Sophomore year of college, I was seduced by a sign outside a Big Red Bus that decreed, “You can be a hero! Donate blood and save three lives today!” The words were written with cheerful, swirly hot pink letters, as if advertising today’s lunch special: destiny.

Of course. I had been waiting so long for a sign, something to pull me out of my humdrum life and mark me as great. I wasn’t just some poor gay Latinx kid paying his way through school by hawking two-percent cashmere sweaters at The Gap, stealing quarters from the register to buy a stale mall pretzel. There had to be more. Here was the sign, so satisfyingly literal. I could be a hero.

Giddy at the arrival of my big break, I climbed aboard the bloodmobile, where the check-in nurse greeted me in the customary heroic way.

“We don’t have time for you.” She shifted her eyes to a packed bench where a queue of students waited to be harvested. I stared at her, struggling to find the words to communicate how vital it was that I be allowed in, that this wasn’t just about donating blood.

On paper, I know why gay men are not eligible to donate.

But I want to be special! I thought. The sign also mentioned something about free movie tickets and a small pizza. “I have time,” I said.

“Okay.” She shrugged. “You can wait if you want.” She disappeared behind a thin screen door. Another nurse motioned to a rack on the wall stacked with clipboards.

“Fill out one of those,” she said, gesturing with a zip-top bag stuffed with a foam rubber ducky. “Try to be as honest as possible. Oh, and fill the boxes out completely,” she added. “The machine doesn’t recognize partially filled out boxes.”

On a nearby donor bed, a pale woman nodded off with her hand raised like she was asking a question in her sleep, a dark purple spot bleeding through the gauze where the needle had punctured her skin.


Giving blood in the United States today is like joining an elite, profoundly uncool, hyper-exclusive club. If you are under 17 years old, depending on the state, you must have your parents’ permission. There are cruel limitations on where and when you may have traveled. For example, you may not have spent more than five years at the Sorbonne in Paris getting your doctorate about French movies about trains. You may not have gotten a tattoo within the past 12 months, even of a really tough-looking anchor on your chest. You must weigh at least 110 pounds. Per American Red Cross eligibility requirements, there is no upper weight limit for donors, as long as you can fit on the bed and “as long as your weight is not higher than the weight limit of the donor bed/lounge you are using.” Add to the reasons you might be denied at a blood donor center: the summer you spent in Ireland in 1993 looking for Bono, the lip piercing you got after your last breakup two months ago because you desperately needed a change, the heroin you injected this morning.

I scanned my donor questionnaire. “Feeling healthy and well today?” There was no box for “Sometimes I feel like I died 400 years ago,” so I shaded the box for “Yes.”

“Have you taken anything with aspirin in it within the last 24 hours?” No. Dead people don’t need medicine.

These requirements are not particularly stringent, yet only an estimated 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate. Of that, less than 10 percent actually do. This is partly because in order for a man to give blood, he must answer this question: “From 1977 to the present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?”

I was wearing cutoff jean shorts, an extra-small plain white T-shirt that bordered dangerously on crop-top territory, and dollar store glittery nail polish chipping at the edges.

I considered the consequences of telling the truth. Leave the bus. Work another eight-hour shift passing out mesh bags to customers who acknowledged me only to say “no,” the tense voice of a manager in my earpiece warning me that if I liked my job, I had to do better.

No, I decided, my pencil carefully outlining the box, thoroughly shading it in so the machine would have no trouble understanding. No to the truth of my sexual history, to this being enough. Not even once.


On paper, I know why gay men are not eligible to donate blood. The rationale for these regulations is straightforward. Aside from making sure we don’t find thumbs in our chicken nuggets, it is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration to minimize the threat of the public contracting infectious diseases (such as immunodeficiency viruses or hepatitis) through blood transfusions.

Men who have sex with men comprise the population most heavily affected by HIV infection. Among the nearly 50,000 new cases reported by the Center for Disease Control in 2012, more than 30,000 were transmitted via male-to-male sexual contact. In order to keep as few contaminated donations from entering the national blood supply as possible, several safeguards have been established. These begin with the initial donor screening process, which takes the form of a mini-physical and a questionnaire designed to weed out potential risks.

Dozens of tests are performed on each unit of donated blood — to establish blood type and test for diseases — but the FDA stresses that they are not foolproof. However, to put your potential exposure into perspective, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), “Your risk of getting HIV from a blood transfusion is lower than your risk of getting killed by lightning. Only about one in two million donations might carry HIV and transmit HIV if given to a patient.”

