As need for blood donations increase, LGBTQ community faces hurdles

Published: Apr. 7, 2020 at 5:11 AM EDT
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The American Red Cross says it's finally catching up on blood donations because of the coronavirus pandemic, but those in the LGBT community say there are still hurdles for them to help out.

Representatives say the fight to maintain that stock is a challenging and indefinite one. On a daily basis, the Red Cross has to collect 13,000 donations minimum to help all hospitals. But sponsors canceled 14,000 blood drives over the past four weeks, leaving the Red Cross 400,000 donations short.

"It is a shortage that's unprecedented is really the only thing I can tell you," said the organization's Mary Brant. "I certainly have never seen it in my experience nor has anyone else that I know of at the Red Cross."

Now, the nonprofit is bouncing back. But leaders say they're still struggling to set up new drives, even as U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams declared donations an essential service last month.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, men who have sex with men could only donate blood if they'd been abstinent for a year. In March, Adams eased that restriction to three months, meaning otherwise healthy, young men must wait 90 days after sexual activity to volunteer for the service.

"The most common statement that we hear in regards to blood donation is, 'I would if I could.' But folks know based on the restrictions currently, that option isn't available to them," said Taylor Small, the director of Health and Wellness Program for the Pride Center of Vermont.

Small says the new change is only a small step in the right direction.

"In in the grand scheme of things, it is still a discriminatory policy against folks in the LGBTQ community and more specifically gay and bi guys," said Small.

Small argues it's discriminatory because the policy targets one group of individuals who already face incessant stigma.

"When we are putting this expectation on gay and bi men, we're saying that is the only demographic that can be living with HIV, when we know HIV is not an identity-specific virus. It can infect just about anyone based on risk patterns," said Small.

Restrictions based on risk patterns date back to 1983. That year was the height of the AIDS crisis, when the government banned blood donations by any man who had ever had sex with another man.

That rule was reduced to a year of abstinence in 2015. Now, amid the pandemic, it's 90 days.

But Small says even if gay and bisexual men donate as soon as the three-month period ends, they can't help relieve the current shortage. She says rather than a small step, the government should be taking a large leap and break down all barriers for LGBTQ folks.

"If a portion of our group isn't able to donate blood, then why should we as an LGBTQ community be donating blood?" asked Small.

The American Red Cross declined to comment on the new FDA guidelines.

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