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Local gay student blocked from making blood donation despite FDA easing policy

Red Cross acknowledges delays, study to examine further change

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Aubrey Lay was barred from making a blood donation under the gay ban. (Photo courtesy of Lay)

A gay D.C. native otherwise qualified to donate blood was denied that chance at a local hospital, demonstrating that obstacles remain after the FDA eased its ban on gay donations — even as the agency has set up a pilot study to assess lifting the blanket policy altogether.

Aubrey Lay, a 19-year-old student at the College of William & Mary, told the Washington Blade after the FDA eased its policy last month he registered with his family at Children’s National Hospital, a D.C.-based pediatrics center, in hopes of making a contribution under the belief he’d meet the new requirements.

“As a gay man, I was very excited that the FDA had relaxed its guideline restrictions on MSM donating blood, however imperfect this change may be,” Lay said. “This meant that for the first time since graduating high school, I would be able to donate blood.”

Lay said he would have been ineligible to donate under the former rule requiring 12 months of abstinence for gay men, but believed he would have been eligible under the new rules requiring only three months. Although the hospital’s website had the old information online, Lay said he proceeded to his appointment on April 29 under the “wishful thinking” the hospital would accept him.

But Lay was ultimately blocked from making a donation.

“It turned out I was giving them the benefit of the doubt where I shouldn’t have,” Lay said. “I signed in and had my intake interview during which I explained my sexual history, and that I had last had sexual contact in early January, over the three-month limit. After answering all these questions, I got my finger pricked and iron levels checked, and height, weight, [blood pressure] taken. Only then was I told that I would not be able to donate because the hospital’s policy has not yet caught up to national standards.”

Lay said he was “shaken” by the experience, having wanted to make a blood donation to help out as the nation battles the coronavirus crisis.

As evidence going to the hospital was a risk he didn’t take lightly, Lay said it was the first time he’d left his house in a month because he and his family took the Virginia stay-at-home order “very seriously.”

“I certainly would not have risked my own health, and that of others, had I known I would be turned away,” Lay said.

Amid the blood shortage during the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA last month announced it would ease the ban on blood donations for various groups, including men who have sex with men.

The earlier ban, established in 2015, required gay men to be abstinent for 12 months before making a donation, but the new policy eased those restrictions, requiring a deferral period of three months.

Before 2015, the FDA had a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with men. The policy was implemented in 1983 at the height of the AIDS epidemic based on fears donations from gay men would allow HIV to enter the blood supply.

Lay, upon being denied the ability to donate blood, said he found the office of the hospital’s president next to the blood donation room and sought an audience.

The president, Lay said, apologized for the confusion and connected him with the doctor in charge of the blood bank. The doctor, Lay said, told him the hospital’s computer systems were interlaced with the new policy and — in normal times without coronavirus — it would take a month to disentangle them and make them consistent with the new policy.

The website for the Children’s National Hospital has been updated and no longer indicates it follows the earlier 12-month policy, but is in the process of making a transition to conform to the new guidance by June 2020.

A Children’s National Hospital spokesperson confirmed the center is still in the process of updating its policy for gay donors and expects resolution next month.

“We have the deepest appreciation for all our blood donors and see every day how their donation saves lives,” the spokesperson said. “We take every step to adhere to all regulations around blood donation and are working to update our policies, donor questionnaire and computer systems to align to the new FDA regulations. The FDA just approved the donor questionnaire for sites to use and we are hoping to have all policies in place in June. We encourage anyone who would like to donate to make an appointment and double check on the eligibility before coming in.”

Lay’s story isn’t unique as other gay men have reported being unable to donate blood after the FDA eased its ban. Whether or not each of these men expected to meet the requirements under the new deferral period of three months is unclear.

Gay TV personality Andy Cohen says he was denied the chance to donate, even though his plasma would be rich in the antibody for COVID-19. Lukus Estok, a young gay man who recovered from COVID-19, also told his story about being denied the opportunity to make a donation at the New York Blood Center. His Facebook post went viral on social media and was featured in a Good Morning America article.

