As one of the presidents of Blood Battle, each October I dread the date our first mass email goes out to the UMich student body. Blood Battle is a yearly competition between UMich and OSU which challenges each school to collect more blood donations in November, and our mass emails are crucial to get the word out about the competition. We often see a surge in donor sign-ups shortly after the emails go live. Unfortunately, we also see a surge of angry messages in our inbox from LGBTQIA+ students who are upset that the University of Michigan supports blood donation.
Part of the Blood Drives United Executive Board at the yearly ‘Be a Hero at the Big House’ drive on November 10, 2019 in Ann Arbor. The event set the record for the largest blood drive in Southeastern Michigan history. Photo courtesy of Blood Battles.
Their frustration stems from an FDA policy called the Men Who Have Sex With Men, or MSM, policy. This policy bans sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood for three months after having intercourse, and must be followed at all blood drives within the United States, including those by the Red Cross on the University of Michigan campus.
I understand my peers’ frustration. It doesn’t escape me that I myself am only eligible to donate blood because of the luck of my gender - one of the few privileges that being a woman has afforded me. But many queer students are poorly educated on the MSM policy, and their efforts at activism can be, at best, misguided, or, at worst, actively harmful. Being more aware of the details of the MSM policy will allow students to direct their attentions where they need to be: away from Red Cross staff and volunteers, and towards the people who actually have the power to eliminate the MSM policy.
So what are some relevant things that queer people might not know about the MSM policy?
MSM Policy Facts First, it is crucial to understand that the MSM policy belongs to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not any individual blood donation organization. Only the FDA can alter, remove, or reduce the policy restrictions. These changes are not unprecedented. In 2015, the FDA shortened what was then a lifelong ban on blood donation for queer men to a year-long deferral. And just this year, following blood shortages resulting from COVID-19, the FDA further amended the policy to only affect those gay men who have had sex in the last three months.
This ban was first enacted in 1983, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, as an emergency measure to prevent contamination of the nation’s blood supply. For many years, it was an essential step to prevent the spread of disease, as blood banks lacked tests that could accurately identify HIV+ blood. Even as our understanding of HIV improved and the first tests for its presence were developed, the ban remained in place as a precautionary measure, as HIV+ rates among gay men is much higher than that of the general population.
Of course, the Red Cross and other blood donation organizations test all blood donations for common diseases like HIV. But as one of my fellow Blood Battle presidents, Jess Bach, a nursing student at UMich, explained to me, these tests aren’t necessarily comprehensive.
“HIV begins with an ‘acute’ period where one feels flu-like symptoms, easily misunderstood as the common cold or flu virus,” Jess explained. “Then the individual goes into a lengthy ‘latent’ period where they will not have symptoms of HIV or AIDS for years. Because of this, it is difficult for individuals who have contracted the virus and don’t get routine screenings to determine if they have the conditions at all until years later. Even if an individual does get tested for HIV, it can take months for our current diagnostic tools to recognize that a person even has the virus even if they do.”
Further, all tests for diseases, including those for HIV, can have false negatives. Though this is rare, the FDA restricts blood donations from high-risk patients to minimize the risk of inadvertently contaminating the blood pool. This isn’t just for HIV; among the Red Cross’s most widespread restrictions are those concerning travel, to prevent the spread of tropical diseases like malaria.
What Does This All Mean? This doesn’t justify the MSM policy. There’s an approximately one in three million chance of a false negative HIV test of the types run by blood banks; this means that the rates of inadvertent HIV transmission would only be marginally affected by allowing gay men to donate. Indeed, the FDA’s move to relax MSM restrictions at times of great need, such as during the coronavirus pandemic, shows that they understand the risk is minimal. Meanwhile, restricting donation on the basis of sexual activity is discriminatory, and reinforces the stereotype of gay men as ‘dangerous’ to others, seeking to destabilize or damage society. Changes to the MSM policy certainly should be made.
However, good activist work doesn’t and shouldn’t include harassing Red Cross staff for policies they can’t control. As Jess said, “Our organization [Blood Drives United] and the American Red Cross are not inhibiting LGBT+ students from donating out of hate but simply because we are federally required to do so.” Boycotting blood drives is similarly inadvisable. The United States already faces a severe blood shortage, one especially heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, and while a boycott may enact change quickly, it would come at the cost of thousands of lives.
Instead, pressure should be exerted on the FDA and the congressmen and women who interface with the FDA. Keeping the issue visible and educating others is an important step to pressure the FDA to act. While trying to get attention from such a large government organization can be discouraging, the loosening of restrictions in both 2015 and 2020 indicates that the FDA is open to change.
Blood drive organizations can also do their part to raise awareness, including Blood Drives United. As Jess said, “In 2014, Blood Drives United held a drive they coined ‘Bleeding for Equality’ which hoped to raise awareness of the MSM policy and empower those who cannot donate because of it. In this drive, those ineligible to donate because of the MSM policy were able to come to the blood drive with an ally who would donate in their place.”
Unfortunately, due to lack of demand from LGBT+ student groups on campus, the event has yet to be repeated. However, demand for and involvement in these events can further move towards eliminating the MSM policy, while still contributing to the lifesaving efforts of blood donation.
Policies like the MSM policy are definitely frustrating, an artifact of outdated legislation that legitimizes discrimination. However, if we want to change these rules, misdirected anger won’t be enough. Education on the relevant issues and exerting pressure on the culpable forces is what will ultimately enable us to eliminate the MSM policy and put discriminatory laws behind us.