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Gay men should be allowed to donate blood without celibacy rules, exec says

Paul Granneman donates platelets Nov. 20 in St. Louis. The American Red Cross has said the need for blood donations is 'urgent.'
File Photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
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A man donates platelets in St. Louis last fall. Men who have sex with men are frequently turned away when they try to donate blood.

In 1983, the FDA put a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. Fueled by fear of the AIDS crisis, the ban was in effect for more than three decades. Then, in 2015, it was changed to a yearlong celibacy period, and in 2020 that was shortened to three months.

Now, a Midwestern organization hopes to change the FDA’s rules to better reflect modern realities. ImpactLife, a blood donation organization based in Iowa that provides 40% of all blood transfused in St. Louis hospitals, is advocating for new guidelines around sexual activity and blood donation.

Pete Lux, vice president of donor and patient services at ImpactLife, said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that while the regulations around blood donations made sense in the early ‘80s, there’s not much reason for them anymore. The HIV virus is better understood now, and blood can be tested quickly.

“Testing has improved so much since 1983. I mean, right now, the testing that we do, you could be exposed to HIV and test positive within days after that exposure,” Lux said. “So that's really what can drive this change.”

Lux also pointed out that the regulations hold men who have sex with men to a different standard of safe sexual activity than other adults.

Gay men should be allowed to donate blood without celibacy rules, exec says

“A man could go out and have sex with several different women and come in and donate. And that's not a deferral. We don't even ask that question,” he said. “But a man who has sex with the same man that he's been with, for one year, two years, five years, 10 years, cannot donate unless the two of them do not have sex for three months.”

Lux added that sexual activity should be a part of the screening process for anyone looking to donate blood, regardless of their sexuality.

“What we could do is measure that person's individual risk, evaluate how risky their activity has been,” he said, “not how they identify sexually. But what is the activity? And how risky has it been?”

A caller shared his experience with being denied the ability to donate blood. Topher, a St. Louis resident serving at Scott Air Force Base, has been frustrated about being unable to donate blood.

“My partner and I have been together since 2015. I've been able to openly serve in the military as gay since 2011. But we're still restricted from giving blood,” he said. “And I feel like there's a disconnect between being trusted to protect my country and being trusted to provide a lifesaving resource.”

The caller added that he would have no problem facing more intrusive screening questions before giving blood, if it meant he’d be able to donate.

“I feel that being able to get blood is a lifesaving resource. And I would do an on-the-spot HIV check if it was necessary to be able to give that resource.”

Lux said he is affected by the ban, and in recent years, it’s felt like an issue he can’t ignore any longer.

“I know so much more about it than somebody who doesn't work in the industry. And I've been doing it for a long time,” he said. “I've really been having this conversation with several different people within the industry and outside of the industry. And I've really taken a stand and said, ‘We need to change this,’ more so than I did the first 25 years I was in the industry.”

Lux encouraged listeners to contact their congressional representatives if they are interested in taking action, and he said they could reach out to him at ImpactLife for more information on how to help.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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