Mathew Lasky, a spokesperson for the LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD, which has been leading calls for a change in blood policy, said more and more stories are emerging of LGBTQ people being blocked from making donations despite the recent change.

“GLAAD is continuing to pressure the FDA to put science above stigma, and to remove any time-based deferral on gay and bisexual men, and others in the LGBTQ community, donating blood,” Lasky said. “In the meantime, it’s critical for individual blood centers to begin adhering to the new FDA guidelines as not to continue needlessly discriminating against LGBTQ people, and to address the critical blood supply shortages we’re seeing during COVID-19.”

The American Red Cross, which had called for the FDA to shorten its deferral period from the 12 months to three months before the new policy was implemented, cautioned via a spokesperson the implementation of updated rules “will take time.”

“As the largest blood provider in the country, we are working to implement the updated FDA eligibility changes and will provide an update on timeline in the near future,” the spokesperson said. “It’s important to note that the implementation process includes potentially thousands of individuals and involves complex system updates that do take time. We are working to develop a reinstatement process to share with potential donors in the near future.”

UPDATE: A Red Cross spokesperson after publication of this article told the Blade a June 1 target date has been set for full implementation of the FDA policy change.

“The American Red Cross is working to implement the updated FDA eligibility changes on June 1,” the spokesperson said. “We just want to emphasize that this process includes potentially thousands of individuals and involves system updates that will take time to implement.”

Even as blood centers work to update their system to conform to the new policy, LGBTQ advocates have said the change is insufficient and the FDA should scrap its deferral requirements entirely for men who have sex with men and instead implement a policy based on individual risk assessment. Such a policy could enable, for example, monogamous gay men or gay men with safe sex practices to make blood donations.

Among those calling for this change is California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who last month led a letter to the Department of Health & Human Services with 19 other attorneys general urging the Trump administration to abandon the deferral period, citing the success of other countries, such as Spain, Italy and Portugal, that have implemented gender-neutral policies.

Many voices have emerged calling for any and all obstacles to gay men making blood donations being lifted because testing could determine whether a blood donation has HIV. Experts, however, say some caution is necessary as a window exists between donation and testing in which the test wouldn’t be able to determine if a donation was free of the virus.

Scott Schoettes, counsel and the HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, articulated that warning in a conference call last month with reporters.

“People believe that it catches all new cases of HIV or new cases of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, other blood borne infections,” Schoettes said. “That is not the case. There is still a window period during which that testing would not uncover a newly acquired infection.”

But in a rare situation of hitting both the gas and brake at the same time amid a policy change, the FDA has indicated the agency also is in the early stages of a pilot program to determine whether or not the ban can be changed further in favor of a risk-based assessment.

Megan McSeveney, an FDA spokesperson, confirmed the agency is set to begin the study with “about 2,000 men who have sex with men and who would be willing to donate blood.”

“This study, being conducted at community health centers in key locations across the United States, could generate data that will help the FDA determine if a donor questionnaire based on individual risk assessment would be as effective as time-based deferrals in reducing the risk of HIV,” McSeveney said.

The Red Cross is participating in the efforts to ensure a new risk-based policy as opposed to a deferral period will keep the blood supply safe, a spokesperson for the non-profit said.

“We are very early in the study – we are currently finalizing the content of the new questions, and developing the specifics of the protocols, including site selection, which then will require government and ethical review board approval,” the spokesperson said. “The results of testing in combination with the responses to the questionnaire will be used to determine the value of the questions in interdicting new HIV infections.”

Based on the limited information of the study, there’s no indication a change will, in fact, follow eliminating the deferral period for gay men entirely in favor of a risk-based assessment.

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement the pilot study was wholly necessary given medical experts who say any kind of deferral period is “stigma, not science.”

