Bloody Frustrated

Yuval David survived COVID-19. Now, he wants to lift the ban on queer blood donation

Yuval David

Yuval David didn’t plan to get COVID-19. He also didn’t plan for his recovery from the disease to lead to a new kind of activism.

The New York-based actor/filmmaker/advocate has always included activism in his life, both for the LGBTQ community as well as for Jewish Americans. Most of his time he spends working in theatrical productions, as well as in screen titles such as The Plot Against America, Beauty and the Beast, Madam Secretary and What Would You Do? His coronavirus diagnosis forced David to examine the current FDA regulation banning transgender women and men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating plasma.

Previous rules stated that MSM had to remain celibate for one full year in order to donate blood. That window relaxed to three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yuval David now joins a growing chorus of activists calling out the discriminatory blood ban, and demanding that the FDA and American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) remove the restriction entirely to let gay and bisexual men, as well as transgender women, donate blood without prejudice.

Queerty snagged some time with David to discuss his COVID-19 diagnosis, the blood ban, and his own plan for letting MSM donate blood.

So how much did you know about the blood ban before your own COVID experience?

Even though I was aware of it, I didn’t focus on the blood ban. But I knew that it existed. I was basically raised to live my life as an advocate. I’m a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I’m a child of immigrants. I understand things don’t come easy, and we all need to help each other. So that led to advocacy. My advocacy within the LGBTQ community has been pretty active.

When all this happened, and when I recovered, my first thought was I knew I wanted to donate blood to help those who are really suffering. At that point, I had already lost two friends—soon to be three—to COVID-19. So I recognize how lucky I am to have survived this.

Of course.

When I went to donate blood, that’s why I volunteered information. I brought a copy of the records of my physicals that show I’m healthy. But I said “I’m gay.” And I thought maybe their policy had changed, or that it wouldn’t matter. But they have to follow the FDA and AADB regulations, so I was told they couldn’t accept my blood. And I said “What if I told you that I have sex with women?” And [the nurse] said “Then I could accept your blood.”

Wow.

And she paused and said “It’s protocol.” She actually said she was embarrassed, but it is the policy. And of course, I wasn’t going to argue with her. She’s not the one that initiated the blood ban. So I reached out to different places thinking someone would want to take my blood. I had the antibodies in my system.

Right.

Then the blood ban changed again. On Facebook, all my activist friends were celebrating. And it’s a step in the right direction, but read the fine print. MSM, trans women, and women who have sex with MSM, no matter how they identify, blood will only be accepted if we abstain for three months. So that’s what drove me to speak out.

Walk me through the symptoms and diagnosis. What did you feel, when did you feel it?

Mid-March I started to feel off. 2019 was one of the busiest years of my career. January was like that. February I was working on multiple productions. I was exhausted. So when I started to get sick, I thought my body was starting to talk to me. But, I was aware that the pandemic had hit the United States. I began following social distancing guidelines and figured I would see what happens. The day after that, I was hit so hard.

Oh my.

I had a low-grade fever. I was constantly cold, no matter how many layers I was wearing. I told my husband we couldn’t sleep in the same bedroom because of the importance of social distancing. The day I got sick, I started to treat it as if it was COVID. I reached out to my primary care doctor, but at that time it wasn’t easy to get a coronavirus test. Fortunately my primary care physician is well connected, and was able to get a test. It took nine days for the results. And by the time the results came back, I was feeling completely fine again.

Well, that’s good.

But that was a period of seven days where I was sleeping 20 hours per day.

Dear lord.

I’ve never experienced anything like that. Other than those 20 hours, I was drinking copious amounts of fluids. My husband made me chicken soup. I was taking Vitamin C. I was taking zinc. I was taking Tylenol. But other than that, I was achy, exhausted, chilled and sleeping. I was lucky I got better. I didn’t want to post about my illness on social media until the blood ban affected me. My attempt to help others was thwarted because of a ridiculous, outdated, discriminatory policy. So I had to speak out.

So it took over a week to recover. How long did you wait before you tried to donate?

I knew I needed to quarantine, so I stayed in my apartment. During the week, while I was quarantined, I started to reach out to donation centers. So I’d say maybe a week after I was actively trying to donate.

