Gay Men Can Donate Organs and Blood … Only If Abstinent

Politicians and activists call on the Department of Health and Human Services to update discriminatory policies that prevent gay men from donating organs and blood because of their orientation.

Photo by Shutterstock

By Julissa Catalan

Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

More than 60 politicians and LGBT advocates are fighting to revise a very dated federal regulation that disqualifies gay men from donating organs and blood simply because of their orientation.

According to Ian Thompson, a Legislative Representative at the ACLU who focuses on LGBT rights, donating blood or tissue may not be a “constitutional right,” but the federal government should not be able to discriminate against a prospective donor based on their orientation.

“In other words, gay and bisexual men cannot constitutionally be singled out for differential treatment solely because of their sexual relationships,” Thompson told TakePart. “Eligibility standards must reflect current scientific knowledge and must treat like risks alike.”

Currently, gay men face severe restrictions when it comes to donating organs, tissue or blood.

They are allowed to donate certain organs after HIV testing, but the transplant program is notified that the organ comes from a deceased man who had sex with other men in the past year.

They are allowed to donate tissue only if they have not had sex with other men for five years.

They are never allowed to donate blood.

In contrast, a straight man who admits to having sex with a prostitute or knowingly had sex with an HIV-positive woman only has to wait one year before being allowed to donate blood.

“Clearly that is not treating like risk alike,” said Thompson.

This policy was first put in place in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. More than 30 years later, huge strides have been made in science and medicine, and it is common knowledge that anyone who has unprotected sex is at risk, not just gay men.

Last week, more than 60 U.S. senators and representatives sent a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services saying the donation policies contained “inherent unfairness and inconsistency.” The letter stated that the current policies “perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes” and “promote discrimination” while not adequately representing the advances made in science and HIV detection.

The legislators have requested a response to their letter within 30 days.

They are also pushing for a written update on what the department has done to assess donation regulations, as well as an estimate of when possible policy changes will be announced publicly and take effect.

“You have an administration in place that’s committed to moving LGBT equality forward, and they’ve also done a lot in the area of HIV/AIDS,” Thompson says.

According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are more than 123,000 people who are on the national waiting list for lifesaving organs. Most of these individuals are waiting for kidneys, with livers, hearts and lungs also high on the list.

In addition, more than 1 million tissue transplants are performed every year, while more than 41,000 blood transfusions are needed every day.

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15 comments


  • in 1991, the New York Times editorialist Anna Quindlen wrote of a young woman whose dentist infected her with AIDS, Kimberly Bergalis. I believe her words to be pertinent. In part, Quindlen posed this test:

    “Q. You learn that your pediatrician has AIDS. What do you do?

    A. Find another pediatrician.

    (Quindlen continued) “In my ideological world, that is the wrong answer. The right answer would be to make sure that the doctor is meticulously careful, uses double gloves and fresh instruments and washes hands assiduously. That is the answer that would encompass the warp and woof of a social fabric that allows for mutual risk and advantage, that says that everyone should give a little, the doctor with more protections, the patient with a more open mind.

    In other words, ask some parents to put their children at some risk, however small, for the sake of principle and fairness.”

    Wait, what?!?

    Ms. Quindlen, please feel free to take any risk you prefer with your childrens’ or grandchildrens’ health and safety, but please do condescend, esteemed New York Times editor, to allow me the same freedom. Do, indeed, “ask some parents to put their children at some risk, however small, for the sake of principle and fairness”, if you like, but don’t be too, too disappointed if every last parent asked to bring their child into an HIV Positive pediatrician’s office refuses.

    • Luke Visconti

      1991 was a long time ago. Science has marched on. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Sorry Luke. If I know that my doctor or dentist is HIV positive, I am finding another doctor. Has nothng to do with their life style and everything to do with the risk to me and my family. Same would be true for any other non curable transferrable disease.