The FDA hands down an implicit verdict that two gay men in a monogamous relationship pose the same threat to the national blood supply as heroin addicts.

Although the source of these infections is not always linked to gay men, it is the policy of blood centers, under current FDA regulation, to place all gay men who admit to having had sexual contact with other men within the past 12 months on a one-year deferral list. This is a way to soften the reality that gay men are simply not permitted to donate. While ostensibly an improvement on the previous ban on gay men giving blood, it’s less “come back next Wednesday” and more “we’ll call you when you decide to move to the Andes, shave your head, and take a vow of celibacy.”

The FDA thus hands down an implicit verdict that two gay men in a monogamous relationship pose the same threat to the national blood supply as heroin addicts. This is government-enabled propaganda that contributes to the myth ingrained in children that only gay people contract HIV when, according to the Center for Disease Control, most new HIV diagnoses in women are attributed to heterosexual sex. And for the HIV-positive among us, the idea that the nation cannot trust gay men to know their own status — or that if we did know it we would be malicious enough to donate anyway — is outright homophobic. Despite all these hindrances, the FDA fails to account for one crucial fact: Lying is so, so easy.


One by one, the donors in front of me were escorted to beds, plugged into blood-sucking machines, and ejected back into the wild with a soft drink and their free loot. When it was finally my turn, I asked my nurse if I could have juice.

“We have apple and orange,” she said, and then — in a sudden, manic twist — added, “but get this: We just got Pepsi and Mountain Dew!”

Later, I learned that caffeine should be avoided before donating blood. It causes your blood pressure to spike and decreases blood flow to your brain. I’d had coffee and toast for breakfast. Now, the nurse handed me a Pepsi in a napkin cozy.

Her shoulder-length blond hair brushed against my arm as she plugged me into her blood-bot. It smelled like almonds. I lay back and drank my soda, watching my blood travel through a silly straw into a bag on the floor as she explained the new donating procedure I had volunteered for.

“All we’re taking is your platelets,” she said.

I nodded in understanding. Yes, my platelets! Who needs those? I pictured a cabinet in my dining room full of fancy dishes, my platelets, gathering dust.

“The blood we extract today goes into this machine,” she continued. With her foot, she tapped what looked like a miniature crib on the floor rocking my blood back and forth, lulling it to sleep. “Once the machine is done separating your platelets, the rest of your blood will be returned back to you.”

I tried to disguise my horror. What did she mean by your blood will be returned back to you? They were taking my blood out, sending it to a bag on the floor, then shoving it back in where it would touch all my important inside parts. This had to break the three-second rule. But it was too late to change my mind. I’d already decided I’d rather be a hero than gay—at least on paper.

Passing me my very own rubber ducky in a zip-top bag, she instructed me to squeeze it every five seconds. She left to help other donors, and every few minutes she found her way back, took a look at the bag that was slowly filling up with my blood, and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Ten minutes would go by and again I would be pulled out of my phone’s trance by a shadow hovering over me.

“You still okay?” As if she’d seen a spider crawl out of my veins.

“Yes.”

“Sure?” Or just discovered that instead of blood, I was running on red Jell-O.

“Yes, thank you.”

I thought she might call an ambulance, but then I remembered I was already in one.


The official American Red Cross website states that the average process of giving blood, from arriving at your local Big Red Bus to stepping off with your complimentary cranberry juice cocktail and sugar cookie, takes approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. They also maintain that every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood. In order for the national blood supply to remain sustainable, in the amount of time it takes for one person to donate, enough must be collected nationwide to meet the demands of more than 1,000 people.

The most alarming aspect of these figures? They get it. In a year, the American Red Cross and similar organizations collect 15.7 million donations in the U.S., over 700,000 more donations than needed. I imagine a nurse splayed out in a blood bank vault making blood snow angels with the amazing surplus of donations she collected that day. They are very good at their jobs.

Why, then, are stories such as “The Nation Has a Major Blood Shortage” being relayed on major news outlets like ABC? One ominous headline from Wisconsin Public Radio’s website alerts: “Urgent Donations Encouraged As Nation Faces Looming Blood Shortage.” Another, from Georgia’s Albany Herald, reads: “American Red Cross facing possible emergency blood shortage.” These headlines stand in stark contrast to the FDA’s claims that “the blood supply in the U.S. has been very stable.” Which is it?

“It’s so weird they make you choose. You can either save three people’s lives or you can check that you’ve had sex and let them all die.”

