Dokken: We All Bleed The Same

The ban on gay blood donations must be eliminated.

by Natalie Dokken | 4/27/20 2:00am

It was in 1985, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, that the federal government enacted a law seeking to limit the threat of HIV in blood transfusions by prohibiting non-heterosexual men from donating blood. 

Thirty-five years later — when all blood donations, regardless of a donor’s sexual history, are screened for pathogens such as HIV — the ban still stands, although the rules have undergone recent revisions. In 2015, the lifetime ban was changed to a year-long ban from the last point of sexual encounter between two men. And this past month, in light of an “urgent need for blood” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration further reduced the ban to just three months. This loosening of the gay blood donation ban is a promising step, but it is not enough. The ban is antiquated and needs to be removed altogether.

The recent amendment to the rule was made in response to declining levels of blood donation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The law was revised as soon as more donations were needed, revealing that lawmakers themselves largely realize the ban, as it exists, isn’t based on real medical concern. If it were genuinely about public health, it wouldn’t be so vulnerable to shifts in demand. 

Concern for public health, however, has never been the impetus for the law. The true motivation has always been clear: unabashed homophobia.

The blood donation ban perpetuates the stereotype that gay men are vectors of disease. And the only way to dispel this interpretation is to eliminate the law. Of course, changing the law to allow for gay blood donations is not going to eliminate homophobia in the United States. However, it would represent an important step, forcing the government to use science — instead of antiquated stereotypes — to make effective health legislation that benefits everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. 

While some conservative commentators have argued that the recent modification to the law is representative of the Trump administration’s budding affection for the LGBTQ community, I would sooner accept the more straightforward rationale: that the need for blood during the COVID-19 pandemic outweighed the administration’s antipathy toward the LGBTQ community. In the past, the Trump administration has made numerous attacks on LGBTQ rights, including a ban on transgender military service in 2019 and a plan allowing adoption and foster care providers to turn away prospective LGBTQ parents. Moreover, Trump himself explained in a recent press conference that he was unaware that the blood donation ban had been changed at all.  

But regardless of intent, the government’s decision to lighten the ban shows just how unsupported a ban is in the first place. Keeping any form of ban allows prejudice to unnecessarily restrict the number of people eligible to donate blood during a critical time. 

While the recent change may marginally expand the number of eligible donors, it still needlessly prohibits healthy people who are willing to donate blood from doing so. Considering that only 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood and that only 10 percent of all Americans actually donate blood in a given year, we can’t afford to further restrict the supply. While eliminating the law entirely may not dramatically increase the number of donations, to reject donors based solely on fear is absurd. 

The ban on gay blood donations is, and always has been, about more than the act of donating blood. Within the act of defining a population’s blood as tainted or unworthy of donation simply based on stereotypes lies the implicit notion that our blood is not good enough to pump in another person’s veins. That notion is hurtful at best, and discriminatory at worst. And while the administration’s amendment to the ban is a move in the right direction, a ban for any length of time is wrong. After all, we all bleed the same.