Giving blood is something openly gay college senior Jay Franzone has always wanted to do. Under Food and Drug Administration recommendations, he first has to abstain from sex for a year. And Franzone plans to do just that.
“People have climbed in the Himalayas. I have friends who have traveled to four or five continents, but I don't really want to do that. I want to give blood,” Franzone told NBC OUT.
The Connecticut native manages communications for the National Gay Blood Drive. He’s happy the FDA lifted its lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood in December 2015. But he’s upset with its current recommendations, which exclude men who have "had sex with another man during the past 12 months."
“These [recommendations are] based on an assumed risk. It made sense in the 1980s based on the fact many gay people were being infected with HIV — it seemed like HIV was a ‘gay disease.’ We now know that isn't true,” he said.
The dapper 21-year-old doesn’t normally have trouble meeting men. And while he plans to stick with his decision to stay abstinent until he can donate, he admits it’s hard. Franzone has not had sex in almost nine months. And when he tells potential dates he is abstinent, they often lose interest.
“I admittedly almost slipped up and I wanted to end that self-imposed ban. I had met my now ex-boyfriend [in March] … I’ve been on one date since then, but that didn’t go anywhere,” Franzone said.
He said the FDA’s decision to lift the lifetime ban was a move in the right direction. But Franzone feels the revised recommendations are discriminatory. He isn’t abstaining just to give blood — he’s also doing it to raise awareness.
"I can’t begin to imagine the sheer pain and agony it is to hear your best friend was shot and they need a blood transfusion — but by the way, you can’t donate blood because you’re gay."
Gay and bisexual men are still more affected by HIV than other groups. The FDA and Center for Disease Control argue the current recommendations reduce the risk of HIV getting into blood supplies. But Franzone thinks gay and bisexual men shouldn’t be treated differently. The blood supply would be safer, he said, if potential donors were screened based on individual risk assessments, since anyone engaging in unprotected sex can get the virus.
“[A straight man] can go and give blood after numerous unprotected sexual encounters. A homosexual who has very limited sexual contact and very safe sexual contact can't give blood after one contact, testing negative and using protection. That can really get under your skin,” Franzone said.
Blood donations are urgently needed — the U.S. Red Cross reported a shortage in July. Donations from gay and bisexual men could add from 345,400 to 615,300 pints to the blood supply each year, according to the Williams Institute.
The national blood shortage was especially apparent in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in June. While 49 people were killed at the Orlando gay nightclub, more than 50 were injured. Droves of people showed up at blood banks throughout Florida to donate blood, but gay and bisexual men could not.
“It’s heartbreaking," Franzone said. "I can’t begin to imagine the sheer pain and agony it is to hear your best friend was shot and they need a blood transfusion — but by the way, you can’t donate blood because you’re gay."
Although Franzone sees the FDA recommendations as discriminatory, he said he doesn’t view the agency as “the enemy.”
“The enemy is some old science and bigotry and fear. We can’t change [these recommendations] without the FDA. I’m not working against them, I’m working with them to advocate for the best possible solution."
Franzone is happy he’s been able to raise awareness around the issue. But he’s motivated by more than that.
“By highlighting [this], by staying abstinent, it’s getting so much coverage … But that’s not my number one reason for doing it. It’s because I want to give blood. I want to save lives,” he concluded.