In June 2012, Uri Horesh, a Northwestern Arabic professor, was barred from donating blood at a blood drive at Indiana University.
The trouble started after he filled out a questionnaire that is required of every potential blood donor. One of the questions asked male donors if they have had sex with another man since 1977. Those who have done so, according to the Food and Drug Administration, cannot donate blood.
Horesh is gay.
In 1977, the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. began, and men who have had sex with men – sometimes referred to as “MSM” – were and still are at a higher risk for HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, in 2010 MSM accounted for 63 percent of people with new cases of HIV.
The LGBT rights movements started gaining momentum in the 1970s. However, when gays were identified as a high-risk group for HIV, AIDS became stereotyped as a gay disease. Despite this, members of the LGBT community and activists continued working for LGBT rights such as marriage. Illinois is set to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage.
While same-sex marriage is set to be legal in its 15th state, MSM who have tested negative for HIV still have a lifetime ban from donating blood. This ban does not apply to men who have never had sexual encounters with another man.
“I knew there were FDA regulations against men who had sex with men, but I decided to challenge that. I verified that Indiana University had a policy against sexual discrimination,” Horesh said.
At the time, Horesh was teaching Arabic at Indiana University for the summer. After blood drive employees told him that he could not donate blood, Horesh showed the policy to the workers, but eventually an employee there called the police. Horesh was arrested and accused of disorderly conduct, resisting law enforcement and spitting on a worker, which according to Horesh, he did not do. He spent 24 hours in jail and paid a $100 fine, in addition to $5,000 in legal fees. Finally, Indiana University suspended him from teaching.
“There was no violence on my part,” Horesh said. “There was much more violence on behalf of the police .... I’ve been a political activist on all sorts of fronts, but I’ve never been in legal trouble for this. Even though it was just 24 hours, it was an unpleasant experience.”
The questionnaire asks about many conditions that could disqualify people from donating blood – such as having hepatitis, being pregnant and being ill – and asks the question, “From 1977 to present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?”
“The blanket statement on men who have had sex with men to not donate blood becomes a problem,” said Michael Angarone, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s important because a lot of people think it’s discriminatory, and I think that it is in that it prevents people from donating blood, but it’s also about keeping blood safe. This makes it a difficult question.”
While MSM have a lifetime ban, someone who has had sex with a prostitute or someone who has used needles to take drugs has a one-year ban. “My opinion is that if we were able to utilize testing, we should discuss with patients when was the last time they had risky behavior and evaluate if they can donate blood,” Angarone said. “We could open donating to individuals, including men who have had sex with men. The hard part is we would be asking sensitive questions like, 'Have you had sex recently?'”
In 2013 the American Medical Association passed a resolution that opposes the ban on grounds that it is not based on sound science and that it is discriminatory. In place of the ban, it supports donation deferral policies based on an individual’s, not a group’s, level of risk.
In addition, the American Association of Blood Banks, America’s Blood Centers and the Red Cross have said that the lifetime ban for MSM to donate blood should be modified.
“It doesn’t make sense if a straight person who has had unprotected sex can donate blood, while a gay person who has never had unprotected sex has a lifetime ban,” said John Peller, vice president of policy for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Medill sophomore Matthew Silverman tried to donate blood last spring on campus, but he, like Horesh, was turned away.
“They were doing some simultaneous blood drive and blood marrow donor thing. I wanted to do this to support my friend,” Silverman said.
Before trying to donate, he was unaware that he was ineligible, even though he had tested negative for STIs.
Silverman, as well as Horesh, has not tried to pursue it since then, although he did think about it for the next couple of days.
“I didn’t feel great. It was definitely weird. I know the blood drive has nothing to do with Northwestern, but Northwestern is such an accepting place. It seemed out of place with the vibe here,” Silverman said.
This quarter’s blood drive run by Student Blood Services took place Oct. 30-31 in the Louis Room at the Norris University Center.
“While the risk of AIDS is higher for male-to-male sex, because they usually do tests for AIDS, it seems unfair to ban a certain group just because the risk is higher,” said Cameron Ulmer, Weinberg junior and president of Student Blood Services.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., along with other senators, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services requesting information on efforts to reevaluate the blood donation criteria for MSM due to newer scientific studies and better blood screening technology. “It’s going to be a long process, unquestionably. Basically, the FDA and HHS have to do a study on lifting the blood ban or putting alternative criteria. The challenge is it will take a long time to come up with results for that study,” Peller said.
This year, activists organized the first National Gay Blood Drive, which took place July 12. This nationwide blood drive demonstration protested the FDA ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood and tried to raise awareness on this issue. For this demonstration, gay or bisexual male donors tried to donate blood at their local blood drive. When they were rejected, they sent their HIV test result to the FDA to show that they did not have HIV in their blood and to demonstrate how much blood they could have collectively contributed if the ban did not exist.
Horesh’s confrontation at the blood drive made local headlines when it occurred. He said that no one at Indiana University showed him support, and when he left, he donated $1,000 of his final salary to the LGBT center at IU in hopes that it would better educate the school.
“In LGBT, everyone talks about marriage. I don’t give a damn about marriage,” he said. “Marriage is selfish, but here I can contribute blood and give to society. Here, you’re telling me I’m a second-class citizen. 'Your contribution to society is not welcome.' That hurts more than telling me I can’t get married.”