“During the current crisis, the FDA is wasting time and money on a pilot study when all the scientific research and medical authorities plainly state that gay and bi man should not be restricted from donating blood,” Ellis said. “All blood donations, regardless of sexual orientation, are screened to ensure healthy samples and now the American Medical Association, leading elected officials, and more than 600 medical professionals have all done the work for the FDA and unequivocally state that this ban needs to end.”

Lay, caught in the middle of reconsideration of the policy, said he awaits the day when the restrictions are changed so LGBTQ people can finally donate blood at a time when their help is needed.

“Because of this crisis, blood donation centers should not be turning people away at the door who are by all measures qualified donors, risking their health and the health of those around them by their very presence in these spaces,” Lay said. “It is so important that we make this discrepancy between policy and practice known so that we can push for more transparency in blood donation, and hopefully full implementation of the new policy, albeit imperfect.”

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Maryland

Judge rules trans teacher’s lawsuit against P.G. County can go to trial

Gay man files separate case charging discrimination

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Jennifer Eller, gay news, Washington Blade
Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

A federal judge in Maryland issued a ruling on Tuesday, Jan. 18, clearing the way for a lawsuit filed by transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in 2018 charging the Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools with discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity to proceed to a trial.

In the ruling, Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied key parts of several motions filed by attorneys representing the P.G. County Public Schools that in effect called for the dismissal of the lawsuit. The motions, among other things, claimed the lawsuit failed to provide sufficient evidence that Eller was subjected to discrimination and harassment, which forced her to resign due to a hostile work environment.

Chuang also ruled against a separate motion introduced by Eller’s attorneys calling for him to issue a summary judgement decision affirming all the lawsuit’s allegations that would have ended the litigation in Eller’s favor without the need to go to trial.

Eller’s lawsuit charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers, and supervisors and retaliation by school administrators.

The lawsuit alleges that the school system and its administrators in its actions against Eller violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Prince George’s County Code.

“We think the judge did as best he could,” said Omar Gonzales-Pagan, an attorney with the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, are representing Eller in her lawsuit.

“The takeaway is that the case is now in a posture to proceed to trial,” Gonzales-Pagan told the Washington Blade. “The court found that the alleged facts and the information as discovered throughout the case in the discovery process is sufficient to allow a jury to find whether Jennifer Eller was subjected to a hostile work environment and constructive discharge and retaliation unlawfully by the defendants,” he said.

By the term constructive discharge, Gonzales-Pagan was referring to the lawsuit’s charge that Eller was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

P.G. County Public Schools officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit on grounds that the school system has a longstanding policy of not discussing pending litigation. However, in its response to the lawsuit in court filings, school system officials have denied Eller’s allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by her attorneys.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said in her statement. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” she said. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

The lawsuit says the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. It says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

In a separate action, gay former Spanish teacher Jared Hester filed on his own without an attorney a lawsuit in the Maryland federal court charging the P.G. County Public Schools with failing to take action to prevent him from being subjected to discrimination and harassment similar to some of the allegations made in Eller’s lawsuit.

Hester told the Blade that he was subjected to harassment by students who repeatedly called him “faggot,” but school officials, including the principal of the middle school where he taught, refused to take action to stop the harassment.

He provided the Blade with copies of earlier complaints he filed against school system officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, and the P.G County Public Schools’ internal Office of Equity Assurance. Each of the three agencies issued rulings against Hester’s complaints, with two of them saying sufficient evidence could not be found to support his allegations.

The EEOC, in a Nov. 3, 2021 “dismissal” notice, told Hester the EEOC “will not proceed further with its investigation, and makes no determination about whether further investigation would establish violations of the statute.” The notice added, “This does not mean the claims have no merit” or that the respondent, meaning the P.G. County Public Schools, “is in compliance with the statutes.”

The notice did not give a reason for why it chose to end its investigation into Hester’s complaint, but it said his filing with the EEOC cleared the way for him to file a lawsuit to further his case against the school system. 

