The beginning of the 1980s was also the beginning of the HIV and AIDS crisis in the United States. Gay men in Los Angeles and New York City were coming down with what seemed like an unusual form of cancer. Near the end of 1981, 270 cases were reported and out of those cases, 121 people had died.
As case numbers began to pick up, people became more concerned about what was happening. Journalist Rev. Lester Kinsolving asked the first public question about the AIDS epidemic to Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes. Kinsolving described the seriousness of the issue as laughter erupted from the audience. He attempted to highlight the severity of the disease by revealing that ⅓ of people who get the disease die. Speakes’s reply was that he didn’t have it and went on to question the journalist. He asked how Kingsolving even knew about this issue and jokingly questioned if Kinsolving himself had this disease. By looking at the government’s response as an example, the American people adopted an attitude towards people with AIDS that emulated one of judgment and disgust.
According to a Gallup poll, more than ⅕ of people who knew a gay person reported they had become less comfortable around them after they found out about the AIDS epidemic. Some Americans felt it was God’s punishment for being gay. Despite the majority feeling that people with AIDS should be treated with compassion, hate still rang out loud and clear.
As they conducted more studies, scientists found out the root cause of the issue. This virus attacks cells that help the body fight infection. It starts with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and if left untreated, it progresses to AIDS. Currently, there is no cure, but it’s not the death sentence it once was.
What’s happening now
Despite the AIDS crisis existing over 30 years ago, stereotypes and misconceptions about gay men still occur to this day. Up until recently, gay and bisexual men could not give blood for fear that it was infected with HIV. This first started back in 1977 when the FDA prevented men who have sex with other men from donating.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, it took up until December 2015 for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change its lifetime ban on queer men to a year for any men who have had sex with men. This means a man who wanted to give blood in 2015 had to abstain from sex with any man for a full 12 months or else he would have been rejected from giving blood.
The reason for the waiting period is because none of the tests done on donated blood can guarantee 100% accuracy. These tests look for HIV, hepatitis, syphilis, and other diseases that occur in the blood. However, out of the 12 million blood donations each year, 10 HIV infected donations have eluded the tests.
Now in April 2020, the FDA loosened its restrictions for men who have had sex with men from donating blood. Instead of men abstaining from same-sex sexual activity for 12 months, they now have to wait 3 months to become eligible to donate blood in light of the recent blood shortage with Coronavirus.
However, when Lukus Estok, who has recently recovered from COVID-19, went to donate blood plasma but he was turned away. It didn’t matter that his donation could save lives, in that moment they only saw him as a gay man. Estok recalls feeling like he was radioactive like his blood wasn’t good enough.
Despite Estok and many other gay men fulfilling the FDA’s guidelines of abstaining from sex with other men for three months, they were turned away from blood donation centers. The delay seemed to be caused by computer systems not being updated to comply with the new rule as well as staffers who have not been trained on the new rule. Furthermore, the trade group to which most US blood banks belong had not received proper documentation from the FDA to initiate the regulation.
What needs to change
Going forward, some LGBTQ+ activist groups advocate for a change in the blood screening method. They believe it’s wrong for blood donation centers to judge on the basis of sexuality. Instead, the screening should be based on factors, like unprotected sex, that could impact a person’s blood. Because as of right now, a man who has unprotected sex with multiple women can donate blood the next day.
The Human Rights Campaign believes change needs to happen in regards to blood donations in the United States. They offered up two solutions to this problem. They want the government to study risk behavior as well as have the FDA create a revised donor questionnaire that analyzes the individual risk of a donor’s sexual behavior. This will help eliminate any inequality based on sexual orientation or gender identity.