FDA blood proposal uses stereotypes over science

  • by Evan Low
  • Wednesday January 21, 2015
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If you are a healthy, straight, monogamous couple, would you go without sex for one year in order to give blood? This is what the Food and Drug Administration is asking of gay monogamous male couples.

On December 23, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule change that would lift the lifetime ban on men who have sex with other men, and replace it with a one-year deferral. This means that MSM who abstain from having sex with another man for one year may give blood if the rule goes into effect after public comment. 

The romantic imperative to have sex within healthy adult males in a same-sex monogamous relationship makes this one-year deferral unlikely to allow more gay men to give blood. The same romantic impulse affects straight monogamous couples, yet they are not asked to abstain from sex for one year to do their public service by adding to the continually inadequate blood supply. Considering this reality, the FDA gave up very little ground in their recent announcement ending the gay blood ban.

If straight monogamous couples are not asked to abstain from sex before they give blood, it begs the question: why are gay men in a monogamous relationship being asked to do so?

The likely reason is ingrained stereotypes of gay men, which falsely claim that gay men are attracted to all men and can't control their desires. Homosexual men are typically only attracted to men who spark their interest or sexual desire. The idea that gay men have some type of universal sexual desire for all men is a myth. This myth is the basis for why some straight men fear working with or sharing locker rooms with gay men, and promotes the very damaging idea that gay men are essentially predatory, incapable of containing their own desires.

Another stereotype that the FDA policy promulgates is that gay men are by their nature promiscuous and obsessed with sex. Sexual promiscuity is a human phenomenon that is not uniquely linked with one particular type of sexual orientation. There are people given to sexual promiscuity in all human populations and those that are not.

A third stereotype that the FDA one-year deferral perpetuates is that gay men are not relationship oriented. The notion that being gay makes a man less able to fall in love with another person is illogical and has no basis in reality. In fact, as same-sex marriage has become increasingly more available across the U.S., exactly the opposite is proving true.

These homosexual stereotypes and others act to dehumanize gay men, so that they may be thought of and treated differently than straights. This is the very core of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

My opinion and the opinion of many other medical groups is that the FDA should focus on sexual history and risk factors, not gender and sexual orientation when designing the factors for pre-screening blood donors.

Many people question in rebuttal: isn't the FDA comprised of health care experts that place science over stereotypes? Unfortunately, we are all subject to passions and prejudices, and have the power to rationalize views despite the existence of evidence to the contrary.

As an example, let's examine the December 2, 2014 FDA Blood Products Advisory Panel's failure to recommend to the FDA a lifting of the lifetime gay blood ban, even if replaced by a one-year deferral. This was contrary to a decision of a committee of scientists and healthcare professionals at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who looked at the same or similar evidence a month earlier and who overwhelmingly voted to lift the ban in favor of a one-year deferral. Again, I disagree with the one-year deferral for MSM. However, the important point is that scientists at the FDA were still fighting colleagues to maintain the lifetime ban on MSM from giving blood just a mere three weeks before the FDA announced lifting the lifetime ban in favor of the one-year deferral. Scientists are looking at evidence and some are basing decisions off of science and others are likely being unconsciously manipulated by stereotypes.

The scientific data that supported the lifting of the lifetime ban on MSM comes from other countries around the world, who have lifted the lifetime ban for a one-year deferral for many years and found it to have no effect on disease transmission. For example, Australia lifted the ban and completed implementation of its one-year deferral policy for MSM in and around 2000, and a study from 2010 published in the journal Transfusion , found no statistically significant increases in transmission of HIV through transfusions after the deferral went into effect ten years prior. [1]

This topic is somewhat personal for me as a gay man. In 2013, while serving as mayor of Campbell, California, I was refused the ability to donate blood at a blood drive that the city sponsored with the Red Cross. I felt the wound that only comes from discrimination.

This denial led me to reignite the national debate on whether the FDA rule should be dropped in favor of scientific criteria. Congressman Mike Honda (D-Santa Clara) and I held a press conference in support of a change to FDA policy that focused on risky behavior instead of sexual orientation. My change.org petition in favor of lifting the lifetime ban on gay blood donations gained 63,147 signatures. 

Although a one-year ban on sexual activity for gay men may be tantamount to a lifetime ban, since sex is a powerful biological need, this recommendation is at least incremental progress after 32 years of a lifetime ban. This is cause for some optimism, but there is still a long way to go.


Assemblyman Evan Low represents the 28th District that encompasses the cities of Cupertino, Campbell, Saratoga, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and portions of San Jose, including the Rose Garden, Willow Glen, Almaden Valley, and West San Jose.


[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1537-2995.2010.02793.x/abstract;jsessionid=7629C0C15061722BBAE41D8B4C9A9685.f02t02