Calling on Obama to end the blood ban


President Obama, in a speech at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, you reaffirmed your intention to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and to sign a comprehensive hate-crimes bill. This is admirable. Will you be willing to add another form of invidious governmental discrimination to the list? Since 1983, the United States has made it illegal for gay men to donate blood.

I was confronted with this fact last month while visiting a local church that was hosting a blood drive. The Red Cross employee told me they were required to enforce the Food and Drug Administration rule that disqualifies a man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from giving blood. When first implemented, this policy sought to address the potential spread of HIV and hepatitis through blood transfusions.

Regardless of the fact that all blood is now screened for infections, it remains illegal for me, the minister of the historic First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, to donate blood because of my sacred sexuality. My country, my state, not only considers me unworthy of receiving the civil rights that come with civil marriage, but also deems my blood to be untouchable.

President Obama, the purpose of this public letter is to articulate this simple truth: My blood is sacred; my blood can save lives.

Our history teaches us that all citizens should be free from invidious discrimination, and yet our federal, state and local governments continue to justify denying sexual minorities equal protection under the law. What if we were to apply the same FDA rationale about blood donations to African-American and Latino women?

According to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women account for more than one-quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, with women of color most at risk. HIV infection is the leading cause of death for black women ages 25-34. Will the FDA make it illegal for them to donate blood? Of course not, because gender, race and ethnicity are protected classes, groups that are sheltered from legal discrimination.

President Obama, thank you for articulating a vision of our country that would offer legal protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens who seek to live a life free from hate and discrimination. My hope is that you will join members of my congregation, and those of us from the national Standing on the Side of Love campaign, to make clear that homophobia, not homosexuality, is a sin.

It is a sin for the FDA to discriminate against my blood without the scientific evidence to prove my blood is “contaminated.” Mr. President, my hope is that our elected and appointed officials will recognize that they have a moral responsibility to unify and advance our communities, not to perpetuate fear about a so-called gay disease. Such divisiveness not only erodes the credibility of the FDA but it unnecessarily teaches my neighbors to fear me, the clergyman who offers his own blood in service to others.

President Obama, we are called to love our neighbors and welcome the stranger. I am no stranger. I am your neighbor. I am a faithful citizen willing to save lives. This would be possible if you signed an executive order that would require the FDA to end its invidious discrimination. Will your inspiring words be reaffirmed by such a faithful action?

The Rev. Nathan C. Walker is minister at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, 2125 Chestnut St.