The exact nature of the FDA's blood ban for gay men has shifted over the past 33 years. In 1986, the guidelines grew to exclude men who had sex with men at any point during the previous decade. In 1992, it became a lifetime ban. And last year, in response to urging from activists and health professionals, the FDA rolled back the prohibition period to one year, but required gay male donors to be sexually abstinent for a year prior to making a blood donation.
Today, if you're a sexually active gay man, you are prohibited from giving blood in America. It doesn't matter if your blood is screened for HIV (as all donated blood samples are), if you're in a monogamous relationship, if you use condoms each time you have sexual contact, or even if you're donating blood to your husband. Even though the CDC estimates the chances of being infected with HIV from blood donation to be 1 in 1.5 million, the restriction remains in place.
Frustration over these rules grew this week, following Sunday's mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Many gay men were turned away after a rumor began circulating that the Blood One, a Florida blood bank, had temporarily lifted restrictions on donations from sexually-active gay men. Blood One soon quashed the rumor and said that all Food and Drug Administration guidelines remained in place for potential blood donors.
David Stacy, government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign, told me over the phone that his group is one of many that sees the "stigmatizing" nature of the FDA rule. Moreover, the prohibition "keeps valuable blood out of the blood banks."
"A married gay man in a monogamous relationship is clearly much more low-risk," Stacy says.
Dan Bruner, senior director of policy at Whitman-Walker, a Washington DC community health center specializing in HIV/AIDS and LGBT care, told me that he didn't see a way for sexually active gay men to get around the FDA rule "for this crisis."
If you're a gay man and you have been celibate for a year, of course, you can donate blood normally—just look up your nearest blood bank and go.
But if you don't fit the FDA's criteria, there are some alternative options available:
In a study published in the Italian medical journal Blood Transfusion in 2013, researchers found that after Italy reversed its outright ban on homosexual men donating blood and switched to a system in which individual donors were subjected to a rigorous questionnaire regarding their sexual behaviors and histories, there was no increase in HIV infections.
Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Chile, and Russia are some of the other countries with similar programs that allow healthy gay men to donate blood. And even though traveling to a foreign country would mean that your blood donation wouldn't go to help shooting victims in Orlando (or anywhere else in the U.S.), it would still help someone.
If you think the FDA's guidelines are unjust and discriminatory, you can write your legislator and demand that they be revised again to eliminate or drastically shorten the waiting period for gay men who want to donate blood.
Some members of Congress, like Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, have already started making noise about the issue on their own.
There is currently a White House petition to overturn the ban as well, but it has a long way to go to reach the number of signatures above which President Obama would address it.
Even when we aren't in a national tragedy, blood donors are always in need. The National Gay Blood Drive is held every year to add blood to the country's banks and bring further attention to the FDA's ban. Gay men who wish to participate are encouraged to round up allies they know to donate in their place. Learn more about how you can participate here.
We don't advise this option, but some gay men have taken it upon themselves to lie about their sexual history as a way to give blood. Experts agree that even though the risk of HIV transmission is small, it's still not a good idea to lie on a health disclosure form—even if, strictly speaking, there's no way for authorities to confirm a donor's sexual past.
"I'd never advise someone to be untruthful in the way they answer a questionnaire," Bruner told me.
Still, it happens.
"The FDA in their analysis [that led to the one-year prohibition] talked about data that shows that a fair number of people actually answer those questionnaires untruthfully on a number of fronts," Bruner said. "People see that a lot of those questions and restrictions are not based on sound medical science. And if someone thinks a question is not legitimate, they might make a decision about how to answer it."
Stacy also said he couldn't suggest that people lie in order to give blood, but is quick to tell me it'd be impossible to stop someone who is determined.
"When you have a policy that’s perceived as unreasonable, like this policy is, it deters people from complying," Stacy said.
A more ethical option for gay men might just be to wait this one out.
"This might be something that can change the FDA's mind over time," Bruner says, "but the FDA moves pretty slowly, so the likelihood that they'll change their mind in time to respond to this crisis, it's just not going to happen."
Stacy is a bit more optimistic about a change being made to the FDA's guidelines, especially after mass trauma events like the Orlando shooting.
"At the end of the day, these decisions are evaluated by medical experts. We think the preponderance of the science clearly shows a shorter deferral period is warranted."
Bruner says that all gay men who legally can donate blood should. For everyone else, though, blood isn't the only currency that helps in a crisis.
If you want to donate money to a local LGBT organization supporting the Orlando shooting, Equality Florida has set up a GoFundMe to support victims and their families. They're not the only local or nationwide LGBTQ group to have a fund set up right now by far. (Here are some tips about how to suss out if the charity or fund you are eyeing for a donation is legitimate.)
There are a number of other steps you can take to help Orlando, including adopting the pets of victims.
Check out WeAreOrlando.org for even more tips about how you can help in this time.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org