Technically, the FDA is not incorrect. The U.S. blood supply is indeed stable. The catch: With decreasing mortality rates, a rapidly growing population, and a rise in complex therapies such as cancer treatments and heart surgeries that require large amounts of blood, the public doesn’t need the blood supply to be stable. We need it to flourish. The national blood supply is constantly, literally, hemorrhaging.

Not only are approximately 41,000 blood donations used every day, but donations are also expiring. Red cell donations have a shelf life of 42 days, so they must be perpetually collected for the supply to remain stable, which leaves the nation’s blood banks playing something like blood whack-a-mole. Every time they block one hole — the 41,000 donations needed each day, a new natural disaster that requires the acquisition and distribution of thousands of new donations — another emergency threatens to deplete their resources, which brings us to not-too-optimistic headlines like U-T San Diego’s “Local blood shortage worsens,” a close cousin of “Blood Good, Supply Bad.”


After the procedure, I called my best friend, Arthur, and we drove to the pizza place 20 minutes away to redeem my free voucher. We had the restaurant all to ourselves, him in his Christina Aguilera T-shirt and me picking at my nail polish. A vaguely Italian song chimed in through the speakers.

I admitted I had lied on the questionnaire. I’d been tested for HIV a week earlier and knew I wasn’t a risk. Still, I felt guilty. I’d closeted myself on that form. I had betrayed all the queer activists who paved the way for me to be openly gay. Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera. Harvey Milk.

“It’s so weird they make you choose,” Arthur said. “You can either save three people’s lives or you can check that you’ve had sex and let them all die.”

“I kind of wish I was cool enough to tell them I’m gay,” I said. Arthur kept his eyes on his pizza, his mind somewhere else. “Like, as an act of revolt?” I continued.

“I don’t know.” He looked up. “It sucks either way.”

I imagined a little boy named something devastatingly cute, a name only a kid can pull off: Max. As an adult, he will go by Maxwell, but for now, he’s just Max. He has a gap tooth and freckles, the kind of kid you can see on the cover of an off-brand box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He has a rare cancer, so rare his parents are considering an experimental treatment that requires huge amounts of blood. We share a blood type.

“Sorry, Max,” activist me would say. “Can’t help you. I’m making a political statement.”

Back on campus, it was still too early for my night class, so I made my way to my favorite quiet spot on the third floor of the cafeteria to read. Usually I have no trouble lugging my body up three flights of stairs, but this time I was nauseated. I gave up my original plan and saddled myself into the nearest seat. At the table next to mine, an athletic couple studied silently from a mess of books and papers laid out before them, the man pausing every few minutes to take a gulp from a Herculean gallon of water.

An icy shiver passed through me. Rubbing my hands for warmth, I noticed that they were a shade lighter than usual, and suddenly they shifted into a blur and I couldn’t discern what color they were at all. I stood up to go to the bathroom, hoping I could make it to a stall before throwing up.

Sometime later, I woke up on the floor crumpled up in a ball and blind. I could hear two girls exchanging words next to me, but we were separated by a wall of black.

“He’s waking up,” one of the girls said. “You passed out,” she told me. “Are you okay?”

I closed my eyes, figuring it wouldn’t make much of a difference because I couldn’t see with them open.

“Don’t go to sleep!” a voice ordered, shaking my arm.

“You’re probably dehydrated,” someone else speculated. A redhead blob gradually came into focus.

“Can you bring me water?” I asked. “Please.” I didn’t want to be too demanding.

Was it worth it? If denying the truth about myself really saved someone’s life, yes.

I once heard that people regularly die choking alone in restaurants. So as not to bother anyone, instead of asking for help they rush to the bathroom, pretending they’re having a run-of-the-mill teary-eyed, claw-at-your-neck coughing fit. Once free of everyone’s stares, they can die in polite peace. People don’t want heroes. We want to be able to save ourselves. I closed my eyes again.

A third girl came up to me with a cup of water. I snatched it from her hands, but within seconds she took it back.

“Actually, if you’re dehydrated, you shouldn’t be drinking water,” she said. I assumed she was premed. Or maybe I was already dead. Limbo: an infinite series of white girls bringing me water and taking it away.

The paramedics arrived, took my blood pressure, and confirmed I was dehydrated. They told me I needed water.

“Have you had any?” one asked. I looked at the still-full cup resting on a table too far away for me to reach.

“No.”

