Greater NW Pride: Giving Blood, Plasma, and Discrimination Against Gay Men in COVID-19 Pandemic


Giving Blood, Plasma, and Discrimination Against Gay Men in COVID 19 Pandemic

Last week’s blog covered discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in health services. One person wrote back the same day I posted the blog, asking,  “How are LGBTQ+ people being discriminated against in terms of health services?”
Here’s how gay men in particular are currently discriminated against by health services in the US: your Red Cross bloodmobiles and blood drives, many of which are sponsored by your friendly neighborhood churches, UMC included.
Just an alert before you read further in this blog. I’m going to use a trigger word for some people in churches, and just want the reader to be aware. OK? 
OK! You were warned.
Here’s the word: sex.
Why did I have to use that trigger word? Because those of us who are gay men who have sex with another man cannot give blood or plasma for over three months after we’ve had sex. And this is a newly revised time-line. It used to be one year. And before that, it was, well, forever.
I can’t tell you how many United Methodist Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations, and other churches (ELCA, UCC, Episcopal, Catholic), have annual Red Cross blood drives. Many of my friends and colleagues in ministry—non-LGBTQ+ and others who self-identify as lesbians and even bi- and pansexuals—boast (rightly so) on FaceBook and Instagram of how many pints and gallons they have given. I just sigh when I read of such boasting, knowing, if I am honest, I can’t give blood because I have had sex with my partner, who is a man.
According to a recent edition of the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC), the Federal Drug Administration, and the Red Cross, imposed this restriction in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, in which we gay men could not give blood. Period. From 1983 (or 1985 depending on who you are reading)-December 2015 there was a lifetime ban against donating blood, even if there had been one sexual encounter. This ban was changed to one year in December 2015 for one year if we had had sex with another man. The underlying message was that gay men engaged in more risky sexual behavior than men who are straight or bisexual. 
Fact: straight/non-LGBTQ+ people, lesbians, bisexuals, and pansexuals, and transgender and cisgender people can become HIV positive from sex.
Fact: being gay or bisexual is not a risk factor for being HIV positive. If a straight or non-LGBTQ+ had had sex with one hundred women and did not use protection, those men can participate in a church’s Red Cross blood drive…and do. However, if a gay man had sex with his husband or partner and wore protection once, he can’t give blood for three months.
Fact: unclean needles can still be a way of becoming HIV positive among LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ people. 
Fact: all donated blood products are tested for HIV and other pathogens, such as hepatitis C virus. 
Fact: I used to give blood all the time when I was in college, seminary, and when married to a woman. I’ve not given blood for over decades. And I am O negative, which is a universal blood type. 
The reason for the most recent drop from 1 year to 3 months among gay men is because the Red Cross showed a drop-off of 86,000 fewer blood donations across the US in March 2020, due to the 2700 blood drives that had to be cancelled.
And by “blood by-products” of gay men being prohibited, this also means plasma, which could be helpful in fighting the coronavirus with COVID-19 antibodies. Again: those of us who are gay men who have had sex in the last three months with another man cannot give our plasma, which might have the COVID-19 antibodies and be helpful in this fight with COVID-19.
The plasma of people who have had COVID-19 is helpful in either stop the virus from causing death in some people or speeding up the healing process for some of those people who are dealing with COVID-19. It is called convalescent plasma treatment. And we men who are gay cannot give our plasma if we were infected with COVID 19 and are now healthy if we have had sex in three months when we are trying to give our plasma.
On The Daily Show (5/4/2020) two young gay men with COVID-19 antibodies who tried to donate their blood plasma to fight the virus were told that they couldn't give their blood or plasma. The interviewer said that they should try to give anyway, trying to pass as “straight” or non-LGBTQ+. Said the interviewer Jaboukie Young-White, “If you want them to take your blood, you just can’t reveal that you’re gay. You have to pass as a straight guy… Your look should kind of say, ‘I’m looking for a girlfriend to shop for me because I can’t shop for myself.’ Also, do you have any clothes that your mom bought you? Plaid? Any plaid? More plaid? How ‘bout any boot cut jeans?  Do you have shoes that look like they’re too casual for formal events, and then too formal for casual events?”
And yes, I’ve been told by many non-LGBTQ+ friends in the church who give blood to just lie to the person asking the questions at the Red Cross desk. “Just tell them you’re straight. You look straight anyway and act straight.” Don’t get me going there. 
In the end, as one of the young gay men on The Daily Show said, we need science, not stigma, to determine who can give blood in a blood drive. But for now, the only way we gay men can give blood is only if we abstain from sex—protected or unprotected—for three months.
And what does all this have to do with the Church? 
Again, speaking to a largely United Methodist Church audience, and to repeat the UMC baptismal vow, (to paraphrase) resisting evil, injustice, and oppression anywhere it rises up, consider the following: the purposeful blocking of gay men from giving blood—especially in the middle of a pandemic—is based on a socially-constructed stigma of gay men and promiscuous sex. This dated caricature itself is evil and unjust, and used widely as part of the oppression of gay men by the non-LGBTQ+ population in our world today. 
How can the church address and change this evil and unjust practice? Imagine if no churches allowed anymore Red Cross bloodmobiles in church parking lots to occur until this ban was lifted. Imagine if no more church folks gave blood to Red Cross blood drives until this ban was lifted.  After all, and again, this ban is based on stigma, not science.
Maybe part of the “new normal” once the pandemic has lifted is the Church united tells the Red Cross and the FDA to lift this antiquated stigma and ban in favor of science, and let gay men participate in a blood drive. Instead of giving blood, write and call the FDA and Red Cross and tell them to stop this arcane, stigma-driven practice, and choose science. And remind them, until there is a change, there will be no more blood drives and no more use of parking lots of rural, suburban and urban churches. 
Given the way law of “supply and demand” work, if the Church were to rise in one voice, along with other faith communities, I bet there will be a quick change in the FDA and Red Cross policy. After all, it took them from 2015 to 2020 to move to a 1-year ban. And they just lowered the wait time from 1 year to 3 months in the last few weeks. It is time, now, right now, to go all the way and remove the ban on blood from gay men.
See how discrimination works against gay men in health services? 
Finally, I whole-heartedly support UMC non-LGBTQ+ folks wanting to see us LGBTQ+ people free to be married and ordained in the church. However, this is just the beginning for fighting for other rights in terms of health care, housing, and job security for LGBTQ+ people. Welcome to all the other justice issues that await your efforts as well when it comes to LGBTQ+ equality and human rights in the Church in particular, and the world in general.

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!