A blood drive at the Seattle Municipal Tower turned into an act of protest yesterday as several city employees, all of them gay men, attempted to donate blood—which federal law bars them from doing on account of their sexual orientation.
The ban on blood from men who have sex with other men has gained new scrutiny this week following the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, which has prompted blood banks to seek donations.
“As a gay man I’m not eligible to give blood, and the past weekend’s events in Orlando highlighted that inequity again,” said Christopher Peguero, environmental equity advisor for Seattle City Light and founder of the City of Seattle LGBTQ Employees for Equality (SEqual). “My community has been affected, especially the Latino male community, the gay community. I cannot help them in this way, which is one of the most critical thing we can do as a community when tragedies happen. This is a city sponsored blood drive. There are three hours of paid leave that city employees can use to give blood, but we’re ineligible because of our sexual orientation.”
Mayor Ed Murray turned out to show support for the protest.
“This is a very important statement, we’re right now mourning mostly gay men who were slaughtered in Orlando, yet gay men today, regardless of the best science, are being prohibited in this country from giving blood. I’m appreciative that Seattle City employees are stepping up to protest that ban,” Murray told the employees.
Michael Taylor Judd, with the Human Services Department, has been working on this issue with the city for over a decade. Having been married to a man since 2004, they are both prevented from giving blood.
“Yet female friends of ours can sleep with multiple guys that they’re dating during the year, and if they were to go to the same blood drive, they would not run afoul of any of the questions,” he said.
In 2014, SEqual began a campaign to advocate to the city council for an overturn of the blood donor ban, approaching Sally Clark and Murray.
“We wrote letters to the mayor and the city council which leveraged their political support to write letters to the FDA, which was critical at the time the FDA was considering this,” Michael Taylor Judd said.
In December of 2015, the FDA changed its policy, saying it would allow blood banks to accept blood from gay men if they have abstained from sex for at least twelve months. (Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated when the FDA changed its policy. It has been corrected)
Yet change has been slow.
Justice Aaron McCartney, who also works with Seattle City Light, and who has been abstaining from sex for two years, received an email from a blood bank on June 7 stating he “would be denied because they don’t accept blood from gay men”.
“They denied me last year, and I’m determined that now that I’ve gotten past that hurdle, to donate blood legally at least once in my life,” he said.
An employee with Bloodworks Northwest, which was putting on Wednesday’s blood drive, came out to talk with the employees. The employee said Bloodworks Northwest was working to update its policies toward gay men, but said the bureaucratic process is slow.
“The FDA put out their final guidance in December, so all the blood centers in the US have to update our questionnaire, which the FDA has to approve, she said. “We have submitted the paperwork. Believe me, it’s a high priority and has been for us. By the time they come out with a guideline it just takes a few months for everyone to update their systems and get approved. For the past few years, Bloodworks has lobbied the FDA and we were part of the change to get them to at least revisit it and have their guidelines and rules based on scientific knowledge and nothing else.”
Peguero is determined to overturn the ban and has plans to help educate the public about the issues surrounding gay men and blood donations. “What we’d like to do eventually, when we have the capacity as an organization, is to bring employees who are eligible to give blood to hand out information to folks who are giving blood. Folks who are eligible to give, this isn’t on the radar screen. This is a reality we live with. The city allows all employees 3 hours of paid leave to donate blood, we want to use that time to hand out pamphlets to build that momentum.”