Hester told the Blade he reached out to Lambda Legal to represent him in his lawsuit, but the LGBTQ litigation group declined to take on his case without giving a reason. Gonzalez-Pagan, the Lambda attorney working on the Eller case, said he was unfamiliar with Hester’s request for representation. Another Lambda official couldn’t immediately be reached to determine the reason for its decision not to represent Hester.

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Local

FreeState Justice outlines 2022 legislative priorities

Bills introduced to repeal ‘unnatural or perverted sexual practice’ law

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conversion therapy, gay news, Washington Blade

FreeState Justice has outlined its legislative priorities for the Maryland General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session that began on Jan. 12.

State Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore and Harford Counties) has introduced Senate Bill 22, which would repeal a provision of Maryland law that bans “unnatural or perverted sexual practice.” State Dels. David Moon (D-Montgomery County), Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery County) and Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Montgomery County) have introduced an identical bill in the House of Delegates.

A bill that repealed Maryland’s sodomy law took effect in 2020 without Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, but the “unnatural or perverted sexual practice” provision that criminalizes oral sex and bestiality remains in place.

FreeState Justice Policy Director C.P. Hoffman on Jan. 12 noted during a virtual briefing that prosecutors rarely bring charges under the law. Hoffman nevertheless pointed out four men who were arrested at a video store in Harford County in May 2021 were indicted under it.

“Its really just offensive that this is being used against queer people in 2021,” said Hoffman. “So we want to see it repealed.”

Hoffman and their FreeState Justice colleagues also noted the ability for transgender Marylanders to more easily obtain official documents that correspond with their gender identity is another legislative priority.

Maryland since 2019 has allowed trans and non-binary people to receive a driver’s license with an “X” gender marker.

Hoffman said FreeState Justice will support bills that would allow Marylanders to change their name on their marriage certificate without a court order or getting divorced and remarry. FreeState Justice will also back a measure that would allow trans parents to amend their child’s birth certificate to accurately reflect their gender identity.

“We’re trying to clean that up to make one consistent policy that allows for trans folks to do this,” said Hoffman.

FreeState Justice Executive Director Jeremy LaMaster during the briefing noted another legislative priority is the Inclusive Schools Act, which would require Maryland public schools to implement a uniform non-discrimination policy through the state’s Department of Education. FreeState Justice Policy Coordinator Jamie Grace Alexander highlighted the organization will also urge lawmakers to expand access to PrEP and PEP in Maryland and to support legislation that would, among other things, prohibit housing incarcerated trans women with men.

“The conditions for transgender people — especially transgender women — while they’re incarcerated are extremely grim and dark,” said Alexander.

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Virginia

Mother says teen boy charged with assault in girl’s bathroom at Va. school is straight

Earlier reports that Loudoun County student was gender fluid triggered backlash

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Two sexual assaults by the same teen in Loudoun County schools attracted widespread media attention. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a little-noticed interview last November with the British online newspaper, DailyMail.com, the mother of a 15-year-old boy charged with sexually assaulting a girl last May in the girl’s bathroom at a Loudoun County, Va., high school that the two students attended said her son identifies as heterosexual.

The May 28, 2021, sexual assault first surfaced in the news media in October at the same time law enforcement authorities disclosed that the boy allegedly sexually assaulted a girl on Oct. 6 in a vacant classroom at another high school to which he was transferred.

The disclosure of the two assaults triggered a furious backlash by some parents and conservative political activists against a Virginia school policy allowing transgender and gender fluid students to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity.

“First of all, he is not transgender,” the boy’s mother told DailyMail.com in a Nov. 2 interview. “And I think this is all doing an extreme disservice to those students who actually identify as transgender,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

The mother, who agreed to the interview on grounds that she was not identified to protect the identity of her son, said her son identifies as heterosexual and absolutely does not identify as female.

