EDIT: The experience I describe below was at an Indiana Blood Center blood mobile. See my update at the end of this article on the Red Cross rules for blood donation, which are MUCH more favorable for trans people. Of note, gender is self-identified, among other things.
The horrible thing about disasters is that we all feel so helpless as we watch from afar. I watched the news from Orlando unfold on Sunday, and my heart ached. I cried for those who were murdered, the wounded, and their friends and families. I recognized them as my own community, though I’d never been to Pulse, and I live 1000 miles away in Indianapolis. I cried for the LGBT community. I didn’t know what to do. I wrote an article, but still felt a hollow ache.
My friend Elizabeth and me
So, when a friend of mine suggested we could go together to the Indy Pride Blood Drive for Orlando this evening, I said yes, even though I had no idea whether I’d be turned away.
SPOILER: I was able to donate. But I had to swallow my dignity to do it.
NOTE: The staff was friendly, sympathetic, and professional at all times. My complaints are to do with the process, not them. They did the best they could within the FDA rules*. Also, I should mention that I can only speak from the experience of a transgender woman, I can’t tell you what a transgender man would face.
The first snag was, having donated before transition many times, my driver’s license number was in their system, so my deadname (the one given to me at birth) glowered at me from the terminal’s screen. I insisted they change that, and they did. I am not sure how they could refuse, since that’s what my ID says, and I could produce a court order and my social security documentation to back me up. However, despite the lovely “F” on my driver’s license, they said they needed “birth sex” on the forms. It was suggested that someone could die if they put anything else.
Figure 1. I am not actually male, but I was assigned male at birth.
I need to verify this fact, but I didn’t want anyone to die, so I grit my teeth and seethed as I filled out forms where I was forced to fill in “I am male” more than once.
The screening form also asks you to review a list of “red flag” meds that if taken anytime in your life are to be reported. Proscar / finasteride is on that list. I reported that I had taken it, but since it had been more than a month, they allowed me to donate anyway.
Trans women who are having hair removed by electrolysis take note: it is treated like getting a tattoo, since needles are involved, if you’ve been zapped you’ll have to wait a year before you can donate blood.
Figure 2: Whether it’s ink or zapping hairs, no needles for a year.
Non-celibate straight trans women are theoretically not eligible to donate either, since they have to mark “I am male” and also answer whether they’ve had sex with “another” male, even once, since 1977.
Straight trans women: the FDA thinks you’re basically a gay man
I understand there probably are medical reasons behind these rules. I couldn’t say what they might be. I also get that there are millions of frustrated gay and bisexual men out there who are very upset that they couldn’t donate at all, so I understand I have that much privilege.
But what about transgender people who don’t want to be outed? What about those who would be so upset that they’d lie on the forms rather than suffer the indignity and humiliation of having to write their birth sex on a form and risk staff misgendering them. I was braced in case someone said “he” or addressed me as “Mr. Garrison”, but to their credit, the staff just called me Christine and referred to me “she” and “her”. Very professional, and I appreciate it very much. In the end, I was able to donate blood successfully, waited 15 minutes, got my cookie, and went on my way home.
I think there must be a better way to work this system. Better wording on the forms at the very least. Perhaps “assigned male at birth” or “born male” would soften this a bit? Or make the questions gender independent and make the screening process identify the important, evidently potentially lethal, characteristics. And if it turns out that blood isn’t actually gendered, then that makes this even simpler.
Are you a doctor or a blood expert? Please comment below or click “home” above to find my email address to give me the facts. I’ve got a contact in a local trans health organization who is researching this for me as well, but tapping the hive mind seems like a good way to get more information.
I hope this has been useful to someone, and I hope that the process will change to be more comfortable for trans folks in the future. I’m glad I donated, but I’m honestly not sure how I feel about going back and having to do that again. And it’s not the needle stick that’s the issue for me.
After posting this, I got a potentially useful response. On the Red Cross website, it says:
On December 21, 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued final guidance for deferral criteria for men who have had sex with men (MSM). AABB, America’s Blood Centers and the Red Cross support the FDA’s decision to change the MSM blood donation policy from a lifetime deferral to a one-year deferral and additionally for the purposes of blood donation gender is self-identified and self-reported, which is relevant to the transgender community.
So, this suggests that you should be able to self-identify your gender (but they would not change my marker that was in their system by my driver’s license number, despite that having changed on my license already) and if you haven’t had sex with a man for at least a year, they should not refuse you. I suspect they still would have, however, and I don’t know how to argue the point with them in person, if they are programmed to follow an antiquated policy.
Despite what was on my forms, I was also told that electrolysis is not a one year deferral if it was done with sterile/single-use equipment. Again, that’s not what I was presented with in person.
I should also note that I gave blood in Indiana, and some of these policies vary from state to state.