When Ryan James Yezak's workplace hosted a blood drive a few years back, he told his boss he would be happy to donate.
Then the West Hollywood resident found out that as a gay man, he was banned for life from giving blood under a federal regulation put in place before he was born.
"I felt like a different species," he said of having to tell co-workers that he alone would be unable to participate. "I was completely alienated for no reason, because I was completely healthy."
The experience prompted Yezak, now 27, to join the growing ranks of those fighting to end the ban instituted in the early days of the
Last year, the
The three groups that supply nearly all of the nation's blood — the
Despite advances in testing, of people as well as of donated blood, the
Still, even the FDA acknowledges that the risk of contracting HIV from donated blood is low — about one case per every 2 million units.
Yezak and others see easing the ban as a civil rights issue. They say it singles them out simply because they are gay, not because of individual risk factors.
Others who engage in risky sexual behavior are allowed to donate after a temporary deferral. Women or straight men who have had sex with someone with HIV or AIDS can give blood after waiting a year, as can people who have had sex with a prostitute.
A healthy gay man in a monogamous relationship — or a gay man who has been celibate since 1978 — cannot.
"One of the lingering consequences of this ban is that it supports the notion that only gay and bisexual men get HIV," Yezak said.
After his own experience with the ban, Yezak started the National Gay Blood Drive, in which gay and bisexual men enlist eligible people to donate in their place. At drives held in 61 cities last month, they collected nearly 1,500 pints of blood.
After attending one such drive, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is gay, introduced a resolution calling on the FDA to change its policy. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the measure last month.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) this month introduced a similar resolution in the state Legislature.
Change is possible, the FDA has said, as long as blood recipients are not placed at a higher risk of getting HIV from transfusions. Lifetime bans have been lifted in several countries, including Italy and Spain. Last year, Canada decided to allow gay men to donate after five years of abstinence.
At the West Hollywood gay blood drive last month, a group gathered outside a Red Cross bus on Santa Monica Boulevard for a photo. The man holding the camera yelled: "Everybody, say blood!"
Then: "Everybody, say, 'I wish they accepted my blood!'"
J.D. Wheeler, a registered nurse and organ transplant coordinator, said he was frustrated that he couldn't donate because the need is so great.
"I doubt straight people in the hospital care if it's gay blood," Wheeler said. "They just need the blood."