In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre last week, hundreds of volunteers lined up to donate blood, the line stretching around the block. But many of the most eager donors – gay men looking for some kind of useful, cathartic action to take after the tragedy – were turned away.
In the United States, FDA guidelines prevent most gay men from donating blood, a holdover from the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when transmission was poorly understood and blood tests for the virus were less effective. But today, blood banks still refuse to accept the blood of any man who has had sex with another man within the past year, regardless of other factors that reduce HIV risk, and despite highly reliable tests and testing procedures. To be clear, a promiscuous heterosexual may donate blood; a monogamous gay man may not.
Now, a new campaign for the AIDS service organization the Gay Men’s Health Crisis is trying to change the discriminatory practice. "Blood Equality," a pro bono campaign by FCB Health, features a PSA video that depicts the tremendous waste created by the ban.
The video debuted online June 10, just two days before the Orlando killings, the largest mass shooting in modern American history and a devastating blow to the LGBT community. FCB had been planning the release for months, to coincide with World Blood Donor Day on June 14. After the tragedy, FCB considered scrapping the follow-up events, which included a rally at City Hall. "The most important thing was not to be opportunistic, and to be sensitive to the fact that we lost 49 people," said Mike Devlin, EVP and creative director at FCB Health.
"We’re still very much in the midst of trying to figure out how to be respectful, but also recognize the anger of the men who showed up to donate blood, the shock and surprise when they were turned away," he said. "That is what happens every day around this country to men walking into blood centers."
In the end, after encouragement from the LGBT community, FCB continued with the scheduled events, though the tone for World Blood Donor Day was much more somber.
It’s a judgment call FCB will need to continue to make as the community heals. "We made a long-term commitment to GMHC and to this project," Devlin said. "When we first met them, they said, ‘Look, this is not a one and done. This might take a few years to change the FDA’s policy.’"
That was over a year ago. Since then, "Blood Equality" has included social media promotion, an online "selfie" tool that lets supporters publically declare their involvement, even an art installation at Trinity Church – "Blood Mirror," created by FCB Health’s artist-in-residence, Jordan Eagles.
Devlin says the agency is also planning a Twitter bot that searches for mentions of blood drives and tweets a "respectful but automatic response" congratulating the participants and lamenting that gay men can’t participate.
Only last year, the FDA amended its blood donation policy. Gay men, who had previously been banned for life from donating, now must refrain from sexual intercourse with other men for a year before donating blood. It’s a de facto ban, Devlin said.
Several other ad campaigns have come to the same conclusion. In 2015, Broadway actor Alan Cummings starred in the "Celibacy Challenge," a PSA parodying the FDA’s amended rules.
LGBT rights organizations in other countries are dealing with similar issues. In Brazil, opponents of that countries ban on blood donations by gay men used the rainbow flag to make their point at some of the largest Pride parades in the world.
FCB Health is working with organizations in Northern Ireland to localize the "Blood Equality" campaign for use there. And activists in the UK are using versions of the campaign’s assests to lobbying the House of Commons.
"It’s not about taking our campaign and making it global," Devlin said. "It’s about how our campaign and our issue beautifully synergizes with others around the world."