In the midst of a global pandemic, two organizations — one, a federally run agency for health and human services, and the other, an evangelical Christian hate group disguised as an humanitarian aid organization — have come under fire for some very problematic and offensive practices and beliefs directed toward the LGBTQ+ community.
In the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the United States Food and Drug Administration introduced a ban in 1983 that prohibited men who had sex with men from donating blood. As many are aware, HIV, at the start of its epidemic, was seen as a “gay disease”, since a large percentage of the population who acquired HIV were gay and bisexual men. This undoubtedly led to anal sex being classified as an “high risk” activity for contracting the HIV virus.
In 2015, the FDA instated a new recommendation that said gay and bisexual men would have to adhere to a twelve month waiting period in which they would need to abstain from sex before they would be eligible to donate blood. This new recommendation was put into place in order to replace the lifetime prohibition on blood donation from gay and bisexual men originally imposed in 1983.
This new recommendation, however, was still highly criticized as discriminatory and antiquated. The FDA has re-examined the ban over the years, but has stood firm in the idea that the restriction was necessary to “keep the blood supply safe and untainted by HIV”.
Blood donation in a pandemic
Now, in 2020, as we are at the height of the biggest global pandemic since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, scientists have discovered that antibodies found in the blood of people who have been recovering from COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — can possibly help save lives by being injected into patients who are experiencing life-threatening illness as a result of the virus, which currently has no cure or vaccine.
In light of this discovery, the American Red Cross and other blood donation agencies began to collect blood donations from patients who have recovered from the virus. But there was one problem — many of those who have recovered from COVID-19 are, indeed, men who have sex with men who were not allowed to donate blood, unless they have been abstinent for over a year.
Because of this obstacle, the FDA announced on Thursday that it was loosening its recommendations for blood donations from gay and bisexual men, reducing the amount of time that these men should wait before they donate blood to three months, in hopes of mitigating a drastic drop in supply during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have applauded the decision. Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of GLAAD, said in a statement on Thursday, “LGBTQ Americans can hold their heads up today and know that our voices will always triumph over discrimination. This is a victory for all of us who spoke out against the discriminatory ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.”
The fight goes on
Nevertheless, there is one catch: The FDA also said the new recommendations would remain in place only until after the pandemic ends. Many of the celebrating advocacy groups are aware of this, and have made a commitment to continue the fight until the ban is lifted completely.
But why should they even have to continue this very long and senseless fight? HIV is no longer considered the death sentence it was during the 80s and 90s at the height of the epidemic. With new and more advanced medications, people with HIV are continuing to live longer and healthier lives. Furthermore, it is becoming common knowledge now that people whose HIV viral loads are undetectable cannot transmit HIV to others.
And, even if someone’s viral load is not undetectable, doesn’t the FDA test the blood donations extensively for HIV and other bloodborne pathogens? Wouldn’t it just be easier to not use the blood that tested positive for HIV as opposed to implementing an extremely discriminatory ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men? Why openly discriminate against these individuals specifically?
It is also disturbing that 2015’s “twelve month rule”, and the current “three month rule” also applies to gay and bisexual men who take HIV medications, such as Truvada and Descovy, as PrEP — Pre-exposure propholaxis taken to prevent one from acquiring HIV — despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that, if taken as directed, PrEP is over 99% effective against acquiring HIV.
In addition to denying gay and bisexual men who have had sex with men in the past year the right to donate blood, the FDA has also previously recommended that women with male sexual partners who have had sex with men in the past year not donate blood. The revisions on Thursday lowered their waiting period to three months as well.
But I still have questions. How can they be sure that all women are even aware that their male sexual partners have not had sex with men? They may not even know that some of these men are openly bisexual. To be perfectly honest, many of the men who donate blood may not be openly bisexual. They could very well be in the closet, and not being completely honest about their sexual encounters.
My point is that there are so many questions and so many variables involved in each individual situation that it makes the entire recommendation futile and inconsequential. They may never have any concrete way to verify any of this information. So, why are these regulations still a thing? There’s only one simple answer: Homophobia.
Yes, even in the wake of a devastating global pandemic such as COVID-19, caused by such an invisible and insidious spectre as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, individuals and organizations are holding steady to their homophobic agendas.
Never mind that the antibodies in the blood of gay and bisexual men who have recovered from COVID-19 can possibly save the life of another person. What remains of utmost importance to these people is that they protect these poor, unsuspecting individuals from acquiring something far more dangerous than COVID-19 — GAY COOTIES!
It also goes without saying that many of the individuals who may benefit from the antibodies in the donated blood may very well be gay or bisexual men who have had sex with men themselves. Numerous studies have shown that men make up a higher percentage (about 60% to 70%) of those who are becoming incredibly ill and/or dying of COVID-19.