        • Luke Visconti

          If you want to sound like a reasonable person, banish the phrase “lifestyle” from your vocabulary. The far-right, gay-bashing fringe of the Tea/Republican Party is using that phrase to describe LGBT people because it is dismissive. If being gay is a lifestyle, so is being heterosexual. Larry King (of all people) illustrates the point beautifully. He tells a story about being in a fancy restaurant with a gay buddy of his. A cocktail waitress with a very short skirt walked past their table. His friend asked Larry, “Does that do anything for you?” Larry said, “Sure.” His friend then asked, “Why?”

          It’s orientation, not preference, not lifestyle. But I understand what you’re saying and I’m not sure I disagree with you entirely. However, I have been in the situation that you describe and stuck with my healthcare provider.

          I would say it’s competency that matters most. When I had my stroke, the hospital I went to, University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (a bogus name, as Princeton University has no medical school), completely botched my treatment in the emergency room. There was what the medical industry calls a “meeter greeter² who took my insurance information, but there was no triage nurse and, in fact, no one took my blood pressure for 40 minutes. It wasn’t like the hospital was busy; the emergency room was empty. I didn’t know I was having a stroke at the time, but in retrospect I presented clear stroke symptoms. In the hospital’s report, it said I was out of the window for tPA, which likely would have resolved all the stroke symptoms that I’m suffering from today—partial paralysis, etc. The report tells half the story: Had the hospital had someone competent in the emergency room, it’s very possible that a timely diagnosis would’ve resulted in treatment that would’ve avoided the potentially permanent disabilities I have now. My point is, I couldn’t have gotten worse care if everyone at that ridiculous faux hospital was dripping with the Ebola virus. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • This is not about the character of a person, this is about the condition of the blood that very, very well could be tainted with the virus. Let’s be clear about the risk that male same sexual intercourse poses to the participant and the person receiving their blood.

        Sperms and bile’s fight against each other in a place where they ought not to be. NO!

        HIV is dangerous and we shouldn’t play around with it. Political correctness shouldn’t include allowing Ebola in my present because the carrier is a human being. It’s the virus we are being protected against.

        Homosexual males or woman that have anal sex are at risk of getting AIDS and should not be allowed to give their blood that very, very well could infect others.

        • “Homosexual males and women who have anal sex” you left out men who have anal sex with women

  • I’m going to make this comment with no particular point.

    It’s all a risk.

    When I go to my doctor or have a hospital stay, I’m praying that my doctor and everyone that comes into my room has washed his/her hands immediately before entering, I do not have an “angel of death” taking care of me, I don’t have a drug addict stealing my meds and injecting me with god know’s what, I don’t get some incurable, antibotic-resistant germ because someone was careless (my mom did), my surgeon/doctor is sober, competent, ethical, moral, and not under the influence of some substance, everyone coming in contact with me got my name, meds, procedures, dosage, and body part right, they removed all the sponges and instruments from my body before sewing me up, I don’t trip, fall, and break my head open shuffling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I leave feeling and being much better than when I went in.

    Now my point, personally, I hope to never need someone else’s body part or bodily fluids because I don’t know what anyone does sexually or intravenously.

    On the otherhand, I don’t worry needlessly about anything of this, including using forks in restaurants because the fact is I only have so much control over much of life.

    I don’t see that gay men would be more or less at risk than the average sexually active adult male. I also know that peoples from certain countries/continents (Hati, Africa) were (are?) restricted as well.

    Where children are concerned, well, I’m extra cautious and really wouldn’t want a child of mine to get any of those products, no matter what gender, sex, or sexual orientation of the donor.

  • Bizarre that the distinctions are not proportional to the risks; glad that this is being addressed.

  • Your response to reibson seems flippant.

    Yes, science has marched on, but if you look at rates of syphilis and other STDs are much higher in gay people than in straight (I’m a happy, openly gay, professional man who has worked in diversity issues for years, both professional and in my spare time). I do, agree, however, that restrictions should be the same for straight and gay people…perhaps all people should be restricted for five years if they admit paying someone for sex or with someone from a group that is at high risk for HIV or other STDs).

