The last time J.D. Wheeler donated blood was ten years ago, when he was in high school.
Last year, he tried to donate again, at a blood drive at his church. But when a Red Cross volunteer handed him a questionnaire, he was surprised by one of the questions: Had he ever had sex with a man?
Wheeler was still in the closet. But as a nurse, he felt he had to answer truthfully. He checked the box for yes.
"She took one look at the clipboard, saw that I’d answered yes and said, sorry, you’re not eligible to donate," Wheeler said.
Wheeler was stunned. He didn’t know that any man who’s had sex with a man even once since the AIDS epidemic began in 1977 is banned from donating blood for life.
The Food and Drug Administration wrote the rule in 1983, because gay and bisexual men are at highest risk for HIV infection, and at the time there was no reliable way to test blood for the virus. In the 30 years since, tests have become highly accurate, so there’s been a growing push among gay activists, politicians, and the medical establishment to get the FDA to change its policy.
Last month, a "We the People" petition calling for an end to the ban garnered 45,000 signatures on Whitehouse.gov. It fell short of the 100,000 signatures needed to get the Obama administration to respond, but that hasn’t stopped activists from continuing to push for the change.
On July 11, 1,500 gay men showed up at blood donation centers across the country to participate in the National Gay Blood Drive, now in its second year, to protest the FDA’s ban. Each man brought a straight friend to donate blood in his name.
Ryan James Yezak, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and activist, organized the event.
"I think [the FDA's] policy has greater consequences than what they understand in terms of LGBT rights," Yezak said.
J.D. Wheeler agrees. He remembers how he felt when the Red Cross volunteer told him he couldn't give blood.
"When she said no there was just that sinking feeling of failure, a sense of...I'm just not as equal as the other person who is just like me, but is just straight."
Yezak believes the ban perpetuates another stigma associated with being gay.
"There are a lot of people who still equate being gay with contracting HIV, and look at it as a disease. And if you look at our government and the policies and laws in place, the only one that supports that notion is this FDA policy," he said.
Yezak also argues that the FDA’s own policies are inconsistent. Other high-risk groups are allowed to donate blood after a waiting period known as a deferral. Even a man who’s had sex with a woman he knows to be HIV positive can donate blood after waiting a year.
Dr. Louis Katz is chief medical officer for America’s Blood Centers, a nonprofit that provides half of the nation’s blood supply. His group, along with the Red Cross, has called on the FDA to change its policy on gay and bisexual men.
"A lifetime deferral is not justified by the science," he said.
Testing of donated blood has become so accurate that the chance of infected blood being given to a patient is almost nonexistent, Katz said. Since 1999, when blood centers started using nucleic acid testing to detect HIV, fewer than 10 people have gotten HIV from a blood transfusion, he noted.
"And we transfuse over 20 million components a year, so do the math. The rates are microscopic," said Katz.
But Katz said that, despite the advancements in testing, the FDA resists changing its policy because the fact remains that gay and bisexual men are still at highest risk for infection, and current blood tests may not detect HIV in the blood of someone who’s been infected within the prior ten days.
"FDA doesn’t want to be seen as adding risk to the blood supply," even a tiny bit of risk, Katz said.
Other groups, including the American Medical Association and members of Congress agree that the ban should be lifted,calling it discriminatory and saying it is based on outdated science. The California state assembly this month passed a similar resolution, written by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica).
The FDA denied an interview request, but on its website it says it is collecting research that will help it assess whether a policy change is warranted.
Katz said some of this research is focusing on whether more comprehensive questionnaires provided to potential donors might do a better job of screening out high-risk donors than a blanket ban on all men who have sex with men.