Activists hold first gay, bisexual blood drive to get FDA to change rules

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Men who have sex with men have been banned from donating blood by the Food and Drug Administration since the 1980s. The government agency has cited fears over the spread of the AIDS virus and other sexually transmitted diseases as the reason behind the regulation. Men who have sex with men only make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 77 percent of HIV infections are caused by male-to-male sexual contact, the FDA reports.

But since the time the ban was enacted, the American Medical Association, the American Red Cross and other groups have called for the rule to be overturned. Calling the ruling "discriminatory," AMA Board Member Dr. William Kobler said in a statement in June that continuing the ban on gay blood donorsis not "sound science."

In order to raise awareness to the issue, Ryan James Yezak decided to host the first nationwide gay blood drive on Friday to show the FDA that changing the rules could only benefit the entire community. Yezak, who is directing a documentary on the marginalized rights of the gay community called "Second Class Citizens," experienced the ban firsthand when a co-worker asked him to come with her to donate blood to help tornado victims.

"I had to explain to her and all the rest of my colleagues why I couldn't donate, which didn't seem right," he said to CBSNews.com.

Yezak is calling for all eligible gay and bisexual male donors to get tested for HIV at a center or one of the mobile clinics he has set up in Los Angeles in order to confirm they are virus-free. Then, with the paper proving their negative HIV status in hand, he is asking the men to go to a blood donation center and try to donate blood without lying about their sexual history.

Since every rejected donor is collected on a list and given to the FDA, Yezak hopes this will show the agency the amount of people who are turned away that otherwise could have helped save a life. The entire process will be filmed and become part of the "Second Class Citizens" documentary.

If people can't make it out to a location today, Chelsea Holeman, locations coordinator for "Second Class Citizens," encouraged people to try and go this weekend or at the earliest possible opportunity.

"If the FDA sees more and more of these, it's going to have more of an impact," she said to CBSNews.com. "We'd love an onslaught today, of course, but if it's a wave then it's even better."

The American Red Cross says that every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood, and more than 44,000 blood donations are needed every day. However, only 38 percent of the population is eligible to donate.

A 2010 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that if gay men were allowed to donate, an additional 219,200 pints of blood would be available in the U.S. If they were given a one year deferral -- which some countries like the U.K. have adopted -- there would be approximately 89,719 more pints of blood. A five-year ban would still yield 71,218 more pints.

The current tests to screen blood for HIV provide minimal risk, but there is still a one out of 2 million units of blood chance that HIV can be transmitted without the ban, the FDA claims. There is also a "window period" of 11 days that exists early after infection where a person can test negative, but still have the infection.

Dr. Richard Benjamin, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, previously told CBSNews.com that only one out of 3,000 potential blood donors get turned away from trying to donate blood, but perhaps gay men stay away because they know of the rule. He believes the policies are unfair, especially because women who have sex with a man who had sex with a man only have a one year deferral.

"AIDS is almost to the point where it's curable," Holeman said. "We want to make sure and bring it back up that the policy is outdated, and gay does not mean HIV anymore. The best thing to do is bring awareness and urge the FDA to lift the regulations."

Other groups have been trying to get the FDA to pay attention to the issue. The Committee of Student Life at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., in conjunction with students at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., started a "We the People" petition to change the ban. Government officials have tried to remove the rule as well, including 18 senators in 2010 who wrote a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg asking her to change the rules. The FDA said at that time that there current science and data did not lend itself to allow for a policy reversal.

Yezak himself has been traveling to various blood donation centers around the country, and then filming different people rejecting his blood donations because he is gay. He said it's interesting to see the different ways how people try to tell him he cannot donate, but it boils down to one thing: He's a perfectly eligible donor, but because he is gay they don't want his blood.

"We'll show them that these people don't have the infections they say they have," he explained. "Gay people want to donate blood. I think there's the potential there for more blood donations."

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