By Jasmine Blennau and Giselle Barkley
This year, New York became the tenth of 15 states and the District of Columbia to legalize gay marriage. But in the United States, men who have sex with other men still cannot donate blood.
The Food and Drug Administration bans men who have had sex with other men in the last 36 years from donating blood. It placed the ban in 1985 to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS after a series of deaths due to infected blood transfusions.
On Nov. 6, Stony Brook University’s Blood Donor Equality movement presented “The Blood Donor Policy Panel” in the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre. The event highlighted both social and scientific perspectives on the ban.
Dr. Charles L. Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of the Undergraduate Colleges, moderated the panel.
Stony Brook University students Tyler Morrison, James Leonard, Tobin George and Michael Duffy founded the Blood Donor Equality movement.
Morrison, a senior psychology major, invited the audience to participate in signing letters both at the beginning and end of the event. The letters articulated the support of the Blood Equality movement. The group is trying to deliver 100,000 signed letters to United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to bring more awareness to the issue.
Attendees watched an opening video featuring Stony Brook faculty and staff members—including President Stanley and former Undergraduate Student Government president Anna Lubitz—promoting the slogan “I’m a Seawolf and I am not afraid.”
Throughout the video, as well as the event, panelists discussed how fear contributes to the discrimination against various groups, specifically men who have had sex with other men.
Dr. David Kilmnick, Stony Brook alumnus and chief executive officer of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, was one of three panelists at the event. Kilmnick said that the FDA’s policy “fosters inequality and it is time for a reform.”
“You are not any more at risk for being who you are,” Kilmnick said.
Dr. Benjamin J. Greco, medical director of theNew York Blood Center, was one of the two panelists who agreed that the lifetime ban in the U.S. should be reduced to at least one year deferral.
In other words, if MSM are not sexually active with other men for one year, they should be able to donate blood.
But Dr. Louis M. Katz, executive vice president and chief medical officer of America’s Blood Centers, believes that progress toward equality must be made in increments.
According to AIDS.gov, “MSM accounted for 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2009, as well as nearly half (49 percent) of people living with HIV in 2008.”
Though contracting HIV from a blood transfusion is “extraordinarily rare” according to Katz, he cited statistics that showed that, if the United States decreased the deferral to one year rather than a lifetime, the risk would increase by 3 percent per year.
Dr. Kilmnick, who is gay, found many of the statistics personally offensive.
”I am not a statistic, I am an American citizen who should have the same rights as any other American citizen to donate blood,” Dr. Kilmnick said.
”There is no right to donate blood. It does not exist in law,” Katz responded. According to Dr. Katz, this is due to the spread or risk of contracting Hepatitis, HIV and Syphilis following a transfusion.
But according to Morrison, the Blood Donor Equality Movement “[wants] complete removal [of the ban].”
Morrison and senior psychology major Duffy are working with junior biology major Leonard and junior political science major George to attempt to expand the Blood Equality Movement to other SUNY campuses.
Morrison is working with Lubitz to increase the movement’s support. He recently spoke at the SUNY Pride Conference, which brings students and faculty in the SUNY system together, to work toward creating more LGBT friendly campuses.
“Education comes first and foremost. That’s something we all agree on,” Duffy said.
As president of the Residence Hall Association at Stony Brook, Duffy is promoting the movement for Blood Equality beyond SUNY in the National Association of College and University Residence Halls and its North East Affiliate branch. He has traveled to Residence Hall Conferences to teach others about the current policy and why it should be changed.
Senior women and gender studies major John Martin, president of Stony Brook’s LGBTA club, found the event successful but thought terms used throughout the panel needed further explanation.
“There’s a very implicit, silent understanding of what sex is,” Martin said. “There are many people that identify as men that may or may not have the kind of sex that is being assumed. The language itself is really important and the limited understanding of that language has real profound public policy effects and outcome effects.”
Jessica Rybak, a Stony Brook alumna who identifies with the LGBT community, was disappointed that gay and bisexual women were neither represented nor addressed.
“As a queer female person…I realized that I do have a lot tied to it, “ Rybak said. “There’s a lot of women who obviously are affected by HIV and AIDS who do give blood and do engage in activities. It is unfortunate for everyone that women aren’t addressed because that further disenfranchises men.”
Saroosh Khan, a freshman majoring in psychology and biology, left the event feeling differently about the issue.
“Before, I was with the status quo opinion because of the risk, but come to think of it now, it’s discrimination,” Khan said. He added that advancements in technology have improved blood screenings.
Regardless of who donates the blood, all blood is tested the same way and goes through the same procedures.
While the issue remains controversial, Dr. Robbins thinks that Stony Brook is the place to discuss the issue.
”Stony Brook University stands for equality and one of the pillars of our mission is science and knowledge,” Robbins said. “What we are talking about tonight is really about equality, science and knowledge and how these things [are] put together. A lot of what you came here believing is not necessarily based on equality science and knowledge.”
Nov. 8, 2013- A previous version of this article stated that the Federal Drug Administration placed the blood donor ban. The agency name has since been corrected to the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, Tyler Morrison’s was identified as a junior. This has been corrected to say senior.