By the time the FDA banned gay men from giving blood in 1983, James Virgilio had already donated three pints of it, even though he was still a teenager. The Houstonian remembers the gay community’s bitter frustration with the FDA’s policy, which imposed a lifetime ban on blood donations by men who had engaged in homosexual activity since 1977.
“Having become an adult at the age of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it was automatically a fact of life,” said Virgilio, who is now a sign language interpreter. “I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I understood it.”
AIDS is still with us—more than 27,000 Houstonians live with the virus today—but the rate of infection has slowed dramatically. With that in mind, the FDA announced last December that it would once again allow gay men to give blood.
“Multiple blood centers have been advocating for this because many feel that [the FDA ban] is unfair.” said Dr. Susan Rossmann, the chief medical officer of the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center.
LGBT activists have long decried the ban as stigmatizing and unfair (after all, heterosexuals get AIDS too, as do drug addicts and others). And yet they did not applaud this apparent evolution in the FDA’s thinking. Why? Under the new policy, only gay men who have abstained from sex for at least a year will be allowed to give blood.
“It’s a compromise that doesn’t really do anything for either party,” said Ben Shallenberger. A Houstonian and multimedia manager, the 28-year-old vividly remembers the year 2011, when he was battling leukemia and was himself in desperate need of blood. In Washington, DC, where Shallenberger lived at the time, doctors at his hospital told him that there was a severe shortage of it, and that any available blood had been earmarked for the emergency room. The young man had numerous friends willing to donate blood, but they were gay, so their donations were rejected.
Though thankful to be a cancer survivor today, Shallenberger remains pained by the feelings of helplessness that his friends experienced and frustrated by the FDA’s baby steps. Tests now widely in use can diagnose an HIV infection as early as nine days after exposure, not 12 months.
“For the rare gay man that hasn’t had sex within the past year, it’s an option. But there is still a level of discrimination and inequality....There’s still no reason why our blood is any more dangerous.”
Kelly Young, CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston, agrees. “Lifting the ban will not cause a public health danger regarding donating or receiving blood products,” she said. "But it will have a tremendous impact on addressing stigma" and encourage more “open and honest discussions about risk behaviors and prevention efforts.”
“The FDA’s main concern is maintaining the absolute safety of the blood supply,” said Rossmann, who believes the new policy represents a significant step forward. “This is extremely important, because this makes this particular group equivalent to many other high-risk groups that have a one-year ban.”
“We are taking steps in the right direction,” acknowledged Shallenberger. “With proper education and more public knowledge comes progression.”
“I feel that the change is evolutionary rather than revolutionary….There is progress,” agreed James Virgilio, who is now married and the father of a son, two things that would have been unthinkable in 1983.