A University of Virginia student has begun a nonprofit to increase tolerance and awareness of LGBTQ people and, in particular, to advocate to change the policy that bans sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood.
Austin Houck, a second-year student who is majoring in computer science and politics, said he and a group of friends recently learned about the blood donation ban and decided to form a 501©(4) with branches at different universities. The organization, Homoglobin, will advocate to eliminate the ban and for LGBTQ-friendly sex education in schools.
“We have an abundance of information about the amount of people growing up now who will be LGBTQ, and more information than ever about how HIV/AIDS spreads,” Houck said. “When there are policies based on misinformation and fear of a group of people, we should work to change that.”
Blood donors are required to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria; in 1983, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the agency instituted a lifetime donation ban for gay and bisexual men. The policy was rolled back in 2015 to just exclude donations from men who had had sex with other men in the past 12 months.
Calls to change the policy recurred after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida in 2016. The FDA explored ending the ban, but decided not enough scientific evidence was yet available to guarantee the safety of the blood pool.
Donated blood is screened for viruses and pathogens, and the FDA has other restrictions for other populations that might be at risk of transmitting blood-borne diseases. People with sexually transmitted diseases, or who have recently had tattoos or piercings, or who have recently used non-prescribed drugs should defer, according to current guidance, even though windows for infection are shorter than a year.
Houck said these policies equate LGBTQ relationships with illegal drug use, and that he believes screening procedures have improved enough to limit bans only to people who have tested positive for blood-borne diseases.
His organization, which, in addition to UVa, has started chapters at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, the College of William & Mary and West Potomac High School, plans to begin fundraising and reaching out to students in other states.
“I have a couple of male gay friends who would like to give blood and volunteer in that way, and they’re not given the opportunity to,” said Skylar Brement, a first-year UVa student who volunteers for the organization. “As our society moves forward, there will be more gay men, and when we have blood shortages, it makes sense to get blood from anyone who can give it.”