Blood Drive Protests FDA Ban on Gay Donors

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After Marshall Duer-Balkind, 30, exited a blood donation center on Friday morning, he held up a long green form as evidence that he had been rejected as a blood donor.

On the form Duer-Balkind pointed out that section that disqualified him from being a blood donor because of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy that bans men who have sex with men from giving blood.

After Duer-Balkind showed the form to two volunteers from the National Gay Blood Drive demonstration, the volunteers pulled out a red ink pad and stamped "Rejected" on his forearm.

The stamp was proof that Duer-Balkind had taken part in a nationwide demonstration to protest the FDA policy, which bans men who have sex with men from donating blood, since they are considered at a higher risk for having HIV.

"I think it's an absolutely ridiculous and antiquated policy," said Duer-Balkind, who had come to participate in the demonstration during a vacation in New York.

There were more than 50 demonstrations planned as part of the National Gay Blood Drive in various U.S. cities on Friday. The drive was planned to help draw attention to the number of potential blood donors who are automatically disqualified due to their sexual orientation. In addition to men who have sex with men, women are disqualified from giving blood if within the last 12 months they have had sex with a man who at any point since 1977 has sex with another man.

Rejected Blood Donor Wants to Sue For Discrimination

At designated blood donation centers across the country, participants in the National Gay Blood Drive were tested for HIV and if they tested negative, attempted to donate blood at a blood donation center. When they were rejected due to FDA regulations, they received a stamp and turned in their HIV testing results to be sent to the FDA.

The FDA's decades-long ban stared during the AIDS crisis and restricts any man, who has had sex with another man since 1977, from donating blood.

In recent years as HIV testing has improved the policy has come under fire for being discriminatory and outdated. In June the American Medical Association voted to oppose the ban.

The National Gay Blood Drive was organized by independent filmmaker Ryan James Yezak, 26, who was inspired to act after he was forced to explain to co-workers he could not donate blood because he was gay.

"There's a really alienating feeling," said Yezak, who is working on a documentary about discrimination based on sexual orientation. "That's the first time I felt direct anti-gay discrimination and once you feel that you can't ignore it."

Yezak said that 1,400 people have said they would attend different demonstrations. At one New York City location, there had been over 20 participants by noon.

The demonstration comes just days after the American Red Cross issued an emergency request for blood and platelet donations since June donations were down 10 percent.

Heat Deters Blood Donations

Yezak said the he hopes the FDA will craft a new blood donor policy that is based on behavior associated with high HIV risk rather than just sexual orientation. He also said one step could be adopting a policy similar to other countries, such as Canada or the United Kingdom, where men who have sex with men can donate blood if they abstain from sex for a certain period of time.

In 2010 an FDA Advisory Committee on Blood Safety found that the current ban on gay men as blood donors was "suboptimal" but voted to keep the policy pending further research. The U.S. Health and Human Services is performing additional studies to see what policy revisions should be undertaken.

According to the FDA, men who have sex with men made up 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2010. Although HIV testing is performed on all donated blood, there are rare cases where HIV is not detected because the infection too new. According to the FDA there is an HIV risk in 1 out of every 2 million units of donated blood.

After requesting a comment from the FDA regarding on the National Gay Blood Drive, an FDA spokesperson wrote that the "FDA's primary responsibility with regard to blood and blood products is to assure the safety of patients who receive these life-saving products… We applaud the critical contributions made by blood donors and we are sensitive to the concerns of potential donors and other individuals affected by current blood safety policies."

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