In the days since Omar Mateen burst into an Orlando club and shot more than 100 people, most of them gay men, pledges to help the gay community have poured in from around the world.
And then there’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is being anything but helpful.
In the hours after the shooting, as thousands of people were rushing to Central Florida blood banks to help the victims, the FDA doubled down on a little-known policy that prohibits some gay and bisexual men from donating blood.
It used to be that all gay and bisexual men were banned. Now it’s only those who have had sex with another man within the last year. It doesn’t matter if that sexual activity was within a marriage or a monogamous relationship. They can’t donate blood.
In Orlando, that means the men most affected by the shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history, have been unable to help their husbands, boyfriends and friends, while straight donors who may have had 10 sexual partners in the past year and have no idea if they’ve been exposed to HIV have been free to donate blood.
The reasons why are flimsy at best and discriminatory at worst. The FDA says it’s to prevent the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Sexually active gay and bisexual men are most likely to have HIV, the agency argues, and so must be eliminated from the pool of blood donors.
But that’s a circular argument that is full of wrong-headed assumptions and outdated thinking.
To have such a policy at all assumes that every male donor is honest about his sexual history when he donates blood. In reality, it’s more like trust but verify at blood banks. All donated blood is tested for infectious disease markers, including HIV.
The FDA also, inexplicably, is leaning on an old way of thinking about HIV. One from the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when most people thought AIDS was a “gay disease.” We now know that’s not true. HIV can be transmitted between heterosexual partners as well as IV drug users.
Any American who donates blood already gets asked: “In the past 12 months, have you had sexual contact with anyone who has HIV/AIDS or has had a positive test for the HIV/AIDS virus?”
There’s no need to also ask men: “Have you had had sexual contact with another male in the past 12 months?” And ask women: “Have you had had sexual contact with a male who had sexual contact with another male in the past 12 months?” That’s beside the point.
It’s time for the FDA to stop unfairly singling out an entire demographic for no good reason. If we take anything from the tragedy in Orlando, it should be that.