Before we begin, I want to insert a brief disclaimer: If you are at all interested in deceased donation please do not rule yourself out as a donor based on this article. My aim is to present the hidden fine print of donation as it relates to the LGBT+ community (hopefully in an entertaining manner) which serves to empower us in making informed end-of-life decisions.
Deceased donation. A wonderfully noble final request saving and/or improving the lives of millions of Americans per year. Working in a funeral home, one doesn’t get much occasion to see anatomical donation up close, but every once in a blue the stars will align, such as they did one evening last week.
I was passively moderating a heated three-way call between an out-of-state funeral home and a hospital donation coordinator when it occurred to me, can we gay people donate organs? What about our tissues, or faces?
I mean, theoretically anyone can be an organ donor (I’m an organ donor), but thanks to those grotsky, ghost-of-Ronald-Reagan-fucking flat earthers at the FDA, gay blood (or at least the blood of gay and bisexual men, and their partners) has been practically synonymous with Gowanus Canal backwash since ‘83. So, realistically, there’s bound to be some kind of backward rule regarding the organs and tissues nourished by said backwash. Right?
Well, me, I am so glad I asked because once I started digging, I uncovered intrigue worthy of Marple. Turns out, the process of successfully donating your various parts is more complex than just checking a little box at the DMV. Bureaucratic red tape! Who knew?
Fret not, friends. Like all of Christie’s mysteries, this too eventually finds a passably satisfactory conclusion.
As a woman of the modern age, my first stop in collecting source material for this article was Google. Immediately, I was inundated with seemingly contradictory articles, such as “FDA rejects eye donation,” and “Gay men eligible to donate bone marrow,” among others. Deeply confused and in need of answers, I reached out to the Gift of Life Donor Program who revealed to me a very unsettling truth: organ and tissue donation are regulated by two totally different federal standards. The Department of Health oversees organ donation, while tissue donation is within the purview of the FDA.
What does this mean?
Part 1: The Good News
The Department of Health and Human Services has no policy or federal regulation that excludes members of the LGBT community from donating organs. Fabulous! A heart for every bigot and fresh intestines for each stick-up-the-ass daytime talk show pundit.
Better yet: Due to advancements in the science of transplantation, several transplant centers in the nation have begun recovering organs for HIV+ donors to be transplanted into HIV+ recipients. Which, spoiler alert, makes the bad news in the next section sound even more ridiculous.
What counts as an organ?
The word “organ” specifically relates to the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and, more recently, any Vascularized Composite Allografts (VCA), like faces or hands for transplantation (more on how to become a VCA donor here). Some states, like California, also include intestines to their roster of accepted organs.
Part 2: The Bad News
The FDA’s ridiculous policies demonizing gay and bisexual male communities and preventing them from donating blood also applies to tissue donation screening.
How did the FDA get custody of tissue donation? I’m not 100% sure. From what I could find, the answer lies somewhere between the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 and blood’s classification as connective tissue.
What counts as a tissue?
Tissue applies to the whole eye or just the cornea, skin, veins, heart valves, bone, and connective tissues, including tendons, ligaments, and cartilage (and blood!).
In summary, not all body parts are created equal under the law, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from exploring anatomical donation as part of your end-of-life planning. Believe me, there are plenty of options for giving back port-mortem! Also, policy, like the law, is constantly in flux. Hopefully, once you’ve lived a long, unapologetically visible queer life, the FDA won’t be such an impossible party foul.
If you haven’t done so yet, you can sign up to become a donor here. When you register, most states let you choose what organs and/or tissues you want to donate, and you can update your status at any time.