They plugged me into an IV. An Evil-Dead quantity of blood squirted out of my arm. The paramedic wiped it with a tissue.

“Why did you donate blood? For the movie tickets?” he asked.

Partly. But don’t forget that I’m a selfless hero.

“Was it worth it?” he asked, not waiting for me to answer.

I leaned my head against the wall and felt the cool liquid from the IV travel through my veins, a million microscopic glasses of ice water splashing along the insides of my limbs, gradually waking up my body.

I wondered whether he would report my fainting episode to the blood bank. Would this make my blood bad? I thought about Max. Was it worth it? If denying the truth about myself really saved someone’s life, yes.

“You have two options,” he told me. “You can go to the hospital or you can stay here and drink a lot of water.”

I calculated, half-conscious, that I could probably survive if I stayed. This wasn’t my first time fainting. A few months earlier, while staying at my mother’s house, I had sliced my thumb trying to open a can of tuna, then passed out. I woke up a few hours later in her bed. Not sure what to do, she had simply dragged my body to her room and resumed cooking dinner.

“I’m really poor and have really bad insurance, so I think I’ll just stay here,” I said.

“You will almost definitely pass out again if you stay,” he countered.

Then why even give me the option? Is this some kind of fun game paramedics play — put the patient in a life-or-death situation, ask them to choose death, then force them to live anyway? I thought I had a shot at making it on my own. There was a water fountain a few feet away. I was lucid. I said out loud, “I’m lucid,” figuring that anyone who can remember the word lucid must be so.

“I think I’ll stay,” I repeated.

He shook his head. “We’re taking you to the hospital.”

In the ambulance, I discovered that my phone’s flashlight would not turn off. I turned it around, not sure what I was looking for. A hidden magical switch that would help me in exactly this situation? I didn’t care about the phone, but I was worried the battery would die and I wouldn’t be able to call anyone to pick me up from the hospital. I had 12 percent battery left. I called my mother. No answer. Eleven percent. Again. No answer. I called my brother and went straight to voicemail. Nine percent. I called Arthur.

Later, I will find out that after my call, he rushed out of bed and ran out of his parents’ house, frantic to make sure I was okay. His mom had maneuvered into the driveway and parked an inch from the driver’s seat of his car, thinking it would be funny if she made it hard for him to get inside. Assuming he was overreacting to her innocent joke, she laughed hysterically as he flailed his arms and shouted at her to cut it out. Meanwhile, I was in the back of an ambulance plugged into an IV with a computer printing out a series of zigzag lines quantifying my life. I still think she’s funny.

I went back to trying to fix the light.

“You trying to take a selfie in an ambulance?” the new, younger paramedic riding with me asked, his voice thick with disapproval.

My eyes jumped from the tribal tattoo on his arm to the hurricane of wires coming out of mine. I kept quiet, not wanting to explain myself.

“You got a girlfriend?”

Again, I looked at my cutoffs and painted nails, obvious indicators of the type of boy I was. Was he genuinely curious about my relationship status, or was he trying to pry a confession out of me? Max, I thought. Your blood is good. Don’t let them convince you otherwise.

“There are lots of girls around here,” he continued.

I folded and told him I didn’t have a girlfriend. Not really a lie. A part of me also worried that if I admitted I was gay he would purposely mess something up. I was plugged into a lot of tubes and they all presented an opportunity for a so-called accident.

“Is my water level thing better now?” I asked.

“Your water level thing?”

“I don’t know what it’s called,” I said. “But the first paramedic told me I was dehydrated and needed water, and he kept looking at a measurement I think might have been my blood pressure. I’m not sure, though.”

“Are you premed?” he asked.

“No.”

“Thank God.”

“Well, how is it?” I asked, caring less and less about the possibility of an accident.

“It’s fine.”

“What kind of tests will they do on me at the hospital?” I ran up the tab in my head.

“It’s fine! I’ll just sell some more of my blood for money!”

“Are you anxious?” he asked.

“Only when I’m in an ambulance.”

It had been more than an hour since I fainted. Even so, the paramedics insisted that I be wheeled into the hospital on a gurney. A nurse behind the reception desk looked up at me.

“There’s my 63,” she smiled.

“I’m your 63,” I replied, then turned to the young paramedic. “What does that mean?”

“It means you’re her sixty-third patient today. You win a prize.”

“Like an Olive Garden gift card?” I asked. “Or free health care?”

Her eyes flashed to my hands as I fumbled with my phone. “Need a charger?” she asked.

