All Blake Lynch wanted to do was help his friend. But he was quickly denied the opportunity, just because he's gay.
When Lynch, a nursing student, learned his classmate Emmy Derisbrun needed regular blood transfusions to battle sickle cell anemia, he knew there was one simple way he could help—donate blood directly to her.
"When I heard about her sickle cell I started looking up places to donate," Lynch said. He completed a 54-question screening application and was surprised when the nurse asked him if he was sure about one of his answers—the one asking about sexual encounters with other men.
"When I went to donate, they actually turned me away," Lynch said.
The experience motivated Lynch to battle the Food and Drug Administration's ban on gay men donating blood, which has been in place since 1983. That ban, along with a ban on donations by those who have received a tattoo within a year of the donation date, was imposed in response to the AIDS epidemic.
Lynch started the non-profit Banned4Life, a movement to remove the ban on blood donations by MSM (Men who have Sex with Men). The ban on gay male donors is antiquated, Lynch said, and blood shortages are so low that the ban causes more harm than good. It prevents others from donating as well.
"Banned4Life is not only about encouraging the FDA to revise the blood donation policy on gay men," said Derisbrun. “We want to encourage those who are healthy and able to donate blood.”
Lynch, 21, believes that blood donation is an issue for his generation. A 2006 study by the Red Cross, which supports removing the FDA-imposed ban, showed that only 38% of the nation is eligible to give blood, yet 5 million people require transfusions each year.
“Especially after the Boston tragedy, there is such an extreme shortage of blood, we need all the help we can get,” said Lynch.
In 1983 there were no adequate tests to detect whether HIV was present in donated blood, and HIV found its way into the nation's blood supply. Hemophiliacs receiving blood transfusions showed symptoms of AIDS. What scientists also knew was that a disproportionate number of gay men were affected by the virus.
To eliminate risk, the FDA added a screening question to the federal guidelines. Blood banks were instructed to ask male donors if they had had sex with a man, even once, since 1977. The FDA regards 1977 as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. If the potential donor responded "yes," he would automatically be removed from the donor pool for life.
The United Kingdom had a similar ban, until 2011. It's newer guidelines on donation consider sexual behavior, rather than sexual orientation.
The decision followed a review of the ban by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) which studied the latest details on relevant sexual contact in relation to the safety of donating blood. The committee looked at the risk of infection being transmitted in blood as well as improvements in testing donated blood for diseases before reaching their conclusion to change the guidelines.
Though changes to the FDA's policies have been stalled in the past, the movement is gathering momentum. Banned4Life has already gathered 2,600 signatures, with a goal of 100,000 signatures for the petition to give people of any sexual orientation the right to donate blood.
"We've already been in touch with major universities throughout the nation, and they're on board with Banned4Life," Lynch said.
On Saturday, May 18, the club DRIP in Orlando will host a benefit for Banned4Life. The bar will donate $10 of every ticket sold to the organization, and admission includes red body paint and access to red beer.
Banned4Life isn't the first organization to plead with the FDA to remove the ban. Since 2005, The American Blood Centers has petitioned for a change to the policy, event taking the issue to Washington, D.C. With no response from elected officials, however, the movement has stalled on a national level.
Pat Michaels, spokesperson for One Blood, which was formed after Florida Blood Service and Community Blood Center merged, said organizations don't have a choice in the matter, when it comes to turning away healthy, gay male blood donors.
"The FDA set the guidelines and we just have to follow," Michaels explained.
In June 2012, a group of 64 U.S. legislators led by Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, and John Kerry of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services encouraging it to study the ban, in hopes of ending it.
"We remain concerned that a blanket deferral of MSM for any length of time both perpetuates the unwarranted discrimination against the bisexual and gay community and prevents healthy men from donating blood without a definitive finding of added benefit to the safety of the blood supply," the letter said.
The letter was in direct response to a massive blackout in the Midwest and East, which limited blood donations in those areas.
In a 2012 interview with CNN, Quigley said the ban didn't make sense.
"This is a matter of life and death and we are turning away over 50,000 healthy men who want to donate blood," Quigley said. "A straight person who has unsafe sex with multiple partners can give blood, and that creates a greater risk than a gay person in a monogamous relationship."
Trumpeting social media
A lot has changed socially and technologically since the FDA issued the ban on gay donors in the 1980s. AIDS and HIV are more understood, testing is more accurate and safe-sex practices are more common.
Those wanting to lift the ban also have the benefit of social media to spread their message.
"We want to spread awareness," Lynch said. "We're trying to be more proactive and positive. We're trying to make blood donating fun. We want to get everybody involved in the cause for all of society to go out there and donate."
Lynch also has strength in numbers. He said that 100 of his classmates now have black Banned4Life T-shirts fitted with a red X over the heart in support of the movement. The shirts are available to purchase and help fund the movement to repeal the ban on gay blood donors.
For more information or to sign the petition, visit Banned4Life.org.
From our media partner WatermarkShannon Scheidell, Watermark