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How Orlando's gay community, after Pulse, helped spur proposed changes to blood donor rules

Caroline Catherman, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the days after the 2016 Pulse gay nightclub shooting ―the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — gay and bisexual men were turned away from donating blood unless they had been celibate for a year.

“Our community really wanted to give back in that way. They wanted to be able to donate blood for those who needed it, who were injured that night, and weren’t allowed to. I think that really weighed heavily on (them),” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor.

Currently, men who have sex with men must be celibate for three months to donate blood. For years, LGBTQ advocates, blood banks and medical associations have argued this waiting period is unnecessary and discriminatory. The data supported their position, too: 29% of people diagnosed with HIV in 2020 were not men who had sex with men. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration proposed an update.

Rather than universally barring men who recently had sex with men, donors of all genders and sexualities would be barred from donating if they said they had engaged in anal sex with new or multiple partners over the last three months. Gay men in monogamous relationships would no longer have to abstain from sex in order to donate.

This draft recommendation would keep time limits in place for people taking medication to prevent HIV — due to a potential for false negatives, the agency says — and for intravenous drug users. The agency would continue to ban donations from people who have ever tested positive or been treated for HIV, and blood would still be screened for HIV and other diseases, as has been the case since 1985.

“Maintaining a safe and adequate supply of blood and blood products in the U.S. is paramount for the FDA, and this proposal for an individual risk assessment, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will enable us to continue using the best science to do so,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf in a news release.


This shift in policy happened in part because of efforts by Orlando’s LGBTQ community, propelled by the Pulse tragedy.

“I’m really proud of Orlando’s role in all this,” Wolf said. “It feels good that the darkest day in Orlando’s history, in my eyes, has helped to fuel some positive change.”

Gay and bisexual Orlando residents spoke out about being denied the chance to donate blood after Pulse. This reignited the debate, spurring a letter from members of Congress urging the FDA to ground its recommendations in science and motivating a bill proposed in 2020 by former U.S. Rep. Val Demings and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley that called for updating eligibility criteria.

After the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated chronic blood shortages, growing pressure pushed the FDA to begin a pilot study in 2021, dubbed ADVANCE (Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility). The study found eligibility based on risk factors rather than sexuality didn’t significantly result in more HIV-positive blood donations.


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