Zach Huelsing went to Washington, D.C., in late July as part of a delegation of LGBT people from Illinois, to offer opinions from the gay community, particularly about marriage legislation and the repeal of DOMA.
They met with representatives from the White House, the Treasury Department, as well as senators and congressmen, and others.
The trip turned quite personal for Huelsing, 33, a graduate student who lives in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood and this month celebrates the one-year anniversary of his civil union to his partner of six years, Jon Lehman.
Huelsing, who grew up in Alabama, came out at age 15. His dad, Joseph, was battling myelofibrosis and, thus, often needed blood donations.
Joseph ultimately died at the start of Zach's junior year in high school.
Later that school year, when the Red Cross came to his school for a blood drive, Zach was one of the first to donate, and he encouraged his friends to do so as well.
His days of donating blood ended a few years later, not by his choice.
There is, you see, a current lifetime ban on donating blood from men who have sex with men (MSM), put in place during the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Huelsing was able to donate when he was a junior in high school, and openly gay, but not sexually active.
He can't donate todayand he voiced his opinion on the matter in Washington, while meeting with representatives of the Affordable Care Act.
"They were talking about all of the provisions and discriminations in hospitals, [such as] allowing gay couples to see one another, and to have equal access to health care, etc.," Huelsing said. "That got me thinking, because I am very aware of the fact that [MSM are] still being discriminated against with this blood issueand that there's nothing in the legislation to change that.
"I was curious to know what was being done to remedy this situation. Those people didn't really have an answer for me. They didn't know of any conversation to repeal it, or even look at it."
However, in early August, Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley (IL), U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, requesting information on the ongoing efforts by HHS to reevaluate blood donation criteria for MSM.
"Equality for the LGBT community is closer than ever, but outdated and discriminatory policies like this must evolve to match advancements in science and technology," Quigley said in a statement. "Patients across the country desperately need life-saving blood transfusions, yet perfectly healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on sexual orientation. These potential donors deserve an update on the status of HHS research and the significant impact it may have on the policy moving forward."
Huelsing had not thought about donating blood in, oh, 10-plus years, "because I just kind of accepted that it is something that is not available to me."
But he thought about the topic, and what could have been a major decision he would have had to make, had his dad lived longer. Huelsing knew he might have had to lie about his sexual orientation, lie about being sexually active, or just not donate.
"I was very aware of the fact that, it was due to other people taking the time to donate their blood, that my father was able to live," as long as he did, Huelsing said. "The question was always insulting because, for me, it was forcing me to choose between doing what I consider to be my duty as a citizen and that is, to help out other people, or, be gay. It made me feel bad as I got older and sexually-active that I was not able to donate blood.
"It was kind of a slap in the face, being discriminated against based on my sexual orientation."
The letter from Quigley and others said, "Since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic more than 30 years ago, the scientific community's understanding of the virus has changed dramatically. We have seen vast advances in blood screening technology, blood donation policy changes in other countries allowing MSM to donate, and opposition from our nation's blood banks who have called the current ban 'medically and scientifically unwarranted.' Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages. Further, the existing lifetime ban continues to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes against gay and bisexual men, and fosters an atmosphere that promotes discrimination and discourages individuals from seeking HIV testing and treatment services."
The letter was signed by a bicameral, bipartisan group of more than 80 members of the U.S. Congress.
"I'd like to know what the justification is for this [policy is] to continue," Huelsing said. "Every time it comes up in the news that blood banks are needing blood, I am forced to remember that I am not allowed to do this; it's somewhat painful.
"Hopefully this letter will help get some traction and people will want to investigate this and we'll hear more about this."
In mid-June, the American Medical Association (AMA) passed a resolution opposing the current lifetime ban as discriminatory and not based on sound science. Instead, the AMA supports new donation deferral policies that are based on an individual's level of risk. The blood banking community, including the American Red Cross and America's Blood Centers, has also long-supported a change in policy.