Restrictions could be lifted to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood

CHARLOTTE — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking at big changes that could allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood without a waiting period.

For many years, gay and bisexual men weren’t able to donate blood at all. That changed in the mid-2010s when the FDA said that men could donate blood if it had been more than a year after they last had sex with another man. Now, the FDA is weighing another change that could expand access to blood donation for many people.

The reason for the change? That’s because every single unit of blood that’s donated in the United State is tested for HIV. The FDA says thanks to testing technology, nobody has gotten the virus through a blood transfusion in decades.

For those like Barry Pettinato, they remember the days they were able to donate blood just as vividly as the day they could no longer be donors.

“I knew it was an easy, kind thing to do. You could easily just spend 20 minutes donating blood and it would be helpful,” said Pettinato.

That changed in the late 1970s and 1980s with the AIDS epidemic. Many men were villainized and stigmatized because, at the time, gay men had higher rates of infection with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS.

The FDA feared the virus could taint the national blood supply and in 1985, the agency implemented a lifetime blood donation ban for all gay and bisexual men.

In recent years, the ban received more scrutiny from researchers.

“They were painting with a very broad brush. It was just kind of like the hammer dropped ... just generally gay people can’t donate blood under any circumstances,” said Liz Schob, a staffer with Charlotte Pride who also holds a master’s degree in public health. “There was a lot of disinformation.”

Schob says the FDA’s ban was based on fear, not science or high-risk behaviors.

“The fear was that AIDS and HIV were a gay disease, which we know isn’t true, but at the time, that was the perspective,” Schob said. “A monogamous gay couple who has been together for decades cannot currently give blood if they are sexually active with each other. However, a straight man who has sex with a different person each night is not prevented from giving blood.”

In 2015, the FDA changed the rules. The agency’s guidelines said gay or bisexual men wanting to donate blood needed to refrain from sex with other men for at least a year. The guidelines changed again in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted blood supplies.

Now, a new proposal will focus on sexual behavior, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

If it’s approved, gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships would no longer need to refrain from sex in order to donate blood. Instead, anyone wanting to donate will get a questionnaire asking if they had new or multiple sexual partners in the past three months. Regardless of gender, potential donors will have to wait three months if any of those encounters involved anal sex. If the donor answers “no” then the FDA says they could donate.

The agency says the new guidelines won’t cause harm.

“We feel confident that the safety of the blood supply will be maintained,” said Dr. Peter Marks with the FDA. “I think it’s long overdue.”

Schob thinks it’s a step in the right direction and knows it could have a big impact.

“It would mean greater acceptance and inclusion, and it would also mean that we have more blood and our blood banks to help people who need it,” Schob said. “It’s a huge relief.”

For Pettinato, he says he can’t wait for the chance to roll up his sleeves again.

“We’re like everybody else out there in the community of blood givers, and we can do this and get out there and do it,” he said.

Right now, the proposal is going through a 60-day public comment period. If it’s passed, people like Pettinato could possibly be able to donate blood by the end of the year.

Although some say this new proposal is a step in the right direction, some say it doesn’t go far enough.

For instance, with the new policy, there is no exception for those who always use protection during sex.

There’s also no exception for someone who can show proof of a negative HIV test.

And those who are on the medication PREP, which drastically reduces someone’s risk of getting HIV also won’t be allowed to donate blood.

How to donate blood in Charlotte, and what to know beforehand

There are dozens of locations in Charlotte and around the area where you can donate blood. The American Red Cross is a primary organizer of blood services in the area, and you can find a map of locations near you at this link. You can donate whole blood every eight weeks.

Novant Health says when you donate blood, it’s separated into three components: plasma, red cells, and platelets. Plasma is used to treat accident victims, patients with bleeding disorders, and burn victims; platelets are used after bone marrow transplants and for cancer patients; and red cells are used to treat patients who have lost blood because of trauma or surgery.

  • The American Red Cross shared the following tips for donation day:
  • Drink at least an extra 16 ounces of water before your appointment.
  • Eat a healthy meal, but avoid fatty foods.
  • Wear a shirt with sleeves that you can roll up above your elbows.
  • Bring a book or music to listen to while you donate.

After donating, you should keep the bandage on for a few hours and avoid any vigorous exercise or heavy lifting.

(WATCH BELOW: Blood donations up at local blood bank)