Since 2013, I have been a huge advocate for blood donations. After the tragic Pulse Nightclub shooting in my hometown, I wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times to share my thoughts about the incident and importance of blood donations.
This is dedicated to the 49 lives that were lost on 6/12/2016.
June 15, 2016
ORLANDO, Fla. — GROWING up as a gay man in the suburbs of Orlando, Fla., was a challenge. After I started coming out to friends and family when I was 15, I was moved from school to school and I was subjected to the Exodus program, which attempted to change my sexuality through religious reform.
In the face of this kind of discrimination, L.G.B.T. people in Orlando have carved out our own safe zones, congregating at bars and restaurants where we can dare to be ourselves, away from disapproving eyes. Pulse, the nightclub that was attacked on Sunday morning, was one of those places. My husband and I got married in Orlando on April 23. The night before, we went to Pulse with our closest friends to celebrate and to feel a sense of love and community. That’s the type of environment that Pulse offered us.
This week we faced a new challenge: mass violence in the very place we felt most comfortable, accepted and secure. After the attack, the city of Orlando and the state of Florida mobilized. Officials called on people in the area to donate blood for those who were injured in the shooting. Thousands of people have reportedly lined up to donate. But some of them — gay and bisexual men — are unable to.
As a registered nurse, I know the importance of donated blood. It can save the lives of people with traumatic injuries, and during tragedies like Sunday’s, donation centers are stressed and often lack what they need to treat the wounded.
But many of the people who felt the tragedy most closely can’t offer their help. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration bars sexually active gay men from donating. This ban is ostensibly in place to protect blood supplies from being contaminated with H.I.V. But it dates from a time before H.I.V. testing was standard practice for blood donations. It is now generally agreed that H.I.V. can be detected in the blood of an infected person within a matter of weeks. Donors should be assessed according to their risk — not their sexual orientation. In the wake of a hateful attack that left over a hundred people from our community dead or injured, this ban must be removed.
Several years ago, I went to donate blood for a friend in nursing school who suffers from sickle cell anemia. To my shock, I was turned away after filling out a questionnaire that asked if I had ever had sexual contact with another man. According to the F.D.A.’s policy at the time, I was barred from donating blood for life. I was embarrassed and outraged. A few days later, my boyfriend (now husband) and I started a project called Banned4Life to fight this outdated policy.
Our work quickly gained national attention. Fortunately, with the help of volunteers and other organizations, we pressured the F.D.A. to revisit the banned-for-life policy.
In 2015, the agency took a step in the right direction and changed its rules. But its new policy still discriminates against gay and bisexual men. In place of a lifelong ban, the F.D.A. now requires a 12-month deferral from sexual contact with another man. This means that sexually active gay and bisexual men are still barred, even if they practice safe sex or are in monogamous relationships.
Words cannot express my sympathy for the families and friends of those we lost on Sunday. Gay men like me would like the opportunity to give our much-needed, healthy blood to those who are fighting for their lives right now at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
To make matters worse, some blood centers around the country have still not changed their donor questionnaire to reflect the new recommendations, according to my research. When I called OneBlood, the blood center that serves the Orlando area, I learned that it still vets donors according to the F.D.A.’s old, more stringent guidelines while it works to update its own policy.
In recent years, L.G.B.T. Americans have made huge strides in our efforts to live our lives in the open. Safe spaces like Pulse are still important institutions that allow young gay men growing up in Orlando to feel comfortable with who we are. The overwhelming sympathy and support we have received from the public and political leaders show how much progress we have made. But the actions of one person can also make a difference. We must choose to use this moment as a catalyst to continue our fight for equality.