For more than a decade, gay rights advocates have grumbled about a federal policy that forbids blood donation by men who have had sex with men.
They say that the policy, originally intended to keep HIV-positive blood from entering the nation's blood supply, implies gay men are inherently sick and prevents healthy people from donating.
Occasional protests and talks with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees blood banks, have brought no change.
Now, some college students have taken up the cause, and they are taking a new tack. Instead of pressuring the FDA directly, they are going after the American Red Cross -- the largest and highest-profile blood collector in the country.
Unlike America's Blood Centers, which represents the non-Red Cross blood banks that collect most of the nation's blood, the Red Cross publicly supports the policy. Activists say that if they can get the Red Cross to change its stance the FDA will follow.
While many gay rights advocates have treated the blood ban as a low priority, college groups have begun to take on the issue. They argue that, although safe blood supplies are essential, this particular policy is outdated, ineffective and homophobic.
All blood is tested before use, they note, and enforcement of the policy depends on the unchecked answers that potential donors give on a routine questionnaire. Most important, the activists say, the danger of HIV contamination comes from people who practice unsafe sex -- regardless of the donor's sexual orientation.
The new round of protests occurred this spring at several large eastern universities, including the University of Maine at Orono, where the student government banned the Red Cross from conducting blood drives on campus. It opened the campus only to a blood collection company that supported changing the FDA rule.
The disputed policy dates to 1990 when the FDA codified a rule banning blood donations from any man who had had sex with another man since 1977. The policy started as a guideline in 1983, before blood could be tested for HIV. It has remained in place, officials say, because of concern over high rates of HIV infection among men who have had sex with men.
The FDA says allowing men in that category to donate would bring so much HIV-positive blood into the system that even rare errors could allow infected blood to slip through safeguards. Fourteen million units of blood are donated and processed in the United States every year.
San Francisco city officials and students at several campuses on the West Coast have protested the rules before, but those usually were limited to letter-writing and public comments.
Stephen Whitburn of the Southern California Region of American Red Cross Blood Services said his organization had fielded more than 100 inquiries about the policy in the last year. The public concerns prompted the organization to distribute a glossy, rainbow-colored brochure defending its position. Whitburn said West Coast activists have never kicked a blood clinic off campus.
The college activism has been centered in New England. The University of Vermont at Burlington is considering whether to uphold a student's civil rights complaint against the Red Cross blood program. Student government at the University of New Hampshire tried to widen the protest by contacting student governments at 200 other schools. Editorials condemning the FDA policy and demanding a new Red Cross position have appeared in student newspapers at Harvard University and the University of Connecticut.
The University of Maine student government is the first to tell student groups to use non-Red Cross blood banks for their blood drives.
Student leaders in the region say they expect the protest to spread this fall. At the University of California at Los Angeles, Ronni Sanlo, who directs the campus center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, said the rules might violate the university's anti-discrimination policy.
"People who donate receive a benefit or a goodie like four hours of comp time," Sanlo said. She said that amounted to unequal compensation based on sexual orientation.
A senior executive at the Red Cross said it had no control over the ban on blood donations by sexually active gay men.
"It's an FDA policy," said chief medical officer Jerry Squires at the organization's headquarters in Washington. "I'm trying to say as clearly as I can that we're not the experts."
At an FDA hearing in 2000, the last time the agency reviewed its policy, the Red Cross testified in favor of keeping what the industry calls a "lifetime deferral" for men who have had sex with men. The FDA's expert panel voted 7 to 6 to maintain the ban.
Derek Mitchell, who organized the Red Cross boycott at the University of Maine, said the organization was largely responsible for the FDA decision.
"They had a de facto veto over the whole process," he said. "They control so much blood, if they wanted [the rule] struck down, it could be struck down."
America's Blood Centers, which represents the smaller blood banks that handle just more than half of the country's donations, would like to see the rule relaxed.
Rather than a lifetime ban, the organization would prefer to block men for a much shorter time after gay sex. The organization's former president, Louis Katz, said the most sensitive HIV tests were barely in use when the FDA last considered the rule. But today, he said, HIV can be reliably detected within a few weeks of infection.