved ones in desperate need. It was so easy to buy an assault rifle from a gun store and commit mass murder, but to help our bruised and battered community, it was not possible. Some survivors of Pulse required over 10 pints of donated blood to save their lives, which is more volume than the average human blood supply. Not one of those donations would or could have come from any of the hundreds of the perfectly healthy and willing LGBTQ+ people who waited in line to donate. After the events of Pulse, there was also serious misinformation coming from the media, in which many sources stated after Orlando, the ban had been temporarily lifted, due to the dire need for blood. This was also the case after the FDA adjusted their policy in 2015 to the current 12-month celibacy rule. Many people misconstrued this policy change and assumed that the ban no longer existed. Many LGBTQ+ people are still are unaware that they are excluded from donating.

The current 12-month celibacy rule is superficial, offensive and continues to reinforce narrow-minded stereotypes and perpetuate hurtful stigma towards our community. The FDA must move towards scientifically based eligibility criteria, rather than the current categorical ones. With the current political climate in the United States, it is impossible to remain patient or submissive about this issue. The regulations are strict and discriminatory, without scientific backup and desperately need to be updated, however the ban cannot be lifted unless it gets enough support from the scientific and medical communities, as well as from a large number of the population who are unaffected by the ban. Drawing attention to this issue, which has potential to generate public support, is the only way forward.

Please write to the FDA, urging them to lift their ban on gay blood: 

Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER)

ocod@fda.hhs.gov