LGBTQ activists have said the backlash against both the Virginia state and Loudoun County transgender non-discrimination policies — which spread to school districts across the country that have similar policies — was fueled by what they have said all along was unsubstantiated claims that the boy was transgender or gender fluid.

Conservative activists who strongly oppose the school systems’ trans supportive bathroom policies have said it was those policies that enabled the 15-year-old boy, who police say was wearing a skirt at the time of the May 28 sexual assault incident, to enter the girl’s bathroom to target the girl.

Since that time, testimony in a Loudoun County Juvenile Court where the boy was being prosecuted revealed that the 14-year-old girl who brought the charges against him said she and the boy had two consenting sexual encounters in a girl’s bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., prior to the incident in which the boy allegedly assaulted her. 

According to the Washington Post, whose reporter attended one of the juvenile court hearings, the girl testified that she agreed to meet the boy in the girl’s bathroom after he requested a third sexual encounter there, but she told him she did not want to have sex at that time.

“The girl previously testified in court that the defendant threw her to the ground in the bathroom and forced her to perform two sexual acts on him after she told him that she was not interested in sex on that occasion,” the Post reported in a story last week about the final outcome of the case.

At a Jan. 12 sentencing hearing, Loudoun County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Pamela Brooks placed the boy on the Virginia sex offender registry for life, the Post reported. After ruling in an earlier hearing in November that the evidence confirmed that the boy was responsible for sexually assaulting the two girls, Brooks sentenced the boy to a residential treatment facility rather than a juvenile detention facility and required that he remain on probation until he turns 18, the Post reported.

“He’s a 15-year-old boy that wanted to have sex in the bathroom, with somebody that was willing,” the boy’s mother told DailyMaiI.com. “And they’re twisting this just enough to make it a political hot button issue,” she said.

In her interview with the newspaper, the mother said her son wasn’t gender fluid despite the reports, which she confirms, that he wore a skirt at the time of the first of the two sexual assaults.

“He would wear a skirt one day and then the next day, he would wear jeans and a T-shirt, a Polo or hoodie,” she told the newspaper. “He was trying to find himself and that involved all kinds of styles. I believe he was doing it because it gave him attention he desperately needed and sought,” she said.

The mother acknowledged in the interview that her son was deeply troubled, saying he had a long history of misbehavior, including sending nude photos of himself to a girl when he was in the fifth grade.

On Jan. 12, the same day as the boy’s sentencing hearing, Virginia House of Delegates member John Avoli (R-Stanton) introduced a bill calling for restricting the ability of transgender students from using bathrooms and other facilities in public schools that are consistent with their gender identity.

A separate bill introduced last month by Virginia State Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County) calls for eliminating the requirement that Virginia school districts adopt the state Department of Education’s nondiscrimination policies for trans and non-binary students.

Although Virginia’s newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates could move to advance the two bills, LGBTQ activists note that the state Senate remains in Democratic control and would block the two bills from being approved by the General Assembly.

Cris Candice Tuck, president of the LGBTQ group Equality Loudoun, told the Blade she expects opponents of LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies in the Loudoun County Public Schools and other school systems in Virginia to continue to use the sexual assault case of the Loudoun boy as a pretext to repeal LGBTQ and trans supportive policies. 

“We firmly believe it should have absolutely no bearing as the perpetrator was not transgender, non-binary, or gender fluid, and so that doesn’t apply to this policy at all,” Tuck said. “A single conviction of an individual who is not even part of the group in question is no reason to invalidate the rights and expose to potential violence the hundreds of students who identify as transgender or non-binary,” Tuck said in an email message.

“Currently, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and hundreds of cisgender teachers, clergy, and coaches are embroiled in legal battles nationwide involving sexual molestation, rape, and abuse of children across the country that has been ongoing for decades,” Tuck said. “Yet no one is proposing restroom restrictions for any of those groups. A double standard cannot exist for the LGBTQ+ based on fear mongering, misinformation, and discrimination.”

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