When a national blood shortage was announced shortly after the pandemic shutdown, Adam Bencomo wanted to do something to help others, but was disheartened to learn that he was prohibited from donating blood because he’s gay.
“I know that people need blood. And it’s a way to help out — especially because I could,” the 36-year-old Station North resident explained. “When I was younger, I was extremely healthy. I was an athlete. I was a wrestler and a cross country runner. I wanted to do my part and help. But I couldn’t. I was told my blood was not good enough. It was one of the many hunches of homophobia that I have dealt with. It definitely lowered my self-worth.”
Bencomo — an art teacher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and bartender in Mount Vernon — said he has never been allowed to donate blood, despite being HIV negative and free of sexually transmitted infections.
“Every time I’ve gone to donate blood, I told them that I am gay. They asked me if I had been sexually active in the last 30 days. I told them yes. They said ‘Unfortunately, because you have been sexually active with another male you cannot donate blood.’ I actively tested negative, and still do.”
After years of what many in the LGBTQ community call a discriminatory practice prohibiting gay men from donating blood, many say they are eagerly awaiting approval of a new proposal by President Joe Biden that would change the existing federal policy.
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown recently applauded Biden’s proposal, saying that it would increase the availability of blood nationwide, addressing crucial shortage issues and saving more lives; and remove discriminatory aspects of the current guidance that violate constitutional principles ensuing equal treatment under the law.
“The federal government’s existing blood donation guidance is rooted in outdated and harmful stereotypes about gay and bisexual men and should be replaced,” said Brown, a Democrat who took office in January, in a written statement. “The revised proposed guidance does not single individuals out based on their gender or orientation, making it easier to donate blood and helping to increase the nation’s available blood supply.”
Brown joins 21 other attorneys general in states that include California, New York, Michigan and Minnesota in supporting the Biden administration’s policy change.
Biden’s proposal would urge blood banks in the United States to ask all donors, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, if they have had sex with a new partner or more than one partner in the previous three months. Depending on their response, individuals would be allowed to donate blood or wait three months to do so. Current policy requires that gay or bisexual men wait three months after sexual activity to donate blood.
The American Red Cross appeared to support a more equitable approach to blood donations earlier this year when it issued this statement regarding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s guidance: “The American Red Cross is committed to achieving an inclusive blood donation process that treats all potential donors with equality and respect, and ensures a safe, sufficient blood supply is readily available for patients in need.”
The Red Cross went on to say that the Food and Drug Administration’s ”draft guidance which proposes new blood donor-eligibility criteria using a gender-inclusive, individual donor assessment — regardless of sexual orientation — to reduce the risk of transfusion-transmitted HIV is a critical step forward toward that goal.”
Biden’s proposed changes come as the FDA was planning to revise its policy, which excluded gay and bisexual men from donating blood. Their proposed guideline changes would instead recommend that donors be screened depending on recent sexual activity.
Coming changes to the guidance “represent the F.D.A’s current thinking,” according to an agency spokesperson, adding that its guidance is not legally enforceable. “Technically, the F.D.A does not have the authority to do so. But it is in the establishment’s best interest to do so.”
The F.D.A. completed a two-month public comment period at the end of March based on its proposed policy updates. The agency received close to 200 comments; it is currently reviewing those comments and will incorporate them as well as results from the ADVANCE Study, which surveyed nearly 1,600 gay and bisexual men ages 18 to 39 in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Orlando; New Orleans/Baton Rouge; Miami; Memphis, Tennessee; Los Angeles; and Atlanta. That study’s enrollment ended on Sept. 30. The FDA will determine when and how the study results will be made public once their analysis is complete. There is no timetable for releasing an updated FDA policy, to an agency spokesperson.
The FDA started placing restrictions on the donation of blood from men who sleep with men, or MSM, in the early 1980s in response to fears of infection during the HIV epidemic. In 1992, the FDA recommended a lifetime ban on MSM, which stood for decades. That was relaxed in 2015 to allow MSM to donate blood if they had not had sexual contact with another man for a year. In 2020, the FDA reduced the deferral period from a year to three months.
LGBTQ advocates have argued that scientific advances such as improved blood screening, which can detect HIV at earlier stages, combined with an evolved knowledge of the virus and an acknowledgment of homophobia, have made restrictive policies antiquated.
Bencomo calls the potential for a relaxing of the ban, which he believes “compounded the fear of HIV,” progress.
“In light of what is happening with the direct attacks on the LGBTQ community, it is a small victory that can make big waves,” said the New Mexico native, who has lived in Baltimore for the past eight years. “Mainly because the LGBTQ community is constantly being marginalized and being consistently scapegoated. This is one of the few changes that can be positive for the gay community and the world at large.”
Other members of the LGBTQ community say previous policies were outdated and discriminatory, and that they lacked scientific merit and need to be revised.
“I stopped donating blood when I started sleeping with men,” said one man, 30, of Mount Vernon, who declined to be identified.
Another gay man, who also declined to be identified, said he has continued to donate blood despite the policy.
“I have known that I wasn’t legally allowed to donate the entire [time] I’ve been donating but I know these laws are antiquated and that the needs of people affected [people who need blood] run greater risks of not having the blood than having it,” said the Mount Vernon resident, who estimates he has donated blood 15 times since 2006.
Both applauded the moves by Biden and Brown as the right thing to do.
Phillip Westry, the executive director for FreeState Justice, a Baltimore-based legal advocacy organization that assists low-income LGBTQ Marylanders, said his organization supports Biden’s efforts to change the existing policy.
“Donated blood undergoes multiple tests for HIV, STIs and other blood-borne diseases. The change in policy is science-based, removes the stigma, and ends the practice of rejection of gay, bisexual men. The practice was rooted in homophobia,” he said. “This is the right direction for Maryland and the country.”
Londyn Smith de Richelieu, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs in Baltimore, said she is “super excited” that the Biden administration is “stepping up” for the LGBTQ community as other states continue their attack on the rights of same-gender-loving people and gender minorities.
“The historic recommendation to not accept life-saving blood and plasma from gay men is the paradigm of homophobia,” de Richelieu said. “We would be remiss to not acknowledge the millions of lives jeopardized by this outdated guidance. It’s time to illuminate the shadow of irresponsibility cast over the altruistic endeavors of the few to save the many. Shame on those who engineered these hate-based restrictions.”
Cleo Manago, director of the Pride Center of Maryland, agreed that the previous policy is “outdated” and should be replaced by the guidance proposed by Biden and supported by Brown.
“It intervenes on the unnecessary stigmatization of homosexual and bisexual men. I predict that the policy change will eventually occur as the predominantly white-led LGBTQ community is very powerful,” Manago said. “As a Black male who still faces sometimes lethal levels of stigmatization, including from within the gay community, I am envious of that power. Simultaneously, I believe this change could benefit all of us.”