How GMHC and FCB Health are taking on the blood-donation ban for gay men

A year after the Pulse nightclub shooting brought the issue back into the spotlight, nonprofit GMHC is urging an end to restrictions on gay, bisexual, and transgender men donating blood.

NEW YORK: More than one year after the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Blood Equality are fighting to end the blood-donation ban for gay and bisexual men and transgender people.

The organizations worked with FCB Health to launch a social media campaign featuring art exhibitions to educate the general public about the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood and to urge the Food and Drug Administration to revise its policy.

"The importance of this campaign is to make people understand this is a discriminatory practice by definition," said GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie. "We’re trying to raise awareness about discriminatory practices because we know that shame, stigma, and discrimination can have all sorts of negative effects on health and self-esteem."

The campaign is based on New York artist Jordan Eagles’ exhibit "Blood Mirror," which was created using the blood of gay, bisexual, and transgender men. The campaign urges people to add a "blood selfie"—based on Eagles’ work—to their social media photos and use the hashtag #BloodEquality to show support.

"The initial idea came from [Eagles], who tried to give blood not knowing there was a blood ban for gay or bisexual men," said Eric Sawyer, VP of public affairs and policy at GMHC. "He began promoting this artwork that he created to draw attention to the policy, then FCB Health and GMHC got involved."

GMHC created a video and website based on "Blood Mirror" that explain the ban and how the group claims it is discriminatory toward gay, bisexual, and transgender men. The campaign has also hosted panels where Eagles’ work is displayed and placed op-eds urging an end to the policy. BerlinRosen is conducting media relations work for the campaign.

"The primary focus of the campaign was to target the general public to put pressure on a significant person at the FDA who is in control of and can revise the policy," Sawyer said. "We want to get the policy changed based on scientific advancements, not stigma."

The debate over the blood-donation ban again came to light last June, following the Pulse nightclub shooting, when members of the Orlando, Florida, LGBT community learned they could not give blood due to the ban.

Gay and bisexual men are barred from donating blood unless they have been celibate for one year, a measure that dates back to the lifetime blood-donation ban for gay men stemming from the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The policy was amended in December 2015 to require one year of celibacy for gay, bisexual, transgender men before they could give blood.

GMHC put together a medical advisory board early last year to address the policy and invited Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, who oversees the policy, to participate. The group has argued that advancements in blood tests for HIV and other diseases, which are performed on all donated blood, make the policy discriminatory against this group.

"There is some hope," Louie said. "The medical advisory board has argued the case that the current policy is discriminatory, arbitrary, and scientifically unwarranted. We had a very good discussion around the science behind the proposed change."

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