“I often laugh because I talk to friends who identify as gay and bisexual and they don’t even know there is a ban on them giving blood; often because they’ve never gone to give blood,” says Jay Franzone, a Lasell College junior and the Director of Communications for the National Gay Blood Drive.
At the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Health and Human Services (HHS) placed a lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood. In 2013, the National Gay Blood Drive was founded by filmmaker and activist Ryan James Yezak.
Yezak founded the organization after being denied interviews with the FDA and HHS about the ban on men who have sex with men (MSM), from giving blood. The ultimate goal is to remove discrimination from the blood donation process. The National Gay Blood Drive hosts blood drives where gay and bisexual men bring allies to donate in their place. In 2014, 61 blood drives were hosted around the nation on the same day, collecting 1,500 units of blood.
Franzone, studying Contemporary Political Communications, became involved with the organization in early 2013. When asked how exactly he became involved with the organization, Franzone smiled and reflected on the day he met Yezak.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “I met Ryan outside the Supreme Court for the Defense of Marriage Act case. I was a senior in high school and he is a crazy, amazing filmmaker. I met him and everything stopped. I followed him around and carried his camera bag because I was starstruck. We went to lunch and started talking. He saw something in me and when I started at Lasell a year later, he called me and we talked about the gay blood ban and how I could be involved.”
Franzone started working at a local level in his home state of Connecticut. In 2014, he moved on to the national level, starting as the Director of Social Media and Political Outreach, then moving to the position of overall Director of Communications. “It was amazing,” said Franzone. “[Yezak] got me involved with what I am doing and I wouldn’t be here where I am without him and without putting myself out there.”
On December 23, 2014, the FDA Commissioner announced that the FDA was going to take steps to introduce a policy for gay and bisexual men to give blood if they were abstinent for one full year. The FDA released a “draft guidance” to the blood donation and blood products industry and asked for the industry to comment on it. There was a period of 60 days where the blood donation and blood products industry, including the several advocacy organizations, weighed in on the draft and shared with the FDA their thoughts. “This policy is a de-facto lifetime deferral because within the course of 365 days, if I engage in even protected oral sex, I am still banned from giving blood for a year,” says Franzone.
But Franzone does see the other side of it. “I’ll be the first to admit, if I was the Secretary of HHS in the 80’s during the start of the HIV epidemic, then yeah, we’re going to put a ban on those people giving blood,” he says.
Through a spokesperson, the White House weighed in on this issue, saying the United States is “going to be guided by science on this.”
Franzone agrees with this wholeheartedly. “As a gay man, I agree that our nation should be guided by the science on blood donation policy. I’m a big proponent of preventative health policy and enacting a policy stating we should stop people from doing something because it really is unsafe.”
Earlier this week, France announced changes to their blood donation policy. France plans to allow men who have not been sexually active with other men in the preceding 12 months to be able to donate blood. Gay men who have had only one partner for the last four months, or who have not been sexually active, will be able to donate blood plasma, a blood component. Franzone said, “France has started a shift to an individualized blood donor deferral process and implemented heavily modernized time deferral period. I applaud them and look forward to presenting their shift next week at the HHS meeting.”
However, the FDA has yet to call for the studies needed to backup a significant change in policy. Without these studies, and without a policy change, there are 615,000 units of blood going uncollected, resulting in blood shortages hitting the nation. So how must gay and bisexual men feel when they have to knowingly lie to help save the life of a family member?
Dr. Stephanie Willson conducted a study and found that the issue of lying on blood donation history forms is not unique to MSM. “The pattern seen among MSM is no different than any other group of potential donors. A person does not walk into a center unless they think their blood is safe,” says Dr. Willson.
In the same study, Dr. Kristen Miller found that “gay men were so much more likely to have an HIV test than any other group and so you can sort of surmise that this group of people probably knows more than any other group of people that their blood is safe.”
At the young age of 20, Franzone has already testified in front of a Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee, and will be speaking in front of the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee this coming winter. “Last year I couldn’t attend [the FDA meeting] due to a scheduling conflict with school where I needed to be a student and attend my final exams,” said Franzone. However, he looks forward to his testimony.
Franzone has also spoken to quite a few senators, congressmen and their aides. “Locally, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as her staff, has been very helpful,” Franzone proudly beamed. “Mike Quigley, Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin are in our corner and have been the big authors of these letters to HHS and the FDA, which gain support from dozens and dozens of other Congressional Officials.”
The next National Gay Blood Drive will be held in conjunction with the implementation of the FDA’s 12 month deferral.
Jay Franzone, a junior at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts studying Contemporary Political Communications, will testify this Fall before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Committee on Blood Safety for the second consecutive year. He serves as the Director of Communications for the National Gay Blood Drive. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photos provided by Franzone and National Gay Blood Drive.