Friday, January 27

This 22-year-old Ohio student is leading the charge to end the blood ban on queer men

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Cole Williams’ schedule resembles that of many busy college students.

The 22-year-old University of Cincinnati senior is navigating his nursing major and political science minor, all with the nursing board exams on the near horizon. On top of his studies, he is president of his fraternity with all of the many and varied responsibilities that come with that role.

But unlike other busy college students, Williams has added one more colossal task to his checklist: he is leading the charge to end the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) blood ban on queer men.

Williams is the founder of Pride & Plasma, an organization created in 2022 to bring an end to policies that limit blood donation during the severe blood shortage currently taking place in the United States.

“This is the worst shortage of blood products in a decade,” Williams said. “This is not a time to be turning away eligible donors, but that is exactly what the current guidelines are doing.”

From 1985 to the President

The FDA has banned queer men from donating blood in some form since 1985. For decades, the guidelines mandate a lifetime ban on donations coming from any man who has had sex with another man (MSM).

In 2015, that lifetime ban was changed to a one-year deferral, and then shortened to 90 days in 2020.

Even with that progress, Williams highlights that the three-month wait isn’t consistent with scientific best practice.

“Nucleic acid testing allows us to detect HIV in blood donation within 10-33 days,” Williams explained. “That is significantly shorter than three months, which is the current policy.”

The idea for Pride & Plasma came during a congressional internship that Williams completed this past summer with Representative Lauren Underwood (D-Illinois), one of only three nurses in Congress. There, Williams met fellow intern Maelle Quartetti, an economics and pre-law senior at Arizona State University.

Together, the two thought up Pride & Plasma.

Representative Lauren Underwood and Cole Williams

Williams found inspiration to take action against the blood donor restrictions from a pretty unlikely source.

“I will admit that I am a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy,” Williams laughed. “They covered blood donation in their season finale and that was a catalyst for me to try to do something.”

Advocating for Change

The profile of Pride & Plasma recently took a major leap forward as the organization was invited to present at the December 8 meeting of the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee, a group of experts from across the country who evaluate available data concerning the safety, effectiveness and appropriate use of blood, including donation guidelines.

At the meeting, Pride and Plasma will be presenting evidence they have collected from several blood centers, global trends in MSM deferment, letters of support and a petition to change the guidelines.

That list of signatures is critically important.

“When the lifetime deferment was cut to a 12-month ban in 2015, there wasn’t any new scientific data presented,” Williams said. “That change was based on position statements and evidence of public support.”

Pride & Plasma advocates for an “individualized risk assessment,” a method of screening potential donors and determining risk based on activities that are scientifically associated with a higher risk of infection. Experts say that this would increase the safety of the blood supply by looking at individuals’ actions rather than who they are.

“There is a massive study taking place right now to assess the effectiveness and safety to transition to individualized risk assessment,” Williams said. “The results won’t be available by the December FDA meeting, but it could be a game-changer when the study is published.”

For now, Pride & Plasma is busy putting together their testimony, hosting online and in-person events, and maintaining their Instagram account that provides a consistent dose of education on the issue.

In addition to eliminating the MSM deferment, they also hope to demystify the blood donation process with one simple goal in mind: more blood donation.

“Regardless of what your political beliefs are, you might need blood at some point,” Williams said. “Whether that comes from a queer or straight donor, that blood is going to do its job.” 🔥

Ignite Action:

  • Visit Pride & Plasma’s, where you can sign their petition, order merch, and learn more about the unscientific restrictions on blood donation.

About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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