Outside of the New York Blood Center near Grand Central Station, Sam Gavzy, 26, is wearing a name tag that reads: “Hello, my name is Sam. Ask me why I can’t donate.”
Gavzy, who is a research biologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, believes in the benefits of donating blood since his father had two kidney transplants. But gay and bisexual men cannot donate blood in the U.S. due to a ban imposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1983, when there was no effective and simple test to detect HIV in blood. Men who have sex with men (MSN) at any time since 1977 cannot donate. So Gavzy joined the National Gay Blood Drive, a nationwide donation and protest effort occurring in 61 cities July 11 to raise awareness about the ban they feel is outdated. “I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for donation,” says Gavzy referring to his fathers’ reliance on donors. “The simplest way I could contribute and pay it forward is to donate blood, and I can’t.”
This is the second year of the National Gay Blood Drive, which drew about 1,000 participants last year. Gay men come to the blood drive locations with an ally or proxy — a straight friend or family member — who donates blood in their place. Gavzy has two friends donating for him. “There’s a such a need for blood, to have restrictions like this is a shame,” says Kian Bichoupan, 25, one of Gavzy’s proxies. Some of the gay men can fill out the paperwork only to be denied, so that the organizers can send the paperwork, along with postcards written by the men on why they want to donate blood, to the FDA to show the number of gay men willing to donate if they could.
The group also launched a White House Petition on July 1 calling on the FDA to change its policy. If the petition gets 100,000 signatures by July 30, the Obama administration will issue a response.
The National Gay Blood Drive began when gay rights activist Ryan James Yezak felt humiliated at work when he was one of the only people who could not donate blood to tornado victims three years ago. “It completely alienated me from the rest of my coworkers, and I felt like a different species,” says Yeznak, who has created a documentary on the topic. “We have enough [gay and bisexual men] to contribute to the offset of blood shortages.”
Last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) voted to end the ban, recognizing the new techniques available to detect HIV in donated blood. “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science,” said Dr. William Kobler, AMA board member in a statement. “This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone.”
When asked why the ban is still in place, and whether the FDA is in the process of considering a change, an FDA spokesperson told TIME that the agency is willing to consider changing its policy, but only if available data showed that lifting the ban provided no additional risk to people receiving donated blood.
“Although scientific evidence has not yet demonstrated that blood donated by MSM or a subgroup of these potential donors does not have a substantially increased rate of HIV infection compared to currently accepted blood donors, the FDA remains willing to consider new approaches to donor screening and testing,” the FDA responded in an email.
One issue involves when potential donors would get tested for HIV; although testing has now become relatively simple (there are even at-home tests), HIV-positive people may still test negative if their blood is drawn in the first 11 days after infection.
The FDA is the keeper of the deferral policy, but other health groups have also voted to keep it, or at least not change it for now. In 2010, the Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability (ACBSA) discussed the FDA policy and concluded that while the current policy isn’t ideal, it was necessary to protect the blood supply while they identified necessary areas for research. In 2013, they met again to hear updates on the research they requested; when there are enough results, the HHS plans to bring the issue into a public forum. Last year, members of senate–spearheaded by Senator Elizabeth Warren–wrote an open later to HHS holding them accountable to take action, based on the data.
“We have a lot of support from blood donation centers. They want our blood,” says Yeznak. “”We want to show the FDA that the gay community, can and wants to contribute.”