Students protest ban on gay blood donors

By Aviva Luttrell

University of Massachusetts junior Tyler Pereira wants you to donate blood because he cannot.

Aviva Luttrell/ Collegian

On Sept. 12, Pereira and several other students stood outside the UMass Police Department’s annual 9/11 memorial blood drive in the Campus Center basement holding signs protesting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s policy of “deferring” gay men from donating blood.

The policy, which has been in place since 1983, states that any male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977, is ineligible to donate.

Armed with fact sheets, the demonstrators hoped to educate and inform curious passersby of the implications they say this policy carries.

“Right now, 38 percent of people are eligible to donate,” said Pereira. He added that less than 10 percent actually do.  Pereira argued that banning donations from the gay population is not only detrimental, but also discriminatory.

“I think [the ban] is saying that gay men are second-class citizens. We’re healthy, but we can’t help our fellow man,” said Pereira.

Todd Ellis, a UMass junior who was among the protesters, said the ban is a civil rights issue. “What if black people weren’t allowed to donate blood?” he asked. “It’s all about equality.”

America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross believe it’s time for a change. In 2006, they presented a joint statement to the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee stating their belief that “the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted” and recommending that the eligibility criteria “be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections.”

The AABB, American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers (ABC) have appealed to the FDA for a change in policy to alter the indefinite deferral for a male that has sex with another male to a 12-month deferral period.

The FDA, however, states on its website that “current scientific data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that, as a group, men who have sex with other men are at a higher risk for transmitting infectious diseases or HIV than are individuals in other risk categories,” and that the deferral policy “is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”

In the past, there was no reliable way to test for HIV in blood. Today, however, all donated blood must go through rigorous testing before it can be used in a hospital. The blood is subject to an immunoassay, which tests for HIV-related antibodies that appear 15 to 25 days after infection, as well an RNA test, which can detect HIV almost immediately after infection.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has also been pushing for change. In August, she sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services asking the agency to reevaluate their policy on blood donations from gay men. She said she was motivated to take action after receiving a letter from a man who was turned away from donating blood after the Boston Marathon bombing because of his sexual orientation.

UMass senior Dylan Tomalin, who was in line to donate blood, said that she wasn’t aware of the ban until today, but was not surprised that it exists.

“I think it implies that all gay men are HIV positive, which is obviously not true,” she said. “I can understand where the policy was coming from 30 years ago, but I think it’s really outdated. It implies that men having sex with men is a worse offense compared to having sex with prostitutes or using drugs with dirty needles.”

Freshman Jon Raber was among the passersby who took a fact sheet from the demonstrators. He said he knew about the ban and used to think it was justifiable because of concerns about HIV, but said his opinion changed after reading the information.

“It seems archaic and prejudicial,” he said.

Pereira organized the demonstration through a Facebook event, which he posted on the Facebook pages of the UMass Pride Alliance and the Stonewall Center to encourage others to join. He said he was expecting about 10 others to show up throughout the day.

Despite the protests, Pereira also encouraged others to come to the drive and donate blood.

“I’ve been advocating to all my heterosexual friends and I’ve been saying, ‘you have to come, bring as many friends and possible, please donate because I can’t’,” he said.

“It really makes me feel like I’m not a part of campus life, and society in general. It’s hard, but that’s why I’m here and that’s why I’m fighting for it.”

Aviva Luttrell can be reached at [email protected]