The Orlando Massacre Revealed Hyper-Homophobia and HIV Stigma Outweighing Need for Blood Donors

George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson

Gun control. Islamophobia. LGBTQ lives. FDA blood donation policies for gay men and MSM. Politics. Race. Homophobia. Gender. Sex.

Every topic that America has tried to sweep under the rug came to the surface on June 12 when a gunman entered Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and murdered 49 black and Latinx people, injuring an additional 53. The majority of these victims were members of the LGBTQ population. The entire world was looking to see how we would react.

The call for blood donations went out rapidly across media platforms. When over 100 people are attacked, many of them being LGBTQ, it is only inevitable that the first people who show up to donate blood are from that community. But, since December 2015, gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) -- as well as any women who have had sex with them -- have been told they must defer blood donations for a full year after sexual contact.

In Orlando, the "donor deferral" policy showed its ugly face, putting dozens of people at possible risk as their closest friends, family and members of the community had to be turned away due to their sexuality. The worst shooting in American history was compounded with a stigmatizing and discriminatory policy, threatening human lives and the country's welfare.

In 1983, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placed a ban on blood donated by any man who had sex with another man since 1977. This was seen as a precautionary measure due to a lack of reliable tests to screen blood for HIV and the disproportionate number of those affected coming from this particular community.

In December 2015, the FDA made its "groundbreaking" decision to lift the total ban and allow MSM who hadn't been sexually active for at least one year to donate blood. The ban lift, unfortunately, just perpetuates homophobia and sex shaming, and is another blow to a community that is already far too stricken by discrimination. Although many advancements have been made and now many consider HIV to be a "chronic illness," MSM who want to donate blood are still being turned away, or are lying about their sexuality to get past the archaic ban that has stood for far too long.

The massacre, and the loss of my brothers, sisters and non-identifying siblings, is still very heavy on my heart and many hearts across the LGBTQ community. With our unique intersectionality, we cross many lines and are affected adversely by many policies and laws -- including this FDA policy. We are more than just our sex and our gender, and our sexual habits, compounded with the epidemic of yesteryear, cannot continue to cripple us as a community. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: You can't get blood from a rock, but you can definitely get blood from a gay.

Laws and policies that discriminate against certain populations feed and fuel hate speech. Hate speech isn't just a Donald Trump sound bite. As a member of the LGBT community, any policy or procedure that directly attacks my lived experience, and that creates the perception that my blood is "less than" that of anyone else's simply due to my sexual orientation, expresses hate, supports criminalization policies and devalues any "body" that is not heterosexual.

In a world in which we have advanced HIV treatment and new HIV/AIDS cases are declining, we are still facing our past demons and allowing hysteria and hyper-homophobia to outweigh logic and public safety.

Although people in the LGBT community are more likely to test positive compared with our hetero counterparts, new measures and technologies have been created to screen blood to prevent the transfer of HIV through transfusion. Furthermore, the FDA is missing an opportunity to discover the previously or newly infected who are among the estimated 1 in 8 people with HIV in the U.S. who are unknowingly living with the virus.

I'm sure that when the FDA decided to create the ban and then "lift" it, it did not take into account what would happen if the only blood available during a catastrophe were that of the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately for us, the FDA didn't have to wait long to see the effects of its discriminatory policy. June 12, 2016, will be a day we never forget, as a "perfect storm" of events took place and forced society to open its eyes to what is really going on in America.

Ironically, two days after this tragedy was World Blood Donor Day. On this day, over 700 people protested on the steps of City Hall in New York City to demand that the FDA change this archaic discriminatory policy. The Blood Equality Campaign led the march and protested with some of the nation's leading doctors and activists to demand immediate changes. It is estimated that over 615,000 pints of blood were turned away each year in the lifetime ban years. Using the motto, "It's Time for Science, Not Stigma," the blood equality campaign couldn't have come at a better time -- or worse time, depending on how you look at it. The successful protest was just the first step in what will be a new battle for those of us on the front line of the LGBTQ community.