BURLINGTON -- A gay man who is HIV-negative, practices safe sex, and has been in a monogamous relationship for 20 years is ineligible for life to give blood to the American Red Cross. But a heterosexual man who's had unprotected sex with dozens of women in the last year can donate blood every eight weeks. The policy makes the blood of LGBT activists boil at the University of Vermont; they're asking the administration to stop the Red Cross from holding blood drives on campus until the policy is changed.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed a lifetime ban on blood donations from any man who's had sex with another man since 1977. The move was in response to widespread fears at the time that the human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus would be spread through blood transfusions. Since then, however, significant improvements in HIV testing and blood screening technology have made the U.S. blood supply much safer and more reliable.
Nevertheless, the FDA policy, which was reviewed in 2000 but left unchanged, still applies to the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks and America's Blood Centers, the three organizations that collect virtually all the blood used for medical purposes in the United States.
But LGBT activists argue that it's now well-established science that HIV transmission isn't based on sexual orientation but on behavior. In fact, they point out that the fastest growing U.S. demographic group for HIV infections are heterosexual African-American women. Nevertheless, blood donation centers like the American Red Cross still enforce the FDA's ban on gay men's blood, regardless of the men's HIV status.
In a complaint filed last year with UVM's Office of Affirmative Action, student Evan Litwin contended that the Red Cross' policy violates the university's non-discrimination policy. The office recommended that UVM should no longer allow the American Red Cross to hold its blood drives on campus.
But in January, UVM Vice President for Finance and Administration Michael Gower decided not to accept that recommendation. Gower argued that ending blood drives on campus would effectively cut off "a regular and reliable supply [of blood] from our students [and] would be an unacceptable position for the University to take from a public health perspective."
Between August 2005 and March 2006, the American Red Cross Blood Services-New England Region collected 35,015 units of blood in Vermont and northern New Hampshire, according to Carol Dembeck, the agency's corporate communications specialist. About 8000 units came from UVM students, faculty and staff, including 428 units that were collected during on-campus blood drives.
Kathryn Friedman, executive director for the Office of Affirmative Action, did not return repeated calls from Seven Days. But in March, Annie Stevens, chair of the President's Commission on LGBT Equity at UVM, solicited input from faculty, staff and students about their experiences with Red Cross blood drives.
Among the people to respond was Scott Whipple, who was a student at UVM from 1995 to 1999, and worked in the registrar's office from 2001 to 2005. Whipple, who is gay, replied to Stevens' request for comments and forwarded a copy of his letter to Seven Days.
Whipple writes that as both a student and staff member, he was "always frustrated" whenever he saw people, posters or emails on campus asking him to give blood. "I find the need for blood drives extremely important, seeing as my father has had countless transfusions," he writes.
"I had to have smiling people ask, 'Would you like to give blood?' to which I would always reply, 'Yes, I would love to,'" he adds. "The smiles become broader as they pick up a form to score their next recruit, and then I have to crush them with, 'But I can't because I'm gay.'"
Whipple says that although the Red Cross knows that HIV is not limited to gay and bisexual men, it "continues to perpetuate the myth that gay men are the [only] ones who get the disease."
But as Dembeck points out, the Red Cross has "zero wiggle room" when it comes to enforcing the FDA ban. In fact, the Red Cross recently recommended that the FDA consider changing its longstanding policy, which has caused controversy not only at UVM but on other college campuses around the country, including the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine.
In March, the three national blood-collections organizations met with the FDA to ask that it change the lifetime ban on gay men's blood to a one-year deferral from their last sexual contact. "It does not appear rational to broadly differentiate sexual transmission via male-to-male sexual activity from that via heterosexual activity on scientific grounds," the March 9 statement reads. "To many, this differentiation is unfair and discriminatory, resulting in negative attitudes to blood donor eligibility criteria, blood collection facilities and, in some cases, to cancellation of blood drives."
Some gay and lesbian groups have welcomed the recommendation. But others, like UVM's professor Laurie Essig, who serves on the President's Commission for LGBT Equity, say that such a change wouldn't go far enough. Essig argues that even a one-year deferral on blood from gay men would be "a constant reminder that the Red Cross holds gay men responsible for AIDS, rather than certain practices."
"It's ridiculous to put it all on the FDA. The Red Cross led the charge to keep this policy in place," she adds. "This is the same Red Cross that kept blood segregated by race well into the 1960s, long after everyone admitted that was bogus science."
Who May Give, Who May Not
Anyone who is 17 or older, weighs at least 110 pounds, and has not donated blood in the last 56 days is usually eligible to give blood. However, some restrictions apply. Some of the other reasons you can be ineligible to give include if you:
-- Are pregnant.
--Have tested positive for HIV.
--Have a cold, cold symptoms, a fever or the flu.
--Have had sex with a man who's had sex with another man since 1977.
--Have had sex with a prostitute or someone who's exchanged money or drugs for sex.
--Have AIDS, leukemia, lymphoma or malaria.
--Have a blood relative with Creutzfeldt-Jack disease.
--Have traveled to another country in the last 12 months, or have moved to the U.S. within the last three years from a country with malaria.
--Have received acupuncture, ear or body piercings or a tattoo from an unsterilized needle within the last 12 months.
--Have received a blood transfusion in the last 12 months, or in the UK since 1980.
--Had viral hepatitis after age 11.
--Have had sex for money or for drugs since 1977.
--Lived a total of five years or more in Europe, the UK and/or Turkey.