Here’s What You Need to Know About Donating Blood as an LGBTQ Person

The FDA updated its guidance due to pressure from LGBTQ advocates and a need for donations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During times of need, such as we are experiencing due to the COVID-19 health crisis, there are calls for blood and plasma donations, and LGBTQ people are left asking if they are even allowed to help.

Guidelines have been updated over the years, and another change to policy relevant to the community came this month. With the FDA releasing updated recommendations, this fact sheet is designed to aid LGBTQ individuals in determining their eligibility to donate blood, platelets, and plasma.

What Are the Basic Criteria for Donating Blood, Platelets, and Plasma in the United States?

All donors must meet basic requirements, like time since last donation, feeling well enough to donate, age (you must be at least 16 or 17, depending on type of donation), and weight. Different types of donations—blood, platelet, and plasma—all carry different requirements. That information is available on the American Red Cross’ website.

Can Gay and Bisexual Men Donate Blood, Platelets, and Plasma?

Yes, provided they meet certain criteria, in addition to those mentioned above.

What Criteria Do Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) Need to Meet to Donate?

Men who have had sex with another man in the past three months are not allowed to donate. This change came on April 2, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was rolling back the deferral period for MSM from the previous 12-month period to the current three-month wait time.

Anyone who is HIV-positive is not allowed to donate. Those individuals who are HIV-negative and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, to prevent infection are allowed to donate.

Why Was the Donation Guidance Changed?

LGBTQ advocates have been asking the FDA to change its blood donation policies for gay and bi men, and it finally did so thanks to that pressure as well as to the coronavirus pandemic leading to a critical shortage. The FDA's statement noted a need to "encourage more blood donations."

"Based on recently completed studies and epidemiologic data, the FDA has concluded that current policies regarding certain donor eligibility criteria can be modified without compromising the safety of the blood supply," the statement continued.

Are LGBTQ Advocates Happy With the Blood Donation Guidelines Update?

Advocates celebrated the change, while also pushing for further progress on the issue.

"Continuing to enforce the de facto prohibition on blood donation by sexually active gay and bisexual men does not reflect the best science that is available,” said HRC President Alphonso David.

"The American Red Cross believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation," the organizations says on its website. "We are committed to working toward achieving this goal."

The American Medical Association is also on the side of removing "categorical restrictions for blood donations by MSM so they are instead based on a person’s individual risk."

What About Women Who Have Sex With Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM)?

Women who have sex with MSM also saw their deferral time dropped from 12 months down to three months by the recent change.

What Are the Blood Donation Guidelines for Transgender and Intersex People?

The FDA recommends gender "be taken to be self-identified and self-reported." Intersex individuals are forced to choose either "male" or "female" if they wish to donate. "Individuals do not need to tell staff that they are intersex," the American Red Cross site states.

It also notes that transgender women are able to donate blood, platelets, and plasma even if they have recently had sex with a man, and that transgender men have to follow the MSM deferral period, which, as previously stated, is currently set at three months.

Aren't Blood Donations Tested?

Yes, the Red Cross tests every unit of donated blood for a number of infectious diseases, but, it notes, while testing has improved, it is still "not 100% effective at detecting infectious diseases in donors with very early infection."

Why Do Advocates Say You Shouldn’t Lie to Donate Blood?

While LGBTQ advocates are still pushing for a complete lifting of the ban, they urge MSM not to lie in order to donate blood, platelets, or plasma.

"There is a reason that there are deferral periods,” Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal HIV project director, told reporters last week. "I think there’s a perception out there that’s done on the blood, which is very advanced testing, people believe that it catches all new cases of HIV or new cases of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, or other blood-borne infections."

"While a deferral may be necessary to detect newly-acquired blood-borne pathogens like HIV, the deferral period could be comfortably shortened to as little as 45-60 days," Schoettes added in a media statement.

Can You Donate if You Have Tattoos and/or Piercings?

Yes, but only after waiting three months since your last tattoo or piercing. That too was rolled back from 12 months to three with the updated FDA recommendations.

Any Other Changes With the New Guidance?

Yes, for those who have traveled to malaria-endemic areas, as well as those exposed to a potential risk of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

For the former, the FDA statement reads:

For those who have traveled to malaria-endemic areas (and are residents of malaria non-endemic countries): the agency is changing the recommended deferral period from 12 months to 3 months. In addition, the guidance provides notice of an alternate procedure that permits the collection of blood and blood components from such donors without a deferral period, provided the blood components are pathogen-reduced using an FDA-approved pathogen reduction device.

For the latter, it reads:

For those who spent time in certain European countries or on military bases in Europe who were previously considered to have been exposed to a potential risk of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the agency is eliminating the recommended deferrals and is recommending allowing reentry of these donors.

Are the Recent Blood Donation Recommendation Changes Permanent?

It appears so, but that could change.

"These recommendations are expected to remain in place after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, with any appropriate changes based on comments we receive and our experience implementing the guidances," the FDA's statement updating the recommendations reads.

However, it also states it will "provide notification when the alternative procedures are no longer in effect."

If you have any questions that have not been answered, contact the Red Cross' Donor and Client Support Center at 1-866-236-3276.

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