Since taking office last year, Bronx Congressmember Ritchie Torres has often wielded the power and visibility of the national stage to mount pressure on the federal government to nix the discriminatory policy barring men who have sex with men from donating blood. He has written letters to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging the agency to eliminate the policy, held press conferences with Congressional colleagues and LGBTQ advocates, and joined other members of Congress in introducing a resolution calling for the United States to implement blood donation policies based on science rather than discrimination.
Torres brought that fight directly to the White House on April 1 when he and several other co-chairs of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus met with President Joe Biden to discuss queer issues, including the blood ban, LGBTQ affordable housing, and the Equality Act.
“I made the case to the president that the FDA’s policy is a relic of the past, it’s a relic of the 1980s, and it’s relic of a time when we had more homophobia than we do now,” Torres told Gay City News in a phone interview.
The 34-year-old Bronx congressmember met with Biden alongside four other out LGBTQ representatives — David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Mondaire Jones and Sean Patrick Maloney of New York. It was the first meeting between the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality and a president since the caucus was created in 2008.
Describing the meeting as “a historic moment,” Torres conveyed how far the country has progressed since President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order declaring the LGBTQ community a threat to national security.
And yet, there is much more progress needed — including in the campaign to lift the remnants of a blood donation policy that was first implemented in 1983 when the FDA, fearing HIV/AIDS, imposed a lifetime ban on men having sex with men from donating blood. The scope of the policy was reduced in 2015 to a 12-month deferral period, and then to a three-month deferral period beginning in April of 2020.
Torres and many others across the community, however, are quick to acknowledge that the changes have been insufficient because the policy still amounts to a ban for sexually active people.
“It makes no difference,” Torres said. “It is unreasonable to expect anyone, straight or gay, to defer sex for months in order to contribute blood.”
The issue, after all, is personal to him. Torres was the first New York City councilmember to be diagnosed with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, but the FDA’s policy barred him from donating blood.
“Even though I was one of the few providers of antibodies in March of 2020, I could not donate blood because of my sexual orientation and I could not donate blood to save lives during a national emergency — during a severe blood shortage,” he said.
Torres was diagnosed with COVID-19 when he was in the midst of a contentious and crowded 2020 Democratic primary campaign to replace Representative José M. Serrano in the southern and western part of the Bronx. Torres won the race in historic fashion, becoming the first out LGBTQ Afro-Latinx member of Congress, and he rose to Capitol Hill with a slate of priorities — including the blood ban.
In 2020, the FDA announced it was funding a pilot study — dubbed the ADVANCE study — that could provide evidence to show that men who have sex with men could just complete a typical donor history questionnaire to qualify as a blood donor. Torres is hoping the study will produce results “by the end of the year and no later than the end of the year.”
During his meeting with the president, Torres said Biden indicated that he would wait until that study is completed before taking further action.
“Even though the president was sympathetic to my message, he was also deferential to the process of the FDA and he is loath to intervene,” Torres said.
In the meantime, Torres said, “We just want to keep up pressure on the White House and the FDA. The FDA’s discrimination against the LGBTQ community… is no longer acceptable.”
A spokesperson for the FDA told Gay City News there are no updates regarding the study or the policy, but left the door open to changes in the future.
“The scientific information that is needed to further change blood donor policies does take time and effort… We do not have a specific timeline for when these studies may be completed, but remain committed to gathering the scientific data that can support alternative donor deferral policies that maintain a high level of blood safety,” the spokesperson said.
Among other topics, Torres said he pressed the president on housing for vulnerable LGBTQ individuals — an issue he has been working on since he served as the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Housing.
“I impressed upon the president to invest in affordable housing specifically oriented towards the LGBTQ community,” Torres said. “If you’re a young LGBTQ person and you’re evicted from your home by your own parents, you are much more vulnerable to substance abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, and the criminal justice system. It is no accident that LGBTQ youth have the highest rates of homelessness and highest rates of suicide. Health and housing are inexplicably bound together.”
The other out LGBTQ lawmakers at the meeting reminded the president of the urgent need to pass the long-stalled Equality Act in the Senate, according to a press release distributed by Cicilline’s office. Cicilline said they had a “productive conversation” with the president.
“I am grateful to President Biden for inviting Equality Caucus leadership to meet with him at the White House today,” Cicilline said in a written statement. “President Biden has been the most vocal ally to the LGBTQ+ community we have ever had in the White House, and I thanked him for his unwavering support.”
Jones was unable to be reached for this story due to a scheduling conflict and Maloney did not return phone messages seeking comment.