Orlando gay men angry they can't donate blood after massacre

People wave flags during a vigil in reaction to the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
People wave flags during a vigil in reaction to the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. PHOTO: AFP

ORLANDO (AFP) - As they mourn friends and partners murdered in the gay nightclub massacre, homosexual men in Orlando are eager to join in the rush of solidarity by donating blood for those victims still clinging to life.

But they are angry and frustrated: federal law imposes strict conditions to guard against HIV transmission. Gay men can only give if they have not had sex with another man for a year.

So while they say it is a relief to see many others lining up outside blood banks in suffocating heat for hours to donate in the wake of the attack that killed 49 and left 53 wounded - and the response has been described as overwhelming - gay men are forced to sit by and watch.

"I am married. I am gay and sexually active with my husband, of course. But I am ineligible to donate blood," said Rob Domenico, a board member and chief fundraiser at The Centre, Orlando's main LGTB community centre.

"So at a time when I am needed the most to help save my brothers and sisters, I can do nothing. So it is very frustrating," he said at the centre's small, jam-packed headquarters, which has operated in crisis mode since the massacre in the wee hours of Sunday at the Pulse nightclub by gunman Omar Mateen.


The Centre teemed with activity Monday as volunteers arranged appointments for people who need counseling after the carnage and took delivery of supplies - food, drink, even toiletries - for victims' families.

A charity group brought in golden retrievers to serve as comfort dogs for people to pet. This therapeutic technique was also used after the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut in 2012, which left 26 dead, most of them small kids.

Outside The Centre, Chris Callen, 34, said he knew Pulse very well - he worked there performing as a drag queen.

And his loss of friends in the attack was huge.

"I lost a total of seven - and I actually just found out I lost one more, on the phone," he said, gesturing to his mobile and wincing.

Callen said he could not donate blood because he has been HIV-positive for nearly seven years.

Back when he was healthy, however, he said it hurt really badly to not be able to give.

"When the Twin Towers fell, we had a whole bunch of the gay community that wanted to rally and go and give blood. And we weren't allowed," said Callen, wiry and shirtless in the muggy Florida heat.

"I would do anything to help my community," he added.

The government restriction on gay men giving blood used to be even tougher.

Until very recently, the Food and Drug Administration rule stipulated that any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 could not give blood, said Pat Michaels, a spokesman for OneBlood, a network of blood bank clinics in Florida and other southern states.

OneBlood had been pressuring the FDA for years to lift the older blanket ban, said Susan Forbes, another representative of that not-for-profit network. She called the change, mandating a year of abstinence, a step in the right direction.

Domenico said it was a joy to see so many straight people turning out to donate blood. On Sunday alone, it was 3,500 people across OneBlood's network, said Michaels, compared to 1,000 on a regular day.

"We have straight allies that are there for us and have been there for years," Domenico said.

Herb Voyles, a 40-year photographer who is straight but has gay friends who used to go to Pulse, said even the new rule is ridiculous, arguing that since blood can be tested for HIV, gay men should not be barred from donating.

Voyles spoke as he sat in what looked like a dentist chair, donating his dark, red O+ and squeezing a rubber toy to keep it pumping.

Of his contribution, he said: "It is small. But if it can save someone's life, I guess it is something I should do."