Given that there is no absolute way to verify each of those men’s sexual orientation or who they’ve slept with in the past three months to a year, one may still be able to hypothesize that, if men are becoming infected with the coronavirus at higher rates than women, then a large percentage of those men could also possibly be gay or bisexual. Thus, many of the people who recover may be the same people who would be restricted for months from donating blood that can be used to save other lives. So, in this case, who are they actually protecting?
It’s appalling that, even in such grave circumstances as what we’re facing right now, any organization would still be intent — even in the slightest — on upholding any regulation rooted in outdated and offensive beliefs that only serve to further push the false narrative that all gay people are immoral and diseased.
The only thing more appalling than this would be if an organization decided to use a global pandemic as an opportunity to push evangelical and anti-LGBTQ+ agendas. But no one in their right mind would do something like that, right?
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Enter notoriously anti-gay, evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, who is currently being applauded by Trump for joining the fight against coronavirus and being a man who “loves Jesus”.
On Tuesday, March 31st, as Central Park in Manhattan was being turned into a makeshift hospital to house patients from Mount Sinai Healthcare System, volunteers were met with anti-LGBTQ propaganda through Graham’s organization Samaritan’s Purse. The organization, which is funding the makeshift facility, has put an anti-LGBT filter in place for all volunteers, including healthcare workers.
Graham’s organization is asking volunteers to read and abide by the following statement:
“God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
The statement then goes further to say that those who are unrighteous will be sentenced to “everlasting punishment in hell.”
His actions were undoubtedly met with extreme criticism from various LGBTQ and pro-LGBTQ organizations, groups and individuals, including Chris Fleming, spokesman for Accountable for Equality.
“With New York City being the epicenter of the COVID-19 Crisis, this behavior by Franklin Graham is despicable and flat out blasphemous” said Fleming.
“Healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line to save New Yorkers from this deadly pandemic, and there is no time to be peddling nonsense as a litmus test to help. New Yorkers have no time for nonsense when it comes to helping the sick and elderly, and this practice by Graham is the height of nonsense and the Mayor must order Samaritan’s Purse to end this ridiculous practice immediately. Lives are on the line.”
Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Accountable for Equality is focusing its efforts to highlight those that are capitalizing on the pandemic to advance their own biased priorities that marginalize populations, as part of their #NoTimeForNonsense campaign.
In response to the debacle, New York Senator Brad Hoylman expressed grave concern.
“Graham and his volunteers are free to adhere to whatever bigoted beliefs they’d like. But when they come to New York they need to abide by our Human Rights Law, which ensures marginalized New Yorkers are not subject to discrimination”, said Hoylman.
Senator Hoylman goes on to say, “We can’t let a pandemic change New York’s values. New York City must require every doctor or volunteer working at Graham’s Central Park field hospital—along with anyone providing medical services in a place of public accommodation—to sign a statement affirming their commitment to following New York City’s Human Rights Law.”
Protection of rights
Queer Forty CEO, Richard Jones, contacted the offices of Senator Hoylman to inquire about how the call to human rights would be protected on site, and if patients would have any access to communications as a way to report any discrimination.
It was then explained to Queer Forty that Senator Hoylman and pioneering LGBTQ attorney Roberta Kaplan have crafted a new legal document, which will ensure that anyone providing medical services at places of public accommodation will follow NYC’s Human Rights Law, and will not discriminate against protected classes.
In addition to Senator Hoylman’s response, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio committed, in an interview, that his staff will be on-site at the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital to help monitor for any evidence of discrimination.
While we applaud the quick and tremendous efforts taken by the Senator Hoylman, Attorney Kaplan, Mayor de Blasio, Chris Fleming, and others, it’s very disappointing and discouraging to know that we live in an age where such measures need to be put in place to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals — even during a global pandemic that’s threatening the lives of many.
If anything, this pandemic has highlighted many problems in our society, including a poor economic structure, lack of preparedness for crisis situations, lack of adequate healthcare, discrimination and inequality, and so much more.
The fact that we live in a society where an organization like the Food and Drug Administration would wait for a global pandemic to lift such an outdated and offensive ban on blood donation– a lift that still comes off as halfhearted and patronizing at best — is extremely problematic.
The reality that a homophobic and bigoted person like Franklin Graham, who is celebrated and applauded by the supposed leader of the United States, is influential enough to even be given the platform to lead such an important operation as a field hospital in the middle of a global pandemic, is insulting, disheartening and despicable.
Now is the time for us to re-examine what it means to not only be citizens of the world, but what it means to be human. People are begging and pleading with each other to stay home and save lives. But what difference does it make to save lives if, after this pandemic is over, the safety, security and value of all those lives will continue to be threatened?
This pandemic has proven that time is on no one’s side, and every plan we make for tomorrow can be obstructed or altered in a flash today. There is no time. The time is now.