On Sunday, Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded dozens more in a massacre at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. As is often the case after tragedies, many Americans rallied to support the victims and their families, with LGBT communities and allies standing in solidarity.
One of the ways people in Orlando tried to help victims was through blood donations. Many potential donors, however, found themselves blocked at blood centers. Specifically, men who have had sex with men in the past year are still barred from donating blood because of a rule from the Food and Drug Administration.* Even after the most deadly act against gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people in American history, the built-in homophobia of American public health keeps the country from mounting the most effective possible response.
The original blood-donation rules for men who have sex with men, or MSM––a designation designed to encapsulate sexual activity instead of orientation––were actually less restrictive than current rules. The MSM population was the epicenter of the HIV panic of the mid-80s. After the mode of transmission was fully understood by the medical community, the FDA’s 1983 guidelines asked men who had sex with multiple male partners to refrain from donation. In 1986, the guidelines became de facto mandatory exclusions of men who had sex with men in the previous 10 years. In 1992, the FDA finally recommended the lifetime ban for MSM that became the American and global standard for over 20 years. Despite a 2015 move by the FDA to change the deferral for MSM from a lifetime ban to a year without sexual contact with another man, at least 20 other countries have followed the United States’ lead and implemented lifetime bans.