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The Absurdity of Blood Donation Restrictions for Gay Men After the Orlando Shooting

17/06/2016 15:09 | Updated 17 June 2016

In the wake of the tragic mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, in which 49 LGBT+ individuals were killed and 53 injured, many questions have been raised about how this vicious hate crime was allowed to happen and how its kind can be prevented in the future. Gun laws in America have been debated ferociously in the last few years and even more so now as 13,286 people were killed and 26,819 injured by firearms in the US in 2015 alone. While gun control and background checks on gun buyers are being widely criticised following the mass shooting, many have also been outraged following the shooting in Orlando for a very different reason.

In the aftermath of such a tragedy, it's only natural for everyone, particularly members of the LGBT+ community, to want to do something, anything, to aid those who have been injured. A great way to help those still wounded and, in some cases, fighting for their lives in hospital is to donate blood, which many people in Orlando have been queuing up in streets to do. It is absurd, however, that one group of people is yet again being segregated in the process: gay men.

Despite the urgent need for donations, homosexual and bisexual men who have been sexually active within the last year are still not being allowed to donate blood; and, furthermore, are being refused the opportunity to show solidarity and much needed support for fellow members of the LGBT+ community injured in this hateful attack.

The outdated and discriminatory restrictions on gay men giving blood, which were established in the early 1980s as a panicked reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, unequivocally show that homophobia is not something now only kept alive by a tiny minority of fanatics and religious extremists, but something that is deeply embedded within our society and our institutions. It shows the painful irony that the homophobia which motivated 29-year-old gunman Omar Mateen to open fire on innocent people is the same homophobia quietly ingrained in our health services that is restricting men who have sex with men from donating to those suffering as a result of this mass homophobic attack by so-called Islamic State.

At this very moment in America, it is easier for a member of the public to obtain a firearm capable of killing and wounding hundreds of people than it is for a sexually active monogamous gay man to donate blood.

Although there used to be a complete ban on gay men giving blood, these rules were changed in America on December 21, 2015, as the FDA issued guidance for the deferral of donations from men who have sex with men and allowed them to donate blood after remaining celibate for one year. While appearing to be a step forward in the eradication of these old rules which, according to the American Medical Association, were discriminatory and without a solid scientific justification, men who have sex with men are still being discriminated against based on their sexual behaviour, something that heterosexual men who wish to donate blood are not judged on.

On this basis, a heterosexual man who has unprotected sex with several partners would be allowed to give blood, while a homosexual man in a monogamous relationship would be refused. When examined from this angle, the restrictions on men in same-sex relationships giving blood still appear to be based on the stigma of sexual promiscuity attached to gay men, showing that the eligibility of gay men to donate blood does appear to be based on their sexual history while the eligibility to donate for straight men is not scrutinised in this way.

In the UK, our health service has similar restrictions on blood donation as the NHS Blood and Transplant service also have a year-long deferral on men who have sex with men giving blood. The NHS claim this decision 'isn't discriminatory' and is not 'based on anyone's sexual history or sexuality' but that the guidelines recommended by the Department of Health merely 'reflect statistical risks for the sexual behaviour that increases the risk of virus transmission'.

While stating that the restrictions are not based on sexual history and then contradicting that statement in the same breath, we can see that our health services and organisations here in the UK, too, despite their objections, seem to be basing the eligibility to give blood on an outdated and backwards stigma attached to homosexual and bisexual men.

As some countries like Argentina have completely lifted the ban on men in same-sex relationships giving blood and have recognised that this decision is 'scientifically and technically accurate', the restrictions on blood donations still in place in America, Britain and in many countries around the world serve as a reminder that religious and societal homophobia is continuing to cloud people's judgement, fuel hatred and social stigma, and inspire violence.

As we come to terms with the tragic loss of life and continue to express our solidarity and support with the victims of the Orlando shooting in the face of mindless homophobia and terrorism, these discriminatory rules are being brought into question and scrutinised under the public spotlight now more than ever before, as we ask ourselves: what is the real reason why a monogamous gay man cannot give blood while a heterosexual man with an indeterminate number of sexual partners would be welcome to donate?

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