In the wake of Pulse, LGBTQ groups and Congress urge the FDA to lift the ban on blood donation from queer men

One love, one blood

In the wake of Pulse, LGBTQ groups and Congress urge the FDA to lift the ban on blood donation from queer men
Graphic by Chris Tobar Rodriguez

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"The policy turns away good donors with no regard to their sexual behaviors," Seminole State College student Blake Lynch told Orlando Weekly in 2013. "We need blood so bad that they're letting 16-year-olds donate." In March of that year, Lynch launched a campaign, Banned4Life, hoping to collect 100,000 signatures in order to convince the FDA to lift the ban or at least reconsider the parameters.

In June 2013, the American Medical Association rebuked the FDA ban, saying, "The ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science." And in November 2014, upon hearing of the impending policy change, Banned4Life posted on its Facebook page, "One step forward today! The Dept. of HHS wants to recommend a one year deferral instead of a lifetime deferral for MSM. We applaud the progress, but are still disappointed that they are focusing on sexual orientation instead of individual sexual behavior."

On June 15, 2016, Lynch, now a registered nurse, penned an op-ed for the New York Times headlined "I Am a Gay Man From Orlando. Why Can't I Donate Blood?"; he pointed out that "gay men like me would like the opportunity to give our much-needed, healthy blood to those who are fighting for their lives right now at Orlando Regional Medical Center."

He also stated, "When I called OneBlood, the blood center that serves the Orlando area, I learned that it still vets donors according to the FDA's old, more stringent guidelines while it works to update its own policy."

On the day of the Pulse shootings in Orlando, even queer men who had not had sex within the past year were still turned away by the local OneBlood center. OneBlood spokesman Pat Michaels told the Washington Post that OneBlood had not updated its system to allow queer men who had been celibate within the past year to donate, but that it would be updated later this year. Orlando Weekly reached out repeatedly to OneBlood, but did not receive further comment.

LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, which supplies blood to more than 100 hospitals in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, was planning to update its guidelines regarding queer men later this summer, but after seeing the outpouring of people who wanted to help on June 12, they updated their guidelines that same day, says Gary Kirkland, a spokesperson for the organization.

The organization had already done much of the background work to update quickly, such as training their staff and changing information on the automated system. Soon, they'll have to update their systems again to screen for the Zika virus.

"Blood donation is highly regulated by the FDA, and if you're not following the rules, you're not going to be in business," Kirkland says. "We were facing 50 to 100 donors that day, so we were able to make that change quickly. It was not as daunting as it would have been for OneBlood to try to make those changes as people lined up on the streets."

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