Updated: SF moves to oppose blood ban; Wiener plans drive

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 31, 2020
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Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced a resolution to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors March 31 calling upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to lift its ban on men who have had sex with men in the past year from giving blood amid a projected blood supply shortage due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced that he will hold a blood drive next week urging people to donate on behalf of gay and bi men.

Dubbed #giveforagay, the drive will take place Tuesday, April 7, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, 300 Franklin Street in San Francisco.

Mayor London Breed has agreed to donate blood on behalf of gay men, Wiener's office told the Bay Area Reporter.

Mandelman introduced the resolution amid mounting calls for the FDA to change its policies. The first FDA prohibition on gay and bisexual men giving blood was a lifetime ban on men who have had sex with men donating blood instituted during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The ban also extends to blood plasma.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) sent a letter to the FDA chief Dr. Stephen Hahn March 24 calling for the ban to be lifted.

Two days later, 17 U.S. senators signed a letter to Hahn calling for the same. Signatories included Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), the only openly lesbian member of the chamber; Kamala Harris (D-California), and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). (Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, is openly bisexual and was not a signer. Baldwin and Sinema are the only out LGBTs ever elected to the Senate.)

Mandelman said he had the idea of introducing a resolution after Wiener's letter, which was accompanied by a petition, and the senators' letter.

"When I saw Senator Wiener's letter and then saw that the U.S. senators called on the FDA to change the policy, it seemed like the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should weigh in," Mandelman said in a phone interview with the B.A.R. March 31. "I talked with my team and it made sense."

Mandelman said he'd been in touch with Wiener on the issue.

Wiener said the FDA ban is irrational and discriminatory.

"The ban must end, particularly given the severe blood shortage we're experiencing," Wiener said. "It's disappointing that the agency continues to ignore the science about how we test for HIV. It makes no sense to require gay and bi men to be celibate for a year, while allowing straight people with multiple sex partners to donate immediately."

Mandelman said lifting the ban makes sense.

"In a lot of ways, it's a no-brainer. It's embarrassing that the United States hasn't changed this policy. It's harmful in a public health crisis and it's demeaning to gay and bi men," Mandelman said.

Health officials have been warning that the blood supply will deplete as blood drives have been forced to cancel or reschedule, and people have been staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus).

Blood banks are considered essential and are open in San Francisco in spite of the stay-at-home orders in effect in California, the Bay Area, and other municipalities.

"We've had so many community blood drives canceled," Kevin Adler of Vitalant told the B.A.R. March 23. "With all that's going on, people aren't going to be able to volunteer."

When the FDA first prohibited gay men from giving blood in 1983, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had not yet been identified and so there was no way to screen for it in blood donations — which put people in need of blood transfusions at risk.

But after the HIV antibody test was widely proliferated, the lifetime ban did not change in a meaningful way until 2015, during the Obama administration. The FDA's new rules prohibit men who have had sex with men in the past year from donating blood, as well as any of their female partners.

For years many LGBT organizations and gay advocates have been calling for the ban to be removed in light of the changes that have occurred since the early 1980s.

Mandelman said he expects his resolution to pass at the board meeting April 7, when it will be voted upon.

"I would be shocked and deeply offended if it does not pass unanimously," Mandelman said.

When asked to comment for this story March 31, the FDA emailed the following statement to the B.A.R., which has been quoted in other publications in the preceding weeks: "FDA is aware there has been a dramatic reduction in blood and plasma donations around the country. The agency is working with the blood banking and source plasma industries to increase supply. At this time, the FDA's recommendations regarding blood donor deferral for men who have sex with men have not changed, but we are actively considering the situation as the outbreak progresses."

Updated, 4/1/20: This story has been updated to include state Senator Scott Wiener's blood drive.