Watch: Out NY State Lawmaker Urges Blood Banks to Quit Turning Gays Away

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 15, 2020

Even thought the FDA has responded to needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing the required amount time gay men must be celibate in order to qualify as blood donors from a full year to three months, critics say that any celibacy requirement aimed at gays, bisexuals, or other men who have sex with men (MSM) is needless and rooted in prejudice rather than in sound medical best practices.

Added to that lingering prejudice is a bureaucratic snag: The change is so recent that blood donation centers lag in being able to accept gay blood donors because they don't have the proper documents and software to accommodate such donations yet.

While bureaucracy moves at a snail's pace, the COVID-19 epidemic has spread faster than wildfire across the globe, and a New York state lawmaker wants to see blood donation centers pick up the pace in an effort to keep up.

Openly gay NY State Senator Brad Hoylman was among those who have tried to help out during the crisis, but been turned away. Hoyle, ABC 7 reports, tried to donate blood a month after the Food and Drug Administration issued the new guidelines, but his offer of blood was declined because the blood donation center he visited did not yet have the proper forms.

Hoyle responded by penning a letter recounting his experience and outlining how, in an age of extremely sensitive testing that can detect the presence of HIV and other viruses in donated blood, any ban singling out gay men or MSM is unsupportable from a scientific point of view.

Wrote Hoylman:

"I found, as a gay man, it was entirely insulting to be turned away by the New York Blood Center.

"The federal government is encouraging citizens to donate blood during this pandemic. The fact that I couldn't do so makes me feel like a second class citizen. It's completely discriminatory. It's not based on science. It's insulting to LGBTQ people, and it sends a really negative message."

The FDA's initial ban on gay donors was implemented in the 1980s, when panic over HIV ran high and some individuals had contract the virus from donated blood. The original ban was for life.

But after decades of pressure, and with new and far more sensitive testing available — all donated blood is tested, no matter the donor — the FDA finally yielded, somewhat, by revising the guidelines and requiring that gay and bi men refrain from sex for a full year in order to quality as donors. That blanket provision did not take into account factors such as marital status, relationship exclusivity, or risky sexual behavior.

Moreover, similar restrictions did not apply to heterosexual men regardless of marital status or sexual conduct, prompting critics to note that a straight man could have sex with a prostitute and still donate blood while married gay men would still be excluded.

The underling assumption seemed to be that gay donors presented a greater risk of disease transmission not because of their actual risk factors, but because they were gay.

That is still the perception now that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the FDA to ease its restrictions on MSM who wish to donate blood. Now, instead of a year, MSM must "only" be celibate for a three-month period.

But critics wonder why MSM should be required to be celibate at all, when that's not mandatory for anyone else.

The current global health crisis has made the issue more contentious than it has been for years. Representatives on the House Oversight and Reform Committee — all Democrats — recently sent a letter in which they argued to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn that the restrictions around MSM donating blood be completely stricken.

Wrote the Democratic Representatives:

"There is no scientific justification for denying MSM who have recovered from coronavirus the opportunity to safely donate plasma. Yet, gay and bisexual men who have recovered from coronavirus and attempted to donate have been turned away in accordance with FDA's blanket deferral recommendation.

A spokesperson for New York Blood Center responded to Hoylman's letter with a statement that noted, "We have been pushing the FDA to make these scientifically-based changes for decades, and we will continue to advocate for further changes to this policy as scientific data permits," and added:

"We're working as quickly as possible and we expect to welcome these newly eligible donors at the beginning of June."

The issue's high profile has been pushed even higher with news that medical researchers believe blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 may contain antibodies to the virus that could help critically ill people fight off the illness.

That glimmer of hope for a new medical means of confronting the virus has led to the creation of at least one organization dedicated to getting COVID-19 survivors into blood donation centers.

At least one celebrity has, like Hoylman, encountered the exclusionary guidelines. Out talk show host Andy Cohen, who recently recovered from a bout of COVID-19, tried to enroll in a program in which donated plasma would be investigated as a therapeutic treatment.

But Cohen was turned away from that program because he's an openly gay man. Cohen noted on his show that modern testing techniques can detect HIV in donated blood less than a week after any potential exposure to HIV by a donor.

"I was told that due to antiquated and discriminatory guidelines from the FDA," Cohen related on his show, "I am ineligible to donate blood because I am a gay man."

That segment from "Watch What Happens With Andy Cohen Live" led to Cohen's CBS This Morning appearance, where he told host Gayle King that he was "disappointed" about being turned away from the program.

"I've known in the past about the fact that gay men cannot donate blood," Cohen said, "but I think we're in an unusual situation right now. We're in a war against a disease that we don't know a lot about, and there's an urgent need for the antibodies that [are] in people like me — who's survived coronavirus."

State Sen. Hoylman summarized the issues around the controversial ban in his letter, writing:

"This is a policy that needs to be overturned in its entirety. The ban on gay men donating blood isn't based on science. There is screening now that can detect pathogens in blood like HIV, AIDS, not to mention the fact that gay and bisexual men are not the only carriers of HIV, AIDS. We need to end the blood ban on gay and bisexual men but in the meantime blood banks should update their guidelines to follow the FDA's recommendation of a three month, not an entire year deferral."

Watch ABC 7's news report below.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.