On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it will revise its unscientific, discriminatory 31-year-old ban on blood donation from men who have sex with men. Rather than banning such men for life, the FDA will now require that gay and bisexual men be celibate for a full year before donating blood. With this new rule, the FDA has ignored the recommendation of its own expert panel, which felt gay men couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth about their sexual practices. Instead, it has sided with the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability, which overwhelmingly supported the one-year deferral policy.
This is, no doubt, a step forward. But it’s a very small one. The one-year deferral policy is still rooted in an outdated, insulting vision of gay men as diseased, promiscuous lechers. A gay man in a decades-long monogamous relationship with his husband will be forbidden from donating blood. So, too, will any gay or bisexual man who consistently practices safe sex. Meanwhile, straight people who routinely have sex with multiple opposite-sex partners—whether or not they use condoms—face no deferral at all. A straight man can donate blood the morning after participating in an unprotected, anonymous orgy. A married gay man cannot donate blood at all.
Earlier this month, 80 congressional Democrats wrote a letter to Health and Human Services protesting the one-year deferral, noting (rightly) that it perpetuates a condescending and prejudiced vision of gay men. The HHS, these lawmakers wrote, should simply move to a “risk-based blood donation policy,” where each individual is evaluated based on his personal health practices. This suggestion makes eminent sense: It’s utterly illogical to forbid a monogamous gay man from donating while permitting promiscuous straight people to give as much blood as they want.
But as we’ve learned over the last 31 years, there’s very little reason behind the FDA’s gay-related policies. The American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers, the American Association of Blood Banks, and the American Medical Association have all moved on and now support scrapping the ban altogether. But the FDA remains trapped in the 1980s—terrified of gay men and their diseased, untrustworthy ways. Perhaps in another 31 years, we’ll see the FDA move to a sensible, nondiscriminatory rule. For now, we’re stuck with this embarrassing, unscientific half-measure.
Update, Dec. 23, 2014: It should be noted that the new policy, like the old one, also applies to heterosexual and bi trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth.