Did FDA rule change allowing gay, bisexual men to donate blood make a difference? Some early data suggests it did

Written by on June 18, 2024

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(GREENWICH, Conn.) — For years, Jose Dominguez, 50, had wanted to donate blood, feeling it was part of his civic duty.

But he was restricted by rules set in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that did not allow sexually active gay men from donating.

That finally changed in May 2023, when the FDA dropped all restrictions specific to gay and bisexual men donating blood, moving to a new blood donation risk assessment tool that is the same for every donor regardless of how they identify, which rolled out in August 2023.

In March of this year, Dominguez finally donated blood for the first time, and he did so with his husband, Craig Burdett. For Burdett, 62, it was the first time he had donated blood since 1997, when he began openly identifying as gay.

“I was grinning just from ear to ear, just because of the fact that we were able to do this,” Dominguez, who is the head of the American Red Cross Long Island chapter, told ABC News. “I’ve never done it before, and I was getting to do it with my husband.”

“This is something that we had talked about along during our relationship and anytime somebody said they donated blood, I’m like, ‘That is such a privilege. It is such a privilege to be able to do that and one day, we will,'” he continued. “But it was just like, ‘Whoa, this is so cool. It’s finally happening.'”

So, did the rule change bring in more donors? Blood donation organizations say although it’s a bit too soon to tell, early data seems to indicate it did make a difference.

New policy allowing gay and bisexual men to donate
In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, blood donations were not able to screen for HIV, which led to some cases of HIV via transfusion. This led to the FDA instituting a lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood as well as women who have sex with men who have sex with men.

In 2015, the blanket ban was repealed, but the FDA placed restrictions on men who have sex with men, saying they could donate if they were abstinent from sex for at least one year. In 2020, this was shortened to a period of 90 days of abstinence.

In 2023, the FDA announced it would no longer be issuing blanket bans due to sexual orientation and instead screen potential donors on their risk of contracting and transmitting HIV, with the policy going into effect in August.

At the time, the federal health agency said it would use “gender-inclusive, individual risk-based questions” without compromising “the safety or availability of the blood supply.”

Questionnaires ask all donors about new or multiple sexual partners in the past three months. Those who have had a new sexual partner or multiple partners in the past three months and a history of anal sex during that time period will be deferred. Those taking medications to treat or prevent HIV infection will also be deferred, but LGBTQ+ advocacy groups say the new FDA rules are an important step in the right direction. The new blood donation risk assessment is the same for every donor regardless of how they identify.

‘I’m being ostracized’
Burdett, who runs a freelance web design business, grew up with a mother who was a regular blood donor due to a rare blood type, though he can’t remember what type exactly. He said she would get calls in the middle of the night to donate and, when she did, she would take him and his younger brother along with her.

“She taught us that giving blood was an important part of being part of the community,” he said. “You give blood because that’s an easy way to give back and to support your community. And so, I grew up giving blood every eight to 10 weeks, whenever I remembered that it was time, I gave blood until I came out as a gay man in the mid-90s.”

The last time Burdett donated blood was in 1997. At the time, the FDA still had a lifetime ban for blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

Not being able to do so because of sexual orientation made him feel excluded from a community he’d been part of for so many years.

“When I couldn’t give blood again, I felt like I was being pushed out the community,” Burdett said. “It felt like I lost something.”

Dominguez said that growing up, he had many family members in hospitals due to health problems. When he would visit, he would see people donating blood, but he knew he couldn’t, and it made him feel “ostracized.” Dominguez said he never attempted to donate.

“Of course, there were regulations, FDA regulations that were set in place,” he said. “But I remember in college, when I finally was able to do it, and being a gay male, I couldn’t because of the restrictions…I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m being ostracized.'”

When the couple first heard during the COVID-19 pandemic that the FDA was considering rolling out a new policy that did away with most deferrals, Dominguez was optimistic, but Burdett was doubtful.

“I raised a skeptical eyebrow, like that’s not gonna happen,” Burdett said. “They’re gonna have some rule like you can’t have had sex for six months. … So when it was that we really [could give] blood, I was really surprised — surprised and super happy.”

People returning after being deferred
Blood donation organizations said early data indicates that the policy has made a difference — bringing back donors who were previously unable to give blood.

Since the American Red Cross implemented the FDA’s individual donor assessment last summer, about 8.5% of more than 2,000 people with the most recent three-month deferral on their donor record returned to donate in the first five months after the policy change, the organization told ABC News.

Local organizations report similar results. New York Blood Center (NYBC) said between 240 and 250 people deferred under the 90-day policy have since returned to donate blood.

Andrea Cefarelli, senior vice president for NYBC, told ABC News it’s been less than a year since the new policy and people are still learning they are now eligible to donate, so that number should increase.

“What we would never know is someone that … knew from friends or from media coverage that they were not eligible and then comes in and donates. We wouldn’t have that figure that [they] sort of self-deferred before,” she said. “So, is it making an impact? I’m sure that it is.”

OneBlood — which has service areas in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina — told ABC News that of 7,092 people who deferred under the previous one-year and three-month deferral periods, 902 returned to donate under the new policy over the last 10 months, equating to 1,334 donations.

While there are people like Dominguez and Burdett who donated blood after becoming eligible under the new donor assessment, they acknowledged some gay and bisexual men may still be angry that they were prevented from donating blood previously, even if they were practicing safe sex at the time.

“There were a lot of hurt feelings in the gay community about when gay men were banned from giving blood,” Burdett said. ‘There’s still a group of gay men about my age who hold a lot of animosity about it.”

“I understand the panic in the early 80s…But there are a lot of folks who are not ready to forgive and forget. As we meet them, and talk to them, encourage them to give blood because it’s part of being a community and…you’re giving to your neighbor,” he added.

Burdett and Dominguez say they plan to donate again as soon as possible and want to encourage conversations with other members of the LGBTQ+ community to consider donating if they haven’t already.

“I think we’re in the perfect month to start this conversation,” Burdett said of Pride Month. “There are a lot of Pride parades going on. So, I would encourage anyone who accepts blood to be present and be at those events and to do the education and let people know, pamphlets, flyers, tell them folks that gay men can give blood, and I would suspect that would be helpful.”

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