After the terrorist attack at Orlando, Fla.’s Pulse nightclub Sunday morning, media outlets encouraged those living in Florida to donate blood. But when federal policy prohibits this from happening, then no matter how much we can rightfully blame Omar Mateen for these heinous acts of violence, we can also place some blame on institutions like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
For more than 30 years now, sexually active gay and bisexual men, men who have sex with men (MSM), and trans women have been prevented from donating blood. In its guidance, the FDA specifically notes that the “FDA has recommended that blood establishments indefinitely defer male donors who have had sex with another male, even one time, since 1977.” Despite all blood being tested—even in the face of science and the advent of technology—blood from MSM is automatically perceived as damaged and not worthy of saving a life. Even the lives of those killed and injured this past weekend.
These regulations were put in place in 1983 in the wake of new HIV/AIDS cases and the related panic that far too many experienced. So while hardly anyone tests positive for HIV because of blood transfusions, and all blood is tested, we now (legally) have 30 years of discrimination on the books because of fear and outdated evidence.
Considering that it is now 2016, let’s think about the number of lives lost because of the negative presumption about blood based solely on sexuality and not rooted in science.
In December 2015, the FDA proposed a new policy for those donating blood: Gay and bisexual men and MSM could donate blood, but only if they had not engaged in sex with another man for the past 12 months. The new policy isn’t a step in the right direction, and the caveat only moves the needle from “absolute restriction” to “absolute restriction, with a twist.” According to reports on social media, OneBlood, a local blood center in Orlando, temporarily lifted the ban on sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood to help Pulse survivors. This quickly turned out to be untrue, but the systemic homophobia that frames “gay” blood as dangerous is a truth that refuses to die.
It’s hard to realize that I live in a world that may not want me to exist because of my sexuality. This is particularly true because queer and trans clubs have become a safe haven for black queer men like me. Black queer men who don’t want to feel like a target of homophobia and misogyny’s violence daily. Establishments where LGBT people can be centered and won’t have to burden ourselves with whether we will become the latest zoo exhibit.
But it’s even harder to understand that because of outdated laws and policies, if another national tragedy struck like the one early Sunday morning, many of my LGBT family couldn’t save my life even if they wanted to do so. To see people being killed for expressing who they are, at a place designed for these horrific events not to occur, is cruel and inhumane. But to not be able to do anything about it is unbearable.
I imagine that they danced freely to Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied” that night. I can close my eyes and picture their excitement as they collided and grinded to the beat that pulsated around and through them.
I envision the sweat on their foreheads as they asked the bartender for yet another drink. I can picture them anxiously checking their watches to ensure they had enough time for one more dance, one more chance to talk to that special someone.
This imagery is so vivid because it reflects a typical Saturday night for me in Washington, D.C.—a night of love, not of fear. But what happens when the same love that gives me life isn’t authorized to save a life?
What happens when love isn’t enough to win?
It is critical that we encourage people to push the FDA to overturn this ban if LGBT lives, including black and Latino LGBT lives, mean anything to this country. We cannot wait for another tragedy to realize just how important having more access to blood donations is.
And when we continue perpetuating stigma around HIV and sexually active gay and bisexual people, especially around times of tragedy, then we may as well have all pulled the trigger ourselves.