A 34-Year-Old FDA Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood Exists: Lance Bass Wants It Gone

Lance Bass poses for a portrait at Logo's "Trailblazer Honors" on June 23, 2016, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Ungano & Agriodimas /Getty Images Portrait

Lance Bass poses for a portrait at Logo's "Trailblazer Honors" on June 23, 2016, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

On October 2, the day after the Las Vegas massacre, Lance Bass phoned a friend. Already knowing the answer, he asked if blood donations were still banned for people like him.

“I called my friends that were donating blood at the Red Cross Vegas, just to see,” he told Billboard. “I knew they would turn it down, of course, but I just wanted to have the ask out there again.”

And what did the Red Cross say?

“Exactly what I knew they’d say,” Bass replied. “That they can’t receive a gay man’s blood.”

Since 1983, MSM, or “men who have sex with men,” has been the CDC and FDA’s legal and federal classification for a group of people whose blood is not welcome at national blood banks and local donation centers across the U.S. For the better part of 34 years, the government has held onto the controversial MSM ban, a policy that says homosexual male blood is “too risky” to use, and that a donation from an otherwise healthy man must be discarded to protect against potential population contamination and “HIV infection.” The historic explanation behind MSM is statistically conservative and traditionally simplistic, one we’re probably all too familiar with; the subsequent fall out from this existing policy is much messier.

In the early eighties, the emergence of AIDS was found to initially be associated with “male-to-male sexual contact,” a disease thought to only be ailing the gay population. As new data emerged, scientists and government officials discovered that heterosexuals could also contract AIDS through commercial sex work (CSW) and intravenous drug use (IDU). In 1984 it was discovered that a virus, now known as HIV, caused AIDS, and HIV was something we could potentially screen for. By 1985, we had the first HIV screening tests for patients and potential donors.

But the damage had already been done. Thousands of blood transfusions had taken place and unsuspecting patients had received infected blood. The epidemic had spread beyond the suspected niche community of sex workers, drug users and MSMs and through the veins of the mainstream, general population.

That was when the federal government got involved. In September 1985, the FDA “recommended” that blood establishments—like the Red Cross—“indefinitely defer male donors who have had sex with another male, even one time, since 1977,” but a suggestion wasn’t strong enough. On April 23, 1992, the FDA issued the “1992 Blood Memo,” stating that the risk of HIV/AIDS outweighed the potential for emotional harm in refusing a donor, and that, due to “behaviors associated with high rates of HIV exposure, namely commercial sex workers, those who inject licit drugs, men who have sex with men and certain individuals with other risk factors,” those people should be deferred indefinitely, i.e. subjected to a lifetime ban.

This arbitrary lifetime ban for all homosexual males existed up until 2015, two years ago, when the U.S government felt there was enough supportive data from Australia’s MSM policy (which showed there had been no change in HIV positive donations when switching from a lifetime ban to a 12-month ban) to justify instating a similar policy.

Billboard reached out to both the FDA and the Red Cross for comment and was referred to a joint statement put out back in December 2016, months after the Pulse nightclub shooting in June. “All blood collectors in the U.S. are required to follow the rules and regulations issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including blood donation eligibility,” the statement said. “Based on several years of research, the FDA’s decision to change the MSM blood donation policy from a lifetime deferral to a 12-month deferral is consistent with selection criteria for other activities that are used to safeguard the blood supply from equivalent risks of transfusion-transmissible infections…While testing has greatly improved, it is not 100 percent effective at detecting infectious diseases in donors with very early infection.”

But the FDA’s reasoning for a one-year deferral is scientifically obtuse at best (they selected 12 months to provide ample “time for the detection of infected individuals” though 80% of individuals infected with the virus get flu-like symptoms within two to six weeks after infection), and shamefully discriminatory and stigmatizing at worst.

Initially the group that was created to oversee the policy change, Blood, Organ & Tissue Safety Working Group (BOTS) in June 2010, suggested a controlled pilot program to study whether, scientifically, any change in general HIV positive donations could be determined if they began accepting homosexual male donors, but due to “further considerations regarding the significant statistical, financial and logistical challenges in implementing such a study” the BOTS Working Group decided that such a study “would not be feasible.”

Some members suggested individual risk-based options, but that seemed extreme. Others said a 5-year ban, but given that Australia—and other countries, such as the U.K--had miraculously managed to collect blood from gay men and record no change in HIV positive donations after only a 12-month deferment, BOTS decided that was the best option. There is no similar data available to support shorter deferral intervals or ending deferrals all together; after all, those studies would prove to be too much of a financial and logistical burden.

“I think it's such a ridiculous ban,” Bass said. “It's something I've known for a long time, but to keep getting reminded of it every time there's a tragedy where people need blood, like right now….I've tried giving blood several times in my life, but once you say that you're gay they just throw the blood out.”

While the CDC still claims “among persons living with HIV as of 2012, 56% were MSM,” the real kicker for the general population was in 2016 when a domestic terrorist killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The gay friends and family members of the wounded and critically injured were banned from donating much-needed blood, even during the time of mass tragedy.

“Given the target, nature and timing of this particular attack, the LGBT community is especially eager to contribute to the response effort,” Democratic lawmakers from congress wrote in a letter to the FDA Commissioner after the attack. “We are concerned that the 12-month deferral policy, which suggests that the sexual relationships of [gay and bisexual] men and transgender women inherently pose a risk of HIV transmission, furthers a stigma that we have persistently fought to eliminate.”

The scientific data to support even a 12-month deferral just doesn’t exist, Bass, who donated blood before he had sex with a man and before he came out, argues.

“We test every donation. A straight woman that has HIV but doesn’t know it, they're going to take her blood and test it just like they could take a healthy gay man's blood that isn’t infected and test it. Risk factor screening needs to evolve,” he said. “If you are in a mutually, healthy monogamous relationship then you should also be considered low risk just as anyone else would.”

When asked if lifting the ban was a personal fight for Bass, the answer was bitterly clear.

“Michael [my husband] and I have been in a healthy monogamous relationship for 7 years,” he stated bluntly. “There is no risk difference between my monogamous relationship and a straight couple’s relationship. And we should be treated that way.” Otherwise, he said, “it’s just another way to make us feel ‘less than’. [This ban is] a form of clear and pure discrimination.”


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