    • Luke Visconti

      I don’t think it’s flippant. Our understanding of how HIV is transmitted has change dramatically since 1991.

      I looked up information to check your assertion about STDs and found this report: “Mojola and Everett (2010) Intersecting Identities a and STI Risk Page 1 GENDER, RACE/ETHNICITY, SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND STI/HIV RELATED RISK AMONG YOUNG U.S. ADULTS

      In short, there are a lot of factors, such as intravenous drug use and use of prostitutes—or being a prostitute—that contribute to a likelihood of having an STD or HIV. It’s not just orientation. And due to biology, women are far more likely to be affected by bad behavior or by having intercourse with people who have had bad behavior. I would add, much like crime statistics, you have to factor for poverty to get a full understanding, which this report does not.

      I agree with you about restrictions being applied to both hetero- and homosexual people equally. As the above report points out, it is your personal behavior that results in risk. Risky behavior can be found amongst gay and non-gay people. There are far more hetero risk takers then there are gay risk takers. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Isn’t this based on a purely statistical definition of what constitutes a high risk group. I don’t think that this is a social commentary about gays or their worthiness more than a set of highly correlated variables that predict contamination. I don’t think that those people who have visited Liberia are discriminated against because they are precluded from donating blood and tissues. What causes me to react to this is that I believe strongly that when we go out of our way to label everything that specifically identifies a cohort of individuals as discrimination actually dilutes our effort to call out those who really discriminate. As I observe corporate life, I am more convinced that people are more insensitive then they are bigoted (not that there are no bigots). Most people have to develop more of a sensitivity then they have to learn to tolerate. People draw the wrong conclusions, make judgments based on preconditioning etc. if you ask these people if they are prejudiced against any group of people specifically, they would vehemently deny it and with great conviction. These people could and will change if we are careful to point out to them their erroneous thinking and condition them to respond differently. They want to change and don’t want to be narrow. However if the messages are unclear; if we lump everything together so you can’t distinguish between good faith efforts to keep blood samples with harmful discriminatory practices. If every time there is a white on black incident of violence, it is labeled as racist, without concern for the facts or intent, our messages will be oblique. We will not be successful in affecting a change of thinking or of behavior. We need to draw clear lines in the sand and do battle only when there can be a demonstrable victory. Please don’t be so anxious to publish a newsletter that your messages start to lose their impact. The issue of marriage or imposing religious beliefs to enforce public policy is far more relevant than donating blood.

    • Luke Visconti

      I think that you’re right—there are more insensitive people than bigoted ones in corporate America. That’s because overtly bigoted behavior is now a reason to be excluded from corporate life. In the recent past, I think they were just as many bigoted people in corporate America than anywhere else.

      However, there is a big difference between people who visited Liberia and gay people. Certain groups spread misinformation and innuendo about gay people to curry political power. You hear this often couched in religious terms, which people think gives them immunity.

      As far as your analogy about white-on-Black crime, be careful. If the consensus among Black people is that it was a racially based crime (for example, Trayvon or Ferguson), then a white leader making insensitive comments to the contrary will lose a great deal of trust among his/her Black coworkers. This can easily happen if the “insensitive” person gets his or her news from the echo chamber: FOX, Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, et al.

      This brings me to a final point: One should never describe diversity training as sensitivity training. It’s competency training. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Do they not test donated blood? This seems like a pretty basic scientific solution removing any discussion of sexual orientation. You can’t go into every persons complete medical history to determine if they were ever exposed to a certain disease, so why not let science to the determining here?

  • The article is wrong. There are no restrictions for men whom have had male to male sexual contact in regards to organ donation. However, there are restrictions for eye, tissue and blood donation (make to make sexual contact in the past five years) which is regulated by the FDA.

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