Now, for our readers who aren’t phlebotomists, what are the benefits and uses of the antibodies?

The benefits of antibodies are that those antibodies can be used to help someone fight the virus. It’s like the flu vaccine: the vaccine is created from antibodies in the plasma of people who have that flu. It introduces antibodies to the body, the body recognizes those antibodies, and begins to develop its own antibodies. So for people struggling with COVID, introducing those antibodies into their system can also help them overcome it.

One thing I noticed in preparation for this is that though the current FDA regulations have relaxed from a one-year period of celibacy to three months, a number of blood banks still enforce the one-year rule. Why do you think so few donation centers have not changed their policies?

Well, so, the AABB regulates so many of these centers. So we’re speaking about two different organizations. The AABB also develops the questionnaires for different clinics. If the AABB doesn’t change the information that it gives to the clinics, the clinics can’t change their systems. Herein lies another issue: this would require clinics to retrain their staffs, change their computer systems, change their questionnaires. There’s not even a box to check.

Wow.

Right now we’re speaking about queering the census, that we can be recognized in the census. If there isn’t a box for us, they can’t accept us. So some staff person, no matter what they believe, cannot accept us because there’s nowhere to mark on paperwork or click on a screen. It’s unbelievable. These questionnaires haven’t changed since 2015.

And it’s a holdover from the AIDS era, obviously. It sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. And if it’s a non-issue to people at the top, nothing gets done.

I don’t think it is a non-issue to them. I think it is an issue. But they’re trying to appease the political and economic forces that fund them. If they’re being funded by the Christian Right, there are strong suggestions to discriminate against the LGBTQ population. Then, to appease the forces that don’t want to discriminate, they tried to find a middle ground. But I don’t believe in a middle ground. I don’t believe in discrimination. Anybody should be able to help other people, and here I trying to help people, and I was discriminated against. It made me question the entire system. If my blood isn’t accepted as someone with all his medical records, what does that mean about the other blood that is accepted? Does that mean they don’t test or screen the other blood that is donated?

Related: The FDA would rather let people die from coronavirus than take blood from gay men

Supposedly all blood is screened for HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne pathogens. At least that is my understanding. So it seems reductive to say that one segment of the population can’t give blood because of HIV.

When did you return to work?

During the week after I was symptom-free. I was still ragged tired, and I lost a lot of weight. My pants are so loose, I was like oh my God, I’m a twink again!

[Laughter]

But during that week after I started getting back to work. I do a lot of voice-over, and I’m doing voice-over narration for three different feature-length documentaries. And I’m the on-camera host of a new series. I’m directing a documentary about the intersectionality of LGBTQ and faith-based identities. We’re in post. It’s an amazing story. So I actually have been really busy. My creative mantra is “To entertain, uplift and inspire.” I feel like we need that now more than ever. Fight fire with love.

So what is the best thing people can do to help get the MSM blood ban lifted?

Change the system within the system. We have elected officials that need to hear us. Reach out to them and advocate on behalf of our community. I always that the best advocate for the LGBTQ community is LGBTQ people. We need to speak out. And support the facilities that don’t discriminate against us. There are facilities that don’t discriminate which are not controlled by the FDA or the AABB that are trying to develop vaccines. When I was struggling to find a place to take my blood, I reached out to friends of mine—medical professionals. And my phone started blowing up from people saying “if something happens to me, tell me what your blood type is, we want your blood.” One thing times of strife always reveal is the breaks in the system, and what needs to be fixed. We must fix them now. It’s our responsibility.

Obviously, the conversation now has turned toward easing restrictions. Everybody wants to get back to work, but we’re being cautioned about a second wave, or reopening too soon. What are your views?

I fear we are moving too quickly to reopen. There will be new epicenters in areas that open too quickly. People need to be conscious of hygiene and social distancing. Too many people are callous because they’re bored. It’s still spreading, and we don’t have a vaccine. People don’t need to go to a beach or have a party.

Yuval David is the LGBTQ content creator whose creative mission to ‘entertain, uplift, and inspire’ is needed now more than ever. As a filmmaker and content creator, Yuval creates bold and inventive narrative and documentary short and feature films, and episodic series, much of what is screened at international film festivals, and on his exciting YouTube Channel.