The news of a rule change allowing gay and bisexual men in the US to donate blood has been well-received by the LGBTQ+ community, but for one man, the change is particularly significant. Tom King is a campus recruiter for the UCLA Blood & Platelet Center whose job is to encourage students and staff to sign up as blood and platelet donors. Naturally, he has always wanted to be a donor himself, but as an openly gay man in a relationship, he was barred from doing so.
Proposed new rules would require blood banks to screen donors based on individual risk.
“The day of the announcement my phone was going nonstop,” King tells LGBTQ Nation. “Friends were texting and calling because they were so excited for me.”
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The FDA banned all men who had sex with men (MSM) and women who had sex with MSM from donating blood in 1983 due to the AIDS epidemic. MSM were considered at higher risk of transmitting HIV to a recipient.
King says the blanket approach of those rules has been “frustrating.”
In 2015 the FDA modified the ban, allowing MSM to donate if they had abstained from sex for a year. During the pandemic, a shortage of blood donors led to that time frame being reduced to three months of abstinence. Just last month, the FDA finally made a major change to the recommendations, ending the decades-long discrimination faced by gay and bisexual men who wish to donate blood. Now, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, all donors are screened based on sexual behavior. People who have had more than one partner in the last three months will be asked to wait to donate blood.
King, who has been in a monogamous relationship for fifteen years, was able to make his first donation when the pandemic forced him to live apart from his partner. He described the experience as “emotional” and is looking forward to donating every 56 days once the necessary procedural and computer changes are in place later this year.
The gay and bisexual students King works with are also delighted they can donate if they meet the criteria.
“They’ve wanted to be involved for a long time. We ran a letter-writing campaign as part of a blood donor drive a few years back and a gay student wrote a letter before coming up to me and saying, ‘thank you for allowing me to have a part.’ Now I know people who are choosing to abstain for three months so they can donate.”
However, the staff at the Blood and Platelet Center are expecting an uptick in donations from all demographics, not just MSM.
“Students care about each other,” says King. He explained that before the FDA guidelines changed, some students chose not to donate on principle. “They saw it as a justice issue and wouldn’t donate until their gay and bisexual peers had the same rights. This change will increase the number of donors, not just members of the [LGBTQ+] community, but everyone.”
King hopes those students who fought against discrimination will continue to stand up for equal rights.
“With over 500 anti-LGBT bills introduced this year, we must keep going. We need to move straight on to the next issue.”