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Protest challenges ban on blood donations by gay men

Chris Abramo (right) was tested for HIV by Trevor Wright of the Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth. After a negative result, he tried to donate blood.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Chris Abramo (right) was tested for HIV by Trevor Wright of the Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth. After a negative result, he tried to donate blood.

There were no rainbow flags flying, no posters demanding equality, no kiss-ins, no marches through the streets to the sounds of Lady Gaga. In the aftermath of the gay rights movement’s biggest victory so far came a quieter protest over a smaller issue: the ability to donate blood.

On Friday, gay men in 53 cities across the country lined up outside Red Cross centers to give blood, and to get turned away, intentionally. Since 1983, the Food and Drug Administration has banned gay and bisexual men from donating, a policy activists and, on June 18, the American Medical Association, say is discriminatory and reflects outdated medical assumptions.

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In Boston, 21 men arrived at the Red Cross donor center on Tremont Street Friday afternoon, got tested for HIV, and brought their results, all negative, with them to try to donate. When they were turned away, they all left quietly, thanking Red Cross screeners politely.

“It isn’t really a sexy LGBT issue,” said Ryan Yezak, a 26-year-old Los Angeles filmmaker who organized the demonstration just weeks after the Supreme Court invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Yezak will count the number of gay men turned away Friday and send the men’s negative HIV tests to the FDA to ask for a change in the policy.

But for Yezak, the ban recalls rhetoric that called homosexuality a disease and society’s disgusted reaction to gay men during the early years of the AIDS crisis.

When potential donors fill out a medical history survey, male donors are asked if they have “had sexual contact with another man since 1977, even once.”

That means the FDA automatically excludes more than 4 million Americans from donor lists, the number of men identifying as gay or bisexual, according to a 2011 report by the Williams Institute, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender legal research group. And the number of men reporting any same-sex activity during their lives is higher, the report said.

Yezak said he supports screenings based on “sexual behavior and not sexual orientation.”

Waiting to be tested Friday was business as usual for Eric Sacca, 26, who gets tested for HIV every six months; his results have been negative so far. Sacca, who initially said he was not gay in order to donate blood, “was almost in the gallon club.” He donated every time he got a call from the Red Cross. In college, he stopped lying and was banned.

“Now they don’t want my blood.”

The FDA regulates donors based on medical history, whether they have traveled somewhere with dangerous blood illnesses recently, and their behavior. A spokeswoman for the agency said in an e-mail that gay men fall under the last category, along with “intravenous drug abusers and commercial sex workers.”

She said the agency opposes donations from gay men who test negative because the virus is difficult to detect in its early stages. The policy is “currently under evaluation,” the spokeswoman said, and the FDA may “consider new approaches.”

In a June statement, the AMA endorsed “the use of rational, scientifically based deferral periods that are fairly and consistently applied to blood donors.” The Red Cross’s statement on Friday’s demonstration echoed support for “modified” donor criteria.

Those modifications might mean shorter-term deferrals like the temporary bans on people who travel to certain countries, instead of a lifetime ban, said Dr. Robert Makar, associate director of blood transfusion at Massachusetts General Hospital. But donors might still have to refrain from having sex with other men for a certain period of time before they are fully eligible to donate, he said.

Chris Reeves, a 24-year-old nursing student, said he usually lies in order to donate; like Sacca, he tested negative 6 months ago. Reeves spent nearly 40 minutes in the medical history room at the donor center.

He was eligible physically, but when he answered yes to having sex with men, his screener had to dig deeper. She asked when he first had sex with a man and when his last contact was.

No matter what he answered to those questions, and despite the negative test result he handed over, he would be turned away.

“I think very medically,” he said. And that, he said, makes the gut-punching feeling of being denied even worse. “It almost says there’s really something wrong with me. It’s almost like telling me I’m sick, and I know I’m not.”

Sanjena Sathian can be reached at sanjena.sathian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sasathian.
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