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Howard Brown Encourages Chicagoans to Fight 'Gay Blood Ban'

 A promotional photo for the National Gay Blood Drive.
A promotional photo for the National Gay Blood Drive.
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National Gay Blood Drive

UPTOWN — The last time Chuck Oliva donated blood, he was an 18-year-old virgin puzzled by a blood bank questionnaire that asked if he'd had sex with a man "at any time since 1977."

The gay Edgewater man, now 26, says he answered truthfully, "no." Today, if he went to donate again and was thrown the same question, Oliva said he'd respond with a proud "yes."

And if he did, his blood would be rejected due to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban on donations from men who have had sex with men. A precaution born amid 1980s HIV/AIDS panic, the FDA policy is now "vile, discriminating" and disheartening for somebody like Oliva who wants to give blood in the future, he said.

Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan Road, has signed on as the Chicago host of the National Gay Blood Drive, which invites gay and bisexual men to show up at Howard Brown and other donation sites across the country Friday with surrogates willing to donate on their behalf — and sign a petition asking the White House to repeal the ban.

"What's important is the screening, not someone's sexual orientation," said Howard Brown Senior Vice President Michelle Wetzel. "The ban comes from a time when there was a lot of fear of the unknown, and it's just not the case anymore so to continue to have this ban is just blatant discrimination by the FDA."

The FDA website explains the policy, saying men who have had sex with other man at any time since 1977, the start of the country's AIDS epidemic, "are currently deferred as blood donors."

The FDA maintains that the policy is based on the increased risk of HIV infection "associated with male-to-male sex," and "is not based on any judgment concerning the donor's sexual orientation."

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says male-to-male sex accounted for 63 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, 29,800 people. But the American Medical Association said in a statement  that the policy should be changed on "both scientific and ethical grounds."

Redeye columnist Zach Stafford, 24, wrote about his experience trying to donate blood Wednesday, "the first time I tried to give blood, I was turned away," as a 18-year-old DePaul University freshman.

"That made me feel like a health precaution for no real reason; I wasn't [HIV] positive, I wasn't a high-risk young person," he said in an interview Wednesday. "My identity as a gay man was being stigmatized."

Stafford stressed, "I can marry my male partner in the state of Illinois but my partner and I can't give blood." He said the ban is another reminder that to some, LGBT people "aren't considered full citizens in the United States of America."

At least 85 members of Congress wrote a letter to the FDA last summer asking the agency to revise the policy, including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois.

“Healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on their sexual orientation — a policy that is not only prejudiced, but is also out of line with our national need for blood donations,” Quigley said in March.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th), a gay man and a licensed clinical social worker, blasted the ban Wednesday, saying it "sends the message that people are safe if they are not part of a particular group.

"This is the complete opposite message that I stressed as a case manager for people at risk of getting HIV," he wrote in an email.

FDA spokeswoman Tara Goodin said various studies were ongoing in lieu of any potential revisions. The FDA website said any policy change must be "supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients."

Wetzel said the FDA's logic was flawed.

"You can have a gay man who has been in a monogamous ... relationship for 20 years and he can't give blood, but you can have someone else who is promiscuous and doesn't know their HIV status and they can donate blood all they want," she said.

To participate in the National Gay Blood Drive locally, visit Howard Brown Health Center from noon-5 p.m. Friday. For more information about the drive, click here.

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