Twenty-one years ago, Tony Mauss and a group of his male friends went to get tested for HIV.
They weren't scared they had caught the virus. The friends, part of a gay student group at Iowa State University, wanted to be ready for a question American Red Cross workers would ask them when they tried to donate blood in 1995: Are you a man who has had sexual contact with another man, even once, since 1977?
After they all tested negative, the group went to a Red Cross blood drive at a bus on campus. Everything was going well until the workers there asked about their sexual history. Once they answered yes, they'd had sex with other men in the past, the workers looked at them sheepishly, saying, "We're sorry," and citing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. Mauss and his friends pulled out documentation showing the results of their recent HIV tests.
"We told them, 'Well, we've been to the doctor, we've gotten tested, and we're negative,'" Mauss, then 23, remembers telling the workers. "Can you explain to me why you're not going to take my blood if I have proof that I'm negative?"
The workers remained unmoved and told them they had to leave. Mauss wasn't surprised. For the next decades, he would have to explain to family and friends why he couldn't give blood. Protesting the ban was a skirmish, not a battle like the ones for equal housing, employment and marriage opportunities for the LGBT community, but it still stung.
Three weeks ago, on June 12, Orlando's LGBTQ community was struck by one of the worst mass shooting massacres in modern U.S. history when 49 people were killed and 53 injured at the gay nightclub Pulse. After the early-morning bloodshed, people started lining up by the thousands at Orlando's blood donation centers. Mauss says in between his emotions of fear and sadness that day, there was a glimmer of hope when a rumor started going around that blood centers had lifted the FDA ban against men who've had sex with men in the past year. That hope was quickly shut down by the local center OneBlood, who announced via Twitter, "All FDA guidelines remain in effect for blood donation. There are false reports circulating that FDA rules were being lifted. Not true."
It didn't surprise Mauss, but it cut deeply, especially because his blood could have helped a community in Orlando he belongs to.
"I'm in a long-term relationship," he says. "I've tested negative my whole life. It's rather silly that if you were going to test the blood anyway, why wouldn't you take my blood? To realize that these are my people and that maybe I could help, maybe I could do something tangible, but I can't give blood because I'm a gay man who happens to be sexually active, is angering."
In the weeks after the tragedy, the hints of a battle over the ban are present: Lawmakers in Congress and LGBTQ advocates are urging the FDA to change its policy for good, but the agency remains entrenched to "protect the blood supply."
It's only been seven months since the FDA changed its guidelines on blood donation from men who've had sex with other men from a lifetime ban to a 12-months-celibate deferral period.