Exactly one month ago, the Red Cross finally implemented the new rules the FDA put out about screening for blood donations. The FDA made these changes back in May, and as of August 7, the Red Cross is adhering to them. The changes have finally done away with the “Blood Ban” that primarily impacted queer men/folks assigned male at birth**. For nearly 40 years, there were restrictions in place prohibiting men who have sex with other men from donating blood because of the risk of HIV transmission. Since 1985, the regulations have only been altered three times (third time’s the charm!) Now the ban is lifted: rather than singling out queer men who have had sex with other men, the pre-donation questionnaire includes questions for everyone about recent sexual history. This policy ceases the decades-long discrimination that queer men have faced because of outdated, Raegan-era homophobia.
The original discriminatory policy that the Red Cross upheld due to FDA guidelines was established in 1985 in the face of the AIDS crisis. Because the disease was relatively new, doctors barely knew anything about it other than what they saw, which was that it could be transmitted through blood and that it was mostly queer men of color who were showing up sick in their hospitals. This led to the FDA instating a lifelong ban for blood donations on men who have ever had sex with other men. It didn’t matter if you were tested, it didn’t matter if you were in a monogamous relationship, it didn’t matter if you and your partner always practiced safe sex, and it didn’t matter if you had sex with a man once ten years ago. You were dirty. This ban from a federal agency helped enforce homophobia around the country, promoting the belief that all queer men are incurably diseased. Even as screenings for blood donations advanced, this lifelong ban stayed in place for 30 years.
In 2015, three decades after the FDA first instituted the ban, the rules were changed slightly. Instead of a lifelong ban for men who have sex with other men, it was changed to one year. Queer men had to abstain from sex with other men for a full year before they were eligible to donate blood. While it was a step towards progress, technically anything is after a lifelong ban. Policy wouldn’t change again until 2020, in response to national blood shortages due to Covid-19. The ban shifted to even less time, from one year to three months. In the year 2020, facing another catastrophic disease that was not yet fully understood, the FDA was still insisting on limiting who is eligible to donate blood on the assumption that queer men are the exclusive carriers of HIV. Again, it was progress, but still legalized homophobia.
That brings us to today. Three years since the last policy change, the FDA has finally done away with the “Gay Blood Ban” entirely. Where previously, the FDA made regulations based on broad assumptions of queer men specifically, they now focus more on risk factors of each individual donor, regardless of sex or sexuality. The updated questionnaire does not target queer men for exclusion anymore, but rather asks all potential donors if they have partaken in any behaviors that could put their blood donation eligibility at risk. Specifically, it asks a potential donor to refrain from donating if they have had anal sex with a new sexual partner or more than one sexual partner in the past three months. It also asks those who take PrEP, or PEP (HIV preventative medications) refrain from donating blood for three months if the medication was taken orally, or two years if by injection. This is due to the fact that these meds can sometimes mess with the blood screening process and make it harder to detect if a blood sample is HIV-positive. So while there is still room for improvement as screening processes and medication advance, after four decades of blatant discrimination, queer men are finally free to donate blood.
**I want to recognize the fact that this policy specifically targets those assigned male at birth, which may include people who do not identify as men. For the sake of clarity and conciseness, throughout this post I will be using the term "men'' in recognition of the majority of those who have been affected by the Blood Ban historically and today, as well as to reference the exact wording used by the FDA and the Red Cross.
If you want to read further about the issue, you can check out the Red Cross’s page for LGBTQ+ donors here.
And check out the article put out by NPR when the FDA first changed their regulations in May here