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A gay Utahn’s story of giving blood as FDA changes rules

When Chris Van Bibber was born, his mother, Sheri Van Bibber, faced a life-threatening medical complication and relied on donated blood for her survival. Chris grew up with a deep understanding of the life-saving impact of blood donation. But, until last year, blood donation guidelines put forth during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic forbade any sexually active gay or bisexual man from donating blood.

Gay rights groups long opposed the blanket restrictions on who can give blood, saying they discriminate. Medical groups, including the American Medical Association, said such exclusions were unnecessary, given advances in blood testing.

Thanks to new federal guidelines, gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships can now donate at many blood centers around the country without abstaining from sex.

Now, potential donors — regardless of sexual orientation, sex, or gender — are screened with a new questionnaire focused on individual risks for HIV based on sexual behavior, recent partners, and other factors. Potential donors who report having anal sex with new partners in the last three months are barred from giving until a later date.

The American Red Cross, which accounts for about 40 percent of blood and blood component donations in the U.S., began implementing the new guidance in August, including the Salt Lake City chapter.

That is where Chris Van Bibber, followed by a team of cameras and reporters, became the first openly gay male Utahn to donate blood in the state.

“Chris’ journey as one of the first Red Cross donors under the newly implemented guidelines signifies a significant step towards inclusivity and equality,” the American Red Cross of Utah said in a statement. “The FDA recently eliminated blood donation policies based on sexual orientation and replaced them with a new screening process based on individual risk factors. These updated guidelines allow more LGBTQ+ individuals, like Chris, to contribute to the critical need for blood donations.”

“I am so proud that I could donate blood today,” Chris said. “There is no substitute for blood, and so many patients are in need. We need to have inclusive procedures that allow more people to donate and protect the blood supply. I encourage everyone to come donate blood at the Red Cross.”

In addition to his unwavering advocacy for blood donation, Chris possesses an O-negative blood type, making him a universal donor. Despite feeling healthy and eager to contribute, Chris had previously been restricted from donating due to the outdated FDA guidelines. He now finds tremendous joy in giving back.

“To finally be able to donate myself and give back, I’m so happy to be here,” Chris said as he laid back in a chair, donating his blood.

Chris emphasizes that blood donation has become an ongoing conversation among his LGBTQ+ friends. He highlights the significance of this opportunity and the desire within his community to participate. However, he also underscores the need for further research regarding individuals using HIV prevention medications like PrEP and PEP, stating, “My community wants to donate.”

Chris explained that only three percent of Americans donate blood.

“Our community is strong and resilient, and we are finally being given an opportunity to show just how necessary our contributions to this cause can be. We could be the difference that changes those statistics, and I look forward to seeing us do just that — one donation at a time,” Chris said. “A single unit donated can impact three individuals in need within four days.”

Prior to the new rules, Chris felt like an outsider in his own family, as his mother, Sheri, organizes blood drives for the Red Cross, and his family donated regularly, yet he couldn’t.

“It felt very limiting and very invasive of my personal life that I wouldn’t be able to donate or give back in the way that I wanted to,” Chris said. “Donating blood and knowing the importance of that has been a part of our family for since I’ve been alive, and so to not be able to participate, not be able to do my right in giving back, it was certainly discerning.”

“It has truly been a full circle moment being able to donate again, and I am so grateful that I have been able to do so,” Chris said.

Chris heard about new rules coming to blood donations before they were made public but feared what they might say.

“I was a little leery just because I wanted to know how they were going to make that change, and is it truly going to be inclusive, and how are they going to involve everybody?” he said. “And as it finally rolled out, and I read the requirements before I went to go donate, I sat there, and I’m like, ‘This is how we do it. This is absolutely the first step to take, and science is going to keep working with us, and it’s only going to go up from here.'”

Van Bibber noted a positive response from the LGBTQ community, highlighting individuals stepping forward to donate, some unaware of their newfound eligibility, and others sharing their inaugural donation experiences.

Yet, both he and fellow advocates underscore the ongoing need for progress. One proposal for greater inclusivity in blood donation involves extending eligibility to individuals taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP, a daily pill comprising two medications, serves to prevent HIV-negative individuals from contracting the virus.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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