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Fighting for Equal Rights & Justice in the Age of COVID-19

By Danny Bicknell

Today marks the end of Pride month: a month dedicated to raising awareness of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. Fifty years after the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day March, LGBTQ+ individuals still fight for equal rights and justice, especially now amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, LGBTQ+ individuals still put their bodies on the front-lines to fight for rights. This past Sunday—the 51st Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising—the New York Police Department used excessive force on peaceful protestors in the Queer Liberation March. This follows the long, American history of violence, over-policing, and surveillance of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, LGBTQ+ communities of color.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened and brought more awareness to the vast inequalities within our healthcare, economic, and political system at the same time that our nation reckons with our legacy of white supremacy, anti-blackness, and police brutality.

For some LGBTQ+ individuals, this pandemic has surfaced memories from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially from the highest political office. During the first five years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, President Ronald Reagan publicly ignored the crisis. This year, President Donald Trump has defied public health guidance, spread falsehoods, and exacerbated xenophobia.

Forty years later, injustices from the HIV/AIDS epidemic remain embedded within the US healthcare system. One of these discriminatory policies is the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood. The FDA ban resulted from fears of AIDS transmission through blood product transfusions in 1985. This policy indefinitely deferred men who had sex with other men (MSM) from 1977 until 2015.

In 2014, The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that lifting the ban would increase the total annual blood supply by 2-4% (345,400 to 615,300 pints). As a consequence of growing political backlash and new medical techniques to screen and detect HIV, the FDA lifted the lifetime ban in 2015. The FDA revised their guidance to: “defer for 12 months from the most recent contact a man who has had sex with another man during the past 12 months, and... defer for 12 months from the most recent contact a female who has had sex during the past 12 months with a man who has had sex with another man during the past 12 months.”

While the lifetime ban had been lifted in 2015, the FDA’s discriminatory blood donation policy remained and prevented queer individuals from donating blood in times of need, such as after the Pulse nightclub massacre in June 2016.

In 2019, the American Red Cross announced that they supported moving from a 12-month deferral period to 3 months, in part due to international changes. Canada, the United Kingdom, and France had reduced their time-based deferrals from one year to three months (Canada and the UK) and four months (France). Other countries, such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil, have eliminated time-based deferrals and use individual risk assessment.

The connection between the current deferral recommendations and COVID-19 grew sharper when the FDA-issued guidance stated that the recommendations applied to the investigational COVID-19 treatment using convalescent plasma. The FDA recommendations apply to both blood and blood components (i.e. plasma), so doctors are unable to collect plasma from some LGBTQ+ individuals that have recovered from COVID-19.

In March 2020, GLAAD mobilized the public and garnered over 25,000 signatures calling on the FDA to repeal their discriminatory ban. Then, in April 2020, the District of Columbia and 19 state attorney generals submitted public comments against the ban based on three motivating arguments: 1) a revised policy could help the development of convalescent plasma treatment for COVID-19, 2) international experience demonstrate the feasibility of an individual-risk approach, and 3) sex-based deferrals threaten Equal Protection principles under the Fourteen and Fifteen Amendments. Building off the second argument, on May 7, 2020, the House Oversight Committee and Reform called on FDA Commissioner to let MSM+ donate plasma for treatment.

As our nation responds to the pandemic, we must prevent COVID-19 from institutionalizing and entrenching present-day injustices, like the AIDS-era blood ban. We must eliminate transphobic and homophobic policies from our healthcare, economic, and political systems. We must increase healthcare access and affordability for LGBTQ+ individuals. We must improve treatment and care for all LGBTQ+ individuals. We must remain united to combat COVID-19.

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