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Red Cross declares first ever blood shortage; can men who have sex with men donate?

The American Red Cross is facing a national blood crisis – its worst blood shortage in over a decade, posing a concerning risk to patient care. Amid this crisis, doctors have been forced to make difficult decisions about who receives blood transfusions and who will need to wait until more products become available. Blood and platelet donations are critically needed to help prevent further delays in vital medical treatments.

After hearing of this news, many community members have expressed interest in donating blood to add to blood bank reserves, but many in the LGBTQ community wonder if they are able to.

Starting in 1983 following the onset of HIV/AIDS, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implented a lifetime ban on blood donation by men who have sex with men (MSM). This essentially prevented most gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The policy has also affected transgender people because the FDA used the prospective donor’s gender assigned at birth for identification purposes, which meant that transgender women who have sex with men were also deferred from donating blood, but transgender men who have sex with men were not.

The ban was put in to place to help prevent inadvertent transmission of HIV through blood transfusions and blood products such as platelets. At that time, HIV/AIDS was largely not understood by doctors, scientists, and the general public, and the technology and procedures used to test donated blood for HIV were extremely limited.

As new blood testing procedures emerged, the LGBTQ community and others advocated for years to end the ban. In December 2015, the FDA moved from a lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood to a deferral of one year for any man who has had sex with another man during the past 12 months. According to the FDA, this pre-screening eliminated up to 90 percent of donors who may be carrying a blood-borne disease.

In light of the COVID-19 emergency declared in March 2020, the FDA again updated its guidance again, shortening the deferral period for men who have sex with men. On April 2, 2020, the FDA announced that it was updating its policy regarding blood donations from men who have sex with men (MSM), reducing the deferral period from 12 months to three months. The policy was implemented in June 2020.

So I'm a gay man and want to help! CAN I DONATE BLOOD?

Currently, generally healthy men who have sex men only have to wait three months after their last sexual encounter to be potentially eligibile to donate blood. There are a multitude of other eligibility requirements including general health, medications, being low on iron, and recent travel outside of the United States that may disqualify someone from giving blood.

If you want to give blood, check out the American Red Cross' eligibility requirements here.

How would the blood bank know if I'm gay or have had sex with other men?

The FDA requires blood donation organizations to screen potential donors for risk factors related to HIV and other infectious diseases. Most administer a Donor History Questionnaire, which asks about a donor’s current health, medical history, blood donation history, sexual practices, drug use, and other behaviors. Donors deemed to be high risk based on responses to the Questionnaire are deferred from donating blood for varying periods of time into the future.

I'm transgender. What does the guidance say about me?

The FDA revised guidance states, “In the context of the donor history questionnaire, FDA recommends that male or female gender be taken to be self-identified and self-reported.” This change allows blood donors to register with the gender in which they identify. The Red Cross will no longer ask donors to answer both male and female questions when attempting to donate. There is no deferral associated with being transgender, and eligibility will be based upon the criteria associated with the gender the donor has reported. 

Red Cross staff members are required to verbally confirm demographic information, including gender, with all presenting donors. This step helps ensure donor safety and accuracy of records. If Red Cross records have the incorrect gender, presenting donors may ask staff members to make the change upon registration. Individuals do not need to tell staff that they are transgender.  Individuals with specific questions about eligibility can contact the Red Cross Donor and Client Support Center at 1-866-236-3276.  

I'm nonbinary. What about me?

"The Red Cross values all potential blood donors and understands that selecting either male or female may not align with how some individuals identify," said a statement on The Red Cross' eligibility site. "The Red Cross also knows that there is a difference between biological sex and gender."

The FDA revised guidance states, “In the context of the donor history questionnaire, FDA recommends that male or female gender be taken to be self-identified and self-reported.” The FDA requires the Red Cross to have donors select either male or female.

Where can I donate locally?

Visit the San Diego Blood Bank's website to learn more and schedule an appointment.