The facts about gay men and blood donation in Orlando

The Mayor of Orlando says there were 50 casualties and there are 53 more hospitalized after a mass shooting at a popular gay nightclub June 12. (AP)

Florida medical organizations have asked for blood donations in the wake of a tragic shooting at an Orlando gay club that killed at least 50 and injured dozens more June 12.

Hoards of people have lined up to donate. But the request prompted some observers to point out a brutal irony: Many gay men can’t donate blood.

"Straight people please donate blood for the wounded because Orlando won't accept gay people's blood," tweeted actress Mia Farrow.

This is not quite right, as the restrictions on gay men donating blood, borne out of fears of HIV/AIDS transmission, are a nationwide rule and not a flat-out ban.

It’s not forbidden for gay men to donate blood, but there are restrictions. We decided to look into what exactly the restriction covers and why it’s in place.

Also of note: Rumors floated on social media that Florida blood bank One Blood was temporarily lifting the restriction on donations from gay men because their need was so urgent. But One Blood has said those rumors are false, and the restrictions are still in place.   

Up until December 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did have a decades-old rule that indefinitely banned men who have ever had sex with other men from donating blood.

The ban arose out of fear of tainting the country’s blood supply with HIV/AIDS, after the illness emerged in the late 1970s, affecting the gay men’s community in particular.

The new rules say these men can give blood as long as it has been a year since their last sexual contact with another man. Women also have to wait 12 months if they had sex with a man who himself had sex with another man in the past year.

An FDA official told reporters that the agency considered lifting the ban completely, but it concluded that this could quadruple the amount of transmission of HIV through blood transfusion. As of December 2015, the HIV transmission through blood transfusion rate was one in 1.47 million.

So the agency settled on the 12-month deferral policy, which is similar to those in Australia and the United Kingdom, according to the FDA.

Some activists think the rule still goes too far and continues to stigmatize gay men.

"While many gay and bisexual men will be eligible to donate their blood and help save lives under this 12-month deferral, countless more will continue to be banned solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and without medical or scientific reasoning," the National Gay Blood Drive said in a statement after the FDA revised its rules.

As far as we can tell, there’s nothing in Florida state law that makes it more difficult for gay men to donate blood. Florida law says it will conform to the FDA’s rules on blood donations to the greatest extent possible and makes no mention of restrictions based on sexual contact beyond the FDA guidelines.

This is not the only restriction on people who are permitted to donate blood. The FDA blood donation rules ban indefinitely people who have ever engaged in prostitution or injected a non-prescribed substance into their body. People must defer 12 months since having sex with a prostitute, getting a tattoo or piercing from a non-approved purveyor or completing treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea, among other things.