Content Warning: Graphic Images of Blood
Todd Bauer, 53, is an optician by weekday and by weekend — a volunteer phlebotomist. That’s right, Bauer spends his free time on weekends volunteering to draw people’s blood. He got his start 12 years ago at the Berkeley Free Clinic.
“I discovered the place because I had an STI and nothing was open in Concord,” said Bauer. “I came in and they educated me and I just thought it was so great. I had to get involved.”
Early on, Bauer spent his time as a walk-in volunteer. He would fill in the gaps at the completely volunteer-based organization. At times, that included running cups of urine to and from exam rooms to test for STIs. But eventually, Bauer established himself as one of the clinic’s core phlebotomists.
“When we are on outreach shifts, we have to draw blood on clients out and about,” said Bauer. “It all started when I was on shift with 5 or 6 other guys. None of us have had done phlebotomy before.”
Bauer’s primary responsibilities include drawing blood from clients for the Gay Men’s Health Collective and preparing the samples to be tested for STIs.
“I got to learn from John Day, who has been around since the seventies,” said Bauer. “I just thought, how amazing. To think of how many others practiced on his veins.”
John Day, the oldest member of the clinic, was pivotal in its founding during Bloody Thursday, a series of demonstrations in 1969 at
People’s Park that turned violent due to police involvement. Bauer wanted to pay it forward by letting new volunteers practice blood draws on him.
“I admired [Day’s] courage and willingness to let people practice on his arms,” said Bauer. “Since there were people so readily offering their arms up for me when it came time for me to do the same for someone else, I was thrilled to do it.”
At this point, Bauer has been training clinic members how to draw blood with his arms for years. And it is a point of pride.
“I have great veins for a new person to learn how to draw on,” said Bauer. “They’re incredibly large, very easy.”
Bauer’s love for helping people learn phlebotomy stems from his early experiences when he was a regular blood donor in high school.
“Perhaps this isn’t the most inspiring reason but when I was in high school, I thought that by donating blood and losing blood volume, I could get drunk faster,” chuckled Bauer. “But I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a time when blood banks didn’t really need donors, so it was great to help out.”
Through cross-country moves from Suburban Chicago to San Luis Obispo and various careers ranging from pastry chef to optician, one thing remained constant — Bauer’s love for donating his blood.
“I moved to San Luis Obispo in 1991 and got involved with the blood bank there. They offered something called apheresis where you can donate your platelets and plasma,” said Bauer. “I was doing that pretty much every other week for three or four years and it was something I really enjoyed doing.”
Bauer quickly became a regular donor at the blood bank. He had biweekly appointments and was well acquainted with the staff. But everything changed — when he came out as a gay man.
“It was one of the traumatic parts of coming out for me. It was something impactful that changed my life,” said Bauer. “Something that I enjoyed doing — providing blood products for someone — I wasn’t able to do now that I was a gay man.”
Bauer’s realization about his sexuality came during the tail end of the AIDS epidemic. Fears over HIV transmission from blood transfusions were rampant due to the sheer unknown. Gay and bisexual men, in particular, became the leading demographic for HIV positivity, and in 1985 the FDA permanently barred this community from donating their blood.
“When I was in high school in 1985, which was the height of the AIDS epidemic, it probably would have been very dangerous for me to be engaging in gay sex then,” said Bauer. “In a way, I feel like I was kind of protected in the sense by not knowing until 1995.”
While he felt protected by not engaging in gay sex earlier, Bauer cites his late coming out story to the lack of diverse portrayals of gay men in the media.
“It was really easy for me not necessarily to be like ‘oh, I could be gay’ you know,” said Bauer. “At the time, I thought to be gay it meant you had to start bleaching your hair, wearing pink and I wouldn’t be able to play hockey anymore. These were the messages we would get back then.”
But after coming out and having sex with a man for the first time, the first thing Bauer did was immediately call the blood bank to find out if he could still donate.
“At the time, the blood bank always asked if you were a man who has had sex with another man, even if it was just one time,” Bauer said. “If you answered yes, you couldn’t donate.”
Bauer remembers his nurse at the Red Cross crying over the phone; he felt defeated.
“I know I felt emotional and that was it,” said Bauer. “I was never able to donate blood again.”
Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit in April 2020. Blood shortages became rampant across the US while the need kept climbing. Through an emergency act authorization, the FDA loosened restriction on blood donation eligibility for gay and bisexual men — provided three months of celibacy.
“Due to social distancing, I was able to donate blood again all of a sudden!” said Bauer. “I’ve been donating pretty much every week since.”
While Bauer hadn’t donated his blood since he came out as gay in 1995, equitable blood donorship has slowly but surely made strides. Beginning in 2016, the FDA overturned the permanent deferral of gay and bisexual men provided 12 months of celibacy.
Celibacy policies were implemented to account for “window periods,” or the time it takes for HIV to be detected by tests after transmission. As technology has advanced immensely since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, HIV transmission can now be determined within just ten days. Resultantly, the scientific data rendered the permanent deferral of gay and bisexual men from donating blood obsolete beginning 2016.
While the three-month celibacy policy indicates steps in the right direction for equity in blood donorship, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Starting with the donor history questionnaire that every potential blood donor has to fill out to determine their eligibility.
The questionnaire for gay and bisexual men requires a detailed account of sexual history from the last three months. Every potential donor is required to check “yes” or “no” to questions like “have you received money, drugs, or other payment for sex?” To many, sensitive questions like this feel discriminatory.
“It would seem better if [they asked] ‘do you behave in these risky behaviors?’” said Bauer. “Not, ‘is who you are risky?’ That’s what I don’t like about [the current questionnaire].”
Still, Bauer is happy to finally donate his blood again today and he is excited to support science-backed policy changes that will benefit the next generation.
“I wanted to support that change to show it made a difference,” said Bauer. “At least I would be one more donor because of this policy.”