Jen Larson doesn’t like needles, but on Friday she sat watching blood flow out of her arm and into a pint bag at United Blood Services, 1444 Grand Ave.
“I haven’t given in a long time because I fainted the last time,” she said. “But it’s a really good cause, so I’m willing to face my fears.”
Larson, her husband Seth, and 34 others had signed up to donate blood in honor of gay and bisexual men who can’t. The United States Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow men who have had any sexual contact with another man since 1977 to donate.
Billings was one of 61 cities across the country that hosted a Gay Blood Drive.
The policy barring gay men from donating blood was enacted in response to the AIDS epidemic, but organizers believe that policy is outdated and want it to be changed to make it easier to donate by perhaps changing the lifetime deferral to a one- or five-year ban.
In a June 2013 decision, the American Medical Association spoke out against the current policy, saying it was, ”not based on sound science.” Proponents are asking the FDA to reconsider the rule and have begun circulating a petition in an attempt to collect 100,000 signatures.
More than 5,000 people have signed the petition so far.
The Gay Blood Drive was started in 2013 by California filmmaker and activist Ryan James Yezak who, after discovering he could not give blood because of his sexual orientation, decided to try and raise awareness about the FDA’s policy.
The Billings drive’s organizer, Ryan Doll, said he felt the need to bring the event to Billings after he also found out that he was ineligible to donate blood at an on-campus blood drive. It made him mad.
“It really ticked me off,” the Montana State University Billings junior said. But he wasn’t quite sure what he could do about it.
He took his frustrations out on Carrie Rigney, the United Blood Services representative who organizes blood drives on MSUB’s campus, and the discussion got a little heated.
“No matter what I said, he wasn’t listening,” Rigney said. “I didn’t know how to calm him down and help him understand.”
Looking for a solution, Doll came across the initiative while surfing the Internet. He thought it could be a positive way to raise awareness, but to put on the event he had to work with the very person he had directed his complaint to at MSUB.
Though they got off to a rocky start they’ve developed a friendship.
“He fits in pretty well with us,” Rigney said. “Now he’s part of the team.”
And hopefully, if the awareness campaign is successful, Doll may one day be able to give blood, too.
“The fact that I can’t donate kills me,” Doll said. “Being able to save three lives with one donation would mean a lot.”