For years, men who have sex with men have protested against FDA guidelines preventing them from donating blood, arguing that the policy is discriminatory. In the midst of a blood shortage brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the FDA has issued a reversal of the policy — sort of.
On Thursday, the FDA issued revised guidelines recommending that queer men abstain from sex for three months prior to giving blood, as opposed to the yearlong ban that had previously been in effect. This deferral also applies to sex workers, former drug users, and people who have recently gotten tattoos and piercings, who had also previously been asked to wait a year before giving blood.
“These policies should be governed by science not stigma,” Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Lambda Legal is pleased with the further refinement of this discriminatory policy—but it’s still discriminatory. We look forward to further changes in the months ahead.”
The United States is currently undergoing a grave blood shortage, thanks in large part to social-distancing measures discouraging people from traveling to centers to give blood. Last month, the American Red Cross announced that nearly 2,700 blood drives had been canceled in the wake of the pandemic.
The blood and plasma shortages are particularly concerning in light of the need for plasma donated from COVID-19 survivors. This is required for plasma-derived therapy, a procedure in which doctors test the plasma of those who have recovered from the virus for antibodies, which can then be injected into sick patients.
In the context of this shortage, many policy makers and LGBTQ activists had vocally protested the FDA guidelines, arguing that they are a vestige of the panic over the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s and that such policies prevent patients from receiving lifesaving treatments. “I have numerous gay male colleagues who have contracted #COVID19 and are now recovered,” Dara Kass, an emergency room physician in New York City, tweeted. “It is criminal not to let them donate blood and plasma to patients who are dying.”
Revising FDA guidelines is welcome news to some LGBTQ activists, but many feel it does not go far enough under the current dire circumstances. “This victory … remains imperfect,” a GLAAD petition that has garnered more than 24,000 signatures reads. “We’ll keep pushing for the ban to be lifted entirely.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the guidelines are for all men who have sex with men, not just gay men.