PORTLAND – Brian Hodges said he hoped this time would be different.
Sitting in the waiting area of the American Red Cross center on Forest Avenue, Hodges, 44, of West Gardiner, waited for his turn to lie on the padded table, brace for the prick of a needle and join the ranks of millions of Americans who give blood each year.
But Hodges, who is gay, also knew he would be banned from donating under a three-decade-old federal policy that bars men from contributing to the blood supply if they have had sexual contact with men during the past 36 years.
Hodges, who was turned away during a confidential screening process, made the attempt to give blood as part of a quiet nationwide protest. It was one of countless similar attempts in all 50 states on Friday by gay men to donate blood – with proof of their HIV-negative status in hand – only to be turned away.
“I’m not aware of any other issues that rise to the clear and blatant levels of discrimination,” said Hodges, who held records from his doctor certifying that he is HIV-negative. “Without people pushing back on the system or questioning the rules or regulations that are out there, it will likely never change.”
In a joint statement issued June 26, the American Association of Blood Banks, the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers said they support changing the current lifetime ban to a temporary ban that expires some period of time, perhaps a year, after sexual contact with another man. But that change is still being studied, according to the groups.
“We strongly support the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities,” the statement said. “Maintaining a safe and available blood supply continues to be our highest priority.”
Other sub-groups, such as people who have used intravenous drugs or have traveled or lived outside the country for extended periods, are also limited in their ability to give blood, among a litany of other donation rules.
Formed at the height of the AIDs epidemic, the rule about past sexual contact was designed to cut down on the spread of the disease.
While the federal policy has remained unchanged since 1983, medical science has made leaps toward more accurate and rapid testing, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who for 15 years was head of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, until 2011.
While testing is still not perfect — there is an approximately 10-day window in which someone who has contracted the HIV virus will still test negative — Mills said there is still room for the government’s policy to reflect modern research. Research has shown that eliminating discriminatory factors eventually improves health outcomes, she said.
“Testing with appropriately updated, scientifically based screening questions are the key,” Mills said. “I think the science is leading us there.”
Friday’s effort, promoted online and in social media as the National Gay Blood Drive, was organized by a Los Angeles filmmaker and activist who is documenting discriminatory practices that members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community endure.
In Maine, it also came a few days after a regional call by the American Red Cross for increased donations, after a sluggish June left supplies low of blood and blood platelets.
“We do have eligible donors in our community, we’re not all HIV positive,” said Ryan James Yezak, 26, whose documentary, “Second Class Citizens,” is in production and expected to be released in 2014.
Following legal and political victories by supporters of same-sex marriage rights, activists such as Yezak are turning their attention to the less obvious barriers to equality, including blood donation.
“Its not as sexy as marriage,” he said. “Its been challenging making this appealing to people. But I think this is what’s next.”
Yezak said the blood donation ban is harmful because it reinforces the notion that homosexuality itself is unhealthy, and that HIV is gay-specific disease.
“That’s what the documentary is all about,” he said. “This isn’t just (about gay) marriage, it’s a life-long journey of discrimination.”
Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at: