During the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned blood donations from any man who had a sexual encounter with another man after 1977. Since then, the laws have fluctuated. In 2015, any man who had sex with another man within a 12-month period could not donate blood. In 2020, the law officially changed to any man who had sex with another man within a three-month period could not give blood.
Many see these laws as discriminatory against queer individuals and outdated. Studies have proven that after nucleic testing, which all donated blood goes through, the likelihood of HIV transmission is one in 1.5 million.
After learning about these facts and the history of LGBTQ blood donation bans, a University of Cincinnati (UC) student, Cole Williams, started Pride and Plasma. Williams, a fourth-year nursing and political science student, formed the group to make a difference and work towards putting a stop to these bans that he views as homophobic.
“In May of 2022, Grey's Anatomy's season finale covered the queer blood ban,” Williams said. “I had known about the FDA's policy because I had been turned away from giving blood in the past, but this really reminded me of it. I knew that coverage on tv wouldn't solve the issue, and frankly, I didn't have anything to lose by trying.”
After working on the launch of this initiative this past summer, Pride and Plasma officially took off this past fall. Williams teamed up with many more people interested in helping the cause, such as a few of his friends, professional researchers in the field, LGBTQ community centers, local activist groups and more.
“I have been doing research on the history of the blood ban in the United States and HIV and AIDS since I was 16 years old,” said Cynthia M. Rocha, a researcher for Pride and Plasma and a student at DePaul University. “I learned about it first in my phlebotomy lab, stating to be aware of our inability to draw blood from a potential donor if they were a sexually active gay man. I was infuriated at this injustice, and I have been researching and working on different projects since.”
The group began by sending letters to members to U.S. representatives. Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, introduced a resolution to put an end to the FDA’s policy, but it died in committee. After this first step did not bring much traction to the initiative, the group started a petition in hopes of the FDA seeing there was support behind this change. Then, Pride and Plasma made an educational video about the issue to post on multiple social media platforms.
Since spreading awareness, Pride and Plasma has reached out to major blood donation organizations to speak on shortages and how patients need more donors. They made educational social media posts, brought together scientific research and compared policies to other countries. Pride and Plasma brought together all of this to speak at the FDA’s blood products advisory committee meeting on Dec. 8, 2022.
“On Jan. 27, the FDA released updated draft guidelines for blood donation, which removed all barriers for sexual orientation and removed all gendered language,” Williams said. “This was a huge win.”
Although this was a huge step toward Pride and Plasma’s goal, Williams believes the fight is not over. From here, the group plans on fighting for other aspects of equality in donation, besides blood and tissue.