“Yes! Thank you!”

“I’ll go get one for you,” she said, getting up from her station. She pushed through a set of double-doors. I never saw her again. Classic hospital prank.

From there, I was wheeled into an emergency room about the size of a walk-in closet.

“Do I have to do these tests?” I asked my doctor. “I feel perfectly fine. There’s no way I can afford this.”

“You look fine,” he said. “I’ll just give you another IV and you can go.”

My mind flashed back to the water fountain only a few feet away, the cup of water probably still on the table. I could have saved myself. Arthur arrived, his curly hair matted down in the back from his nap. On his way out, the doctor warned me, “Watch out. The person you least want to see is on her way.” Minutes later, an Ursula-like woman entered the room pushing a laptop on a cart.

“Name?” she asked by way of introduction. Date of birth. Social Security number. Religion? In case you die, a voice whispered in my ear.

“None.”

“Health insurance card?”

“How much is this going to cost?” I asked, digging through the several-months-old receipts and expired coupons stashed in my wallet.

“I can’t tell you,” she said. “You’ll get a bill in the mail.”

But I’m right here. Let’s skip the middleman.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, I can tell you your health insurance kicks in after $900. After $900, you pay 10 percent.”

After $900? Ten percent of what?

“Don’t worry, though,” she said. “You’re on your mom’s insurance. She’ll pay for it!”

I smiled, doing my best impression of someone who’s got it all under control. Of course, my mother would just hock one of the diamonds she bought with her glamorous, high-paying gig at Starbucks. No worries.

“It’s fine! I’ll just sell some more of my blood for money!” I yelled, but she was already out of the room.

Arthur, who has had cancer and been through the hospital bureaucracy, explained. “Your health insurance only kicks in after the first $900. Anything before that, you have to pay.”

We waited 10 minutes. Twenty. I could hear the nurses in the reception area talking about Game of Thrones. A main character had died the night before, and they were distraught. Thirty minutes. The monotonous beeps prompted by the wire connected to my finger started alternating their rhythm. Beep. Three seconds. Beep. Sometimes two consecutive beep, beeps — no intermission. I tore off the wire, feeling like a bad-ass action movie star, except 22 years old and puny. The same tired, limping woman walked back and forth down the hallway. There was a glitch in the Matrix.

“If you don’t go to the reception area and bring me a doctor, I’m going to explode,” I told Arthur. He hurried out.


Driving away from the hospital, it was finally okay for me to be gay. Arthur blasted our best friend song on his CD player, B*Witched’s “Blame it on the Weatherman.” We listened to it when he was first diagnosed with cancer, now, and years later driving by our old home club, Pulse, feeling helpless after hearing that thousands of gay men around the country attempting to donate blood to shooting victims were being turned away from blood banks. Each time, we blamed it all on the weatherman, pleading at the top of our lungs for him to leave us alone. We stopped at a convenience store to pick up a bottle of water, my total coming out to a little over $2. I winced at the idea of paying for water. In a week, a hospital bill would arrive notifying me that I owed $3,412.67 for my ambulance ride and IV. A measly sum to a hero.

We talked about boys. I slowly came back to life describing Zac Efron on the cover of whatever magazine was in the checkout line, laughing at the paramedic’s girlfriend question.

“I asked the paramedics to let me stay,” I told Arthur, taking a massive swig of water. “Even if it meant I would die.”

“Well, now neither of us can donate,” he told me.

“What do you mean?”

“In high school, on our blood drive day, I tried to donate,” he said. I watched as his grip on the steering wheel tensed, his knuckles white. “But when the nurse handed me my questionnaire, I didn’t really know any better, so I marked that I wasn’t a virgin.”

He told me she informed him he would not be able to donate. When he asked why, she explained that his gay blood wasn’t admittable. The bus was packed with other high school students, jocks who agreed to be heroes so long as they could get out of fourth-period Biology.

“Everyone heard,” he said. “So I hid in a bathroom stall until the end of the blood drive so I wouldn’t have to go back to class.”

“Did you notice how all the guys who worked at that hospital were models?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes. “Girl, keep wishing. They think we all have AIDS and our blood is battery acid.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, then restarted “Blame it on the Weatherman.” Outside, the sky was turning gray. “At least we’re rich and have sick bodies though, right?”

At the university parking lot, he offered to drive behind me till I made it home. I accepted. I didn’t want to choke alone in the bathroom. He could be the hero.


An earlier version of this piece was published in the Rumpus.