Note: This column, first published in March 2020, has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
The American Red Cross is asking for blood donations from healthy people in the wake of a blood crisis brought on by the omicron surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. But due to a discriminatory Food and Drug Administration statute, not all healthy people can donate.
Men who have sex with men can give blood only if they abstain from having sex for three months – a change the agency made in April 2020. Previously it asked men to abstain for a whole year.
Two years into this pandemic, my frustration about this situation has ballooned into a fireball of rage. Rage only the FDA could quell with a policy change.
The FDA first banned men who have sex with men from donating blood in 1983 as the HIV/AIDS crisis unfolded. The agency updated this policy in December 2015, removing the lifetime ban but requiring a one-year abstention (followed by a "scientifically-supported" three-month abstention).
A common question: Doesn't the Red Cross test all donated blood? Yes, it's tested for infectious diseases. But it's not 100% effective in donors who may have been infected recently.
Since I have had sex within the three months, I am ineligible – despite the fact I take Truvada for PrEP (an HIV preventative drug) every day and receive a full sexually transmitted infections panel every three months in order to keep receiving prescriptions.
The first and only time I donated blood, I hadn't had sexual contact with another man. Heck, I hadn’t yet come out. I was 21 years old and passed out shortly after doing it.
Over the eight years since then, it has been too easy for me to throw my hands up and say: "Well, I can't even donate anyway." But during this time of crisis, I would give anything to help.
Since the pandemic began, the Red Cross suffered a 10% decline in volunteers donating blood. Blood drive cancellations and staffing issues have plagued the organization as well. The Red Cross is responsible for 40% of the nation's blood supply and has had to recently curb how much blood it delivers to hospitals.
Imagine all the lives we could save if the FDA unburdened men who have sex with men from this block?
For its part, the Red Cross isn't exactly a fan of the policy: "The American Red Cross believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation," reads a statement on its website. The Red Cross is involved in a pilot program (funded by the FDA) with other organizations to possibly use other criteria for donor eligibility.
Given this pandemic, I want to do everything I can to help those in need.
If this ban were lifted, I would fight my fear and donate blood. It's too important a time to be selfish in any capacity.
I'll say it again: Men who have sex with men can only give blood if they abstain from having sex for three months.
Change your policy, FDA. Please.
Actually, forget the "please."
Change your policy, FDA. Now.
David Oliver is an entertainment reporter at USA TODAY covering diversity and inclusion. Oliver has a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @doliver8
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Let gay, bisexual men donate blood amid COVID-19 omicron surge