Blood Donation Is Crucial to My Faith | Sojourners

Blood Donation Is Crucial to My Faith

An illustration of blood donation by Mitchell Atencio/Sojourners. Original arm image by Kazuo ota, original rainbow image by Rafael Garcin, via Unsplash. 

In the summer of 2009, when I was 12 years old, a street racer crashed into my grandparents' minivan. The accident, by all means, should have killed my grandad, who was in a coma for several weeks after the crash. While undergoing emergency surgeries, he lost 98 units of blood in six hours — about the blood of 10 people. They were pumping blood into him as fast as it was coming out. Ever since that day, blood donation has held a place close to my heart.

My uncles began donating regularly, and my father made his habit even more regular. And on the first day I was allowed — the very day I turned 16 — I donated my first unit of blood. I’ve kept this habit semi-regularly, though moves and various life circumstances sometimes interrupt the 8-week cycle.

Blood is always needed. Always. In some regions it is more dire than others, and perhaps you’ve noticed that after any tragedy — particularly mass shootings — blood donation is exhorted. The day after an 18-year-old man killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, Erin Douglas reported for the Texas Tribune that hundreds of people were waiting in line to donate blood, so many that some people were told to go home and make appointments later in the week.

And, perhaps, some people — males who were sexually active with other males (MSM) in the last three months — were told just to go home; their blood would not be accepted. The Food and Drug Administration instructs donor services to “defer for 3 months from the most recent sexual contact, a man who has had sex with another man during the past 3 months.”

Screening to ensure the safety of donated blood is good and necessary, but that does not require deferring MSM from donations. Category deferments, rather than deferments for risky behavior, like unprotected sex with multiple partners, are illogical and bigoted.

As Dr. Jack Turban, a medical journalist and child psychiatry fellow at Stanford University, wrote for Vox: “Why should a monogamous gay man who has sex only with his husband be barred from donating blood when a heterosexual man who had condomless sex with 100 female partners in the past three months can? The latter is at dramatically greater risk of HIV infection.”

These bans are particularly worrisome and offensive to me as a bisexual male. But they also offend me on a much deeper level as a Christ follower. Blood is sacred, and donating blood to bring life to others is at the core of my faith.

Many of my favorite hymns have blood imagery in them. It’s something that makes a lot of my contemporaries nervous — and for good reason. Blood imagery and veneration has been used for all sorts of harms. Still, I can’t escape singing “Power in the Blood” with my whole body.

“There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r / In the blood of the Lamb; There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r / In the precious blood of the Lamb,” we sang on many Sundays.

My affinity for this tune may be the reason I’ve never been bothered by blood imagery in the Christian faith. While I refuse the theology that says God needed (or worse, chose) blood sacrifice for the payment of sins, like a penalty paid in a legal system, I don’t mind blood imagery. When the Bible talks of Christ’s blood saving us, I imagine the blood that saved my grandad and countless others. I imagine the weekends and lunch breaks and early morning donations — not demanded nor coerced — that helped snatch lives away from death.

“[Christ] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything,” Paul writes in Colossians 1:17-18. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (19-20).

My love for blood donation — where the power of blood is on full display — also helps me embrace the many songs and Bible passages that highlight how we are saved by the blood of Christ. We talk about blood in communion, in marriage, in close bonds between friends, and in metaphor to express the necessary.

When I give blood, I feel close to Christ. Of course, this is not mandatory for closeness to Christ — who is among us today in the poor, the imprisoned, and the outcast. And not everyone is able to donate, as phobias, iron deficiencies, and other ailments restrict who can give. This is not a guilt trip for those who can’t donate.

But we must throw away the rules that restrict males who have sex with males from donating. They are not rooted in science, but rather in homophobia.

Activists and politicians have long reviled these rules as backward, bigoted vestiges of the AIDS crisis. In the early years of the epidemic in the United States, from 1981 to the mid ’90s, political leaders left LGBTQ people to die; responses ranged from cowardice to outright villainy and dehumanization.

The outright ban on donations was lifted in 2015, and the FDA determined that males must be celibate from homosexual sex for one year to donate. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began and blood bank levels were dangerously low, the FDA reduced the waiting period for MSM to three months of celibacy. The change took place immediately, creating an estimated tens of thousands of newly eligible donors.

Activists have protested these bans for decades in a variety of methods: As the pandemic began, 20 attorneys general wrote to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking them to update restrictions. The Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility (ADVANCE) study, led by the three of the most prominent blood collection organizations and sponsored by numerous LGBTQ advocacy organizations, may help change the donor eligibility criteria.

I’m hopeful that the broadening acceptance of LGBTQ people in society will contribute to science-based criteria, but I’m also fearful of the rise in anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans legislation and rhetoric.

I embraced my bisexuality after marrying my spouse, who is nonbinary and “biologically female.” When I donate blood, I’m asked if I’ve had sex with another male in the last three months, and each time I wonder: What if one day I can’t donate blood because of whom I choose to have sex with?

And each time I feel my blood begin to boil, imagining my queer siblings who are refused this process of blood donation. If this process is so intimate and sacred for me, it is no doubt the same for the countless who are refused. I donate to save life, but I also donate on behalf of those refused.

What we need, today, is for more people to raise a ruckus about this. Everyone who donates should mention it to their phlebotomist. People should write letters to politicians and FDA officials. The sponsors of the ADVANCE study should be thanked. It should be easy enough for progressive Christians to take this task up.

As one raised in conservative circles, however, I would particularly love to see my old communities — my extended family — raise their voices. They may not affirm my marriage or countless others, but I believe they can step beyond the culture of rampant homophobia. I might be wrong, but I’m willing to risk disappointment. This is too crucial; as a Christian, I cannot ignore the chance to save lives.