Gay, bisexual men protest policy on blood donation

Even one sex act since 1977 can disqualify a donor

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The last time Brian Langford attempted to donate blood, he waited in line for 21/2 hours. It was Sept. 11, 2001. When Langford made it to the front, an American Red Cross worker handed him a form asking if he had slept with any men since 1977. Yes, he had.

"Then they turned me away," Langford, now 49, recalled Friday. "I felt totally betrayed. They could have tested me for HIV right then. The only thing I could do to help during 9/11 was give blood, but I was a second-class citizen."

Langford was one of about 25 gay or bisexual men who attempted to donate blood Friday at the North Portland American Red Cross office. They joined hundreds of others across the country in a protest called the Gay Blood Drive. Each was turned away under a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule that bans any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating. Women who have slept recently with a man who has had sex with men also cannot donate.

After being denied, each man on Friday submitted a rapid HIV test. Organizers of the Gay Blood Drive plan to send the results -- all of which were negative in Portland -- to the FDA.

For many of the Portland men, the refusal was especially painful last week. The American Red Cross has declared an emergency blood shortage.

"It's heartbreaking," said 18-year-old Scott Bogart, a pre-med student who drove in from Monmouth. "They need blood, and my blood could have helped people."

The FDA instituted the ban in 1983, when little was known about how AIDS and HIV spread, beyond that it disproportionately affected gay men.

"It was a very traumatic experience for me when I was turned away in college," said Tom Mayhall Rastrelli, 39. "I was in the closet. It was at church. I don't want another kid to have to go through that. I wanted to protest today and take control of that situation and say this is wrong."

Today, the FDA has a website explaining the ban. There it says the ban remains because men who have sex with men have an increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and other infectious diseases. In 2010, men who had sex with men accounted for 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the country, according to the FDA.

On-site tests are not foolproof, the FDA says. It can't detect early infections, when the virus may not have developed enough antibodies to show up on the test, but when it is still contagious.

The FDA has said it will consider lifting the ban if scientific data show that a change would not present a significant risk to blood recipients. The American Medical Association voted in June to oppose the ban, calling it not based on sound science. It asked for a federal policy change that would use deferrals or bans based on individual risk, not sexual orientation alone.

The Red Cross issued a statement with the American Association of Blood Banks saying the ban should be modified to the use of science-based deferral periods. But local workers weren't allowed to comment.

Langford hasn't tried to give blood since 2001. But every few months, his work hosts drives. As co-workers go to donate, Langford said, "it really feels awkward because I want to join in."

When the nurse told him Friday he couldn't donate, his heart sank. He knew about the ban, but hearing the refusal again, face-to-face, was humiliating.

"I had that same feeling as 9/11 all over again," he said.