Although many of their friends were critically injured, sexually active gay men were turned away from donating blood to help the victims of the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub.
“As a gay man, I can get fired for being who I am,” said Geoffrey Lawrence, a senior double majoring in music and theatre studies. “I can get shot in one of my safe spaces for being who I am. Yet, as a gay man, I cannot help my fellow brothers and sisters in need by donating blood.”
In the hours after the shooting, Lawrence bought several pallets of bottled water and brought them to the Michigan Street OneBlood center, which is less than a mile from Pulse.
He joined with other volunteers — many of them also gay men — to distribute the water and other supplies to the hundreds of people who waited in line to give blood.
The inability of gay men to donate blood stems from an FDA policy meant to protect against HIV in the blood supply. An outright ban on any man who had ever had sex with another man was instated in 1992. In 2015, the ban was changed to a 12-month deferral since the last male-to-male sexual activity.
“The deferral policy is a behavior-based policy, not one based upon sexual orientation,” said Tara Goodin, a spokeswoman for the FDA. “Current epidemiology shows that a history of male-to-male sexual contact was associated with a 62-fold increased risk for being HIV-positive, whereas the increase in risk for a history of multiple sexual partners of the opposite sex in the last year was 2.3-fold.”
Goodin said that every individual blood sample is tested for HIV before being allowed into the blood supply. However, the testing process has a shortfall that could allow HIV-positive samples to slip through the cracks.
“With the testing methodology used in the United States, there is a period of about nine days after an individual is infected with HIV during which the virus cannot be detected,” Goodin said. “During this time, when individuals may have no symptoms, the virus could be passed on to another individual through a blood transfusion.”
Ashley Joyce-Nyack, a senior political science major, thinks the ban is discriminatory and unnecessary.
“There are plenty of ways to test the blood now, and they can easily ask if someone has had sex with someone with AIDS,” Joyce-Nyack said. “The ban is homophobic and based off stereotypes.”
Equality Florida, an LGBT rights advocacy organization, supports changing the FDA policy.
“It’s unfortunate that it took this massacre to bring awareness to this issue,” said Hannah Willard, policy and outreach coordinator for Equality Florida. “The social and political climate when this policy was enacted by the Reagan administration was completely different than the climate now, and when the [LGBTQ+] community is being violently targeted, we need to re-examine these policies and make sure that all healthy Americans are allowed to donate blood.”
Willard said that the Equality Federation, a national umbrella organization of state-based equality groups including Equality Florida, has joined with the Progressive Change Institute and the National Gay Blood Drive to petition the FDA for a change in the policy.
Goodin thinks the FDA has science on its side.
“The scientific evidence is not available to support an alternative to the current deferral policy,” she said. “We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it. That being said, the FDA is committed to continuing to reevaluate its blood donor deferral policies as new scientific information becomes available.”
Alex Storer is the Entertainment Editor of the Central Florida Future. You can reach him at AlexanderS@centralfloridafuture.com.