Stephen Gisselbrecht, a research specialist in the Division of Genetics, first donated blood when he was in high school in the 1980s. But when he attempted to donate again in college, the situation had changed: After coming out as gay, he was no longer eligible because of his sexuality.
On Oct. 6, after over 40 years of being restricted from donating blood because of the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban on gay and bisexual male donors, Gisselbrecht found himself back in a donation chair at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center. This came after the FDA changed its policy in May to reflect new data, allowing members of the LGBTQ+ community to donate blood.
The Kraft Center expressed strong support for the policy change and concluded the technical updates required to welcome previously ineligible donors in early October. Soon after learning about the new guidelines, Gisselbrecht was eager to donate and contacted the Kraft Center to see if it was ready to receive newly eligible donors.
“I’m just happy to be able to help out,” said Gisselbrecht, who became the center’s first new donor under the expanded criteria. “I hope it increased the amount of blood in the hospital’s supply.”
The FDA’s decision to restrict blood donations from men who have sex with men was implemented in 1983, soon after the HIV epidemic began in the U.S., when researchers found that blood transfusions could spread the infection from blood donor to recipient. However, in the years since, new knowledge about screening, prevention and treatment of the disease, along with emerging scientific data, proved that the restriction could be lifted.
“At the time, those restrictions made perfect sense,” Gisselbrecht said. “We have new technology now, and the blood supply is safe. It has been safe in countries all over the world for decades.”
In 2015, the FDA lifted the total ban on male donors who have sex with men and began to allow to donations if men attested to not having had sex with a man for the past 12 months. But a significant barrier still remained intact until recently.
Like many in the gay and bisexual community, Gisselbrecht said it was difficult seeing the need for blood donations but not being able to help, even though data showed that donations were safe.
Now, all blood donors –– including those donating at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center –– will be screened using an individual risk-based questionnaire, which will be the same for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, sex or gender.
“This policy change is long overdue in welcoming everyone who wishes to contribute to our collective humanitarian mission,” said Richard Kaufman, MD, medical director of the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center and Transfusion Medicine at the Brigham. “The Kraft Family Blood Donor Center is proud to join the blood donation centers across the country in its commitment to treating all potential blood donors with equity and respect while ensuring a safe, sufficient blood supply for patients in need.”
Gisselbrecht urged people to donate blood and said he hopes the policy update makes prospective donors feel more welcome.
“I hope that it makes people feel less stigmatized,” he said. “Mostly, I hope it increases the blood supply because I work for a hospital, and we try to save lives here.”
All blood and platelet donations at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center directly benefit patients at the Brigham and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Donors can make an appointment to give blood or platelets by calling 617-632-3206 or emailing BloodDonor@partners.org. Walk-ins are also welcome at the center at 35 Binney St., or find an upcoming blood drive in your local community.