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Fear, Blood, And Homophobia In Las Vegas

A vigil in Las Vegas
A vigil in Las Vegas

Many gay and bisexual men who want to donate blood in Las Vegas can't, due to anachronistic government policies.

The call went out early on Monday morning that Las Vegas hospitals needed blood and platelet donations to meet the demands of treating the nearly 500 injured in what was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

For some in the LGBT community, the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival brought back memories of the prior mass shooting to hold that title: the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub in 2016. Now, as then, not everyone who wants to help by donating blood is able to — thanks to policies of the American Red Cross and the US Food & Drug Administration prohibiting gay and bisexual men from giving blood.

Though not prominent on the site (in fact, it's buried on a page called "Additional Eligibility Requirements" under a subheading called "Lifestyle and Life Events"), the Red Cross explicitly bans men who have had sex with men in the last year from donating blood in a policy called a "one-year deferral."

However, it invites those men who are interested to donate money instead.
While it's a regulation gay men are assumed to be familiar with, most heterosexual Americans — including some medical professionals — have likely never heard of this rule. If they are aware of the ban, they might be under the impression that it was lifted in 2015 when the Red Cross, under the FDA's advisement, revised its position of a "lifetime deferral" to begin allowing donations from MSMs as long as they have been celibate for 12 months.

Given that HIV can be detected three months after contraction, if not sooner, there is no medical basis for a year-long sex-free waiting period. Furthermore, the Red Cross itself says it tests all donor blood for contaminants and diseases, including HIV. It even notifies donors if their blood tests positive. 

The policy also makes no allowances for men who are monogamous or married, instead expecting that men who are sexually active with other men are promiscuous, or at the very least, incapable of making responsible decisions about their own bodies and health.

Meanwhile, heterosexual men are presumed to be safe and responsible, despite widely-known scientific evidence showing they are also capable of contracting HIV through unsafe sexual contact.
Information about HIV from the Red Cross gets even more draconian from there: The Red Cross advises that "a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977" is to be considered at-risk for contracting HIV.

The Red Cross makes no accommodation for the fact that people of all genders can contract the virus through sexual activity with any other gender, nor is there any acknowledgement of safer sexual contact for people in high risk groups with the use of prophylaxis (PrEP). While these caricatures of HIV as a deadly gay cancer might have been excusable in the 1980s, we have known for decades that this is a disease impacting people of all sexual orientations and genders, and that the risk of contracting it is manageable.

These commonly accepted facts about HIV come from extensive medical and social science research, yet The Red Cross refuses to recognize them. Instead, it enforces an outdated policy rooted in homophobia that perpetuates baseless stigmas. 
This restriction is inscrutable, and no accident it's not widely publicized. Throughout modern history, intersections of medical science and public policy have been corrupted by personal opinions on social behavior. Those who have lived through the AIDS crisis know this all too well.

While it's possible the medical and political leaders of both The Red Cross and the FDA meant to first do no harm in banning gay and bisexual men from being blood donors, the reality is that they have systematically prevented healthy and willing Americans from helping other Americans in times of need. 
As volunteers lined up en masse around Clark County on Monday, donation centers were so busy they were booking appointments for the end of the week. It was evidence that Nevadans, like all Americans, want to help their neighbors and strangers alike, and rise to the occasion when asked.

It is optimistic to think this will be the last mass shooting in our country and hardly cynical to say there will be another one. While there are many valid reasons to feel helpless in the face of tragedies on this scale, we can't allow misinformation and ignorant biases to render LGBT Americans helpless when it comes to giving blood. It's past time to lift the ban on donations from sexually active gay and bisexual men, bringing us fully into the light of our society and empowering us all to give more than just money to our fellow citizens.

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Zel McCarthy