For so many of us, being a part of the American Red Cross mission has provided some of the most meaningful moments of our lives. As Red Crossers, our shared mission offers an opportunity for each of us to play a role in helping people confront some of the most harrowing moments of their lives.
What I might not have anticipated in joining the Red Cross nine years ago is how powerful it would be to serve this mission as a member of the LGBTQIA community. Joining an iconic institution like the Red Cross can spark uneasiness in any individuals who might consider themselves an “other.” Can I fit in here? Can I be my authentic self? For those of us in our organization’s Pride Resource Group, an internal space for employees and volunteers from the LGBTQIA community, we frequently return to these questions. Thankfully, more often than not, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
For so many of us, finding safe harbor at the Red Cross is something to be celebrated this Pride Month. Based on our LGBTQIA identities, all of us in the Pride Group have experienced or witnessed violence, slurs, and discrimination in our lives. Feeling that our organization strongly backs our equal standing, as a resource group and as individuals, is both powerful and empowering.
This starts with our CEO Gail McGovern who serves as the Executive Sponsor of the Pride Group. She has tirelessly supported the LGBTQIA community within the Red Cross, sending a strong message about our values as an organization and our commitment to our fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
This support was never more evident than in 2019 when the Red Cross adopted a new public stance around the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blood donation deferral for gay and bisexual men (“MSM,” or men who have sex with men, in FDA’s blood donation language). As our Pride Group’s Executive Sponsor and leader of our organization, Gail made sure our Pride Group played an active role in shaping this new position that states, “The Red Cross believes blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation. We are committed to working toward the goal of achieving a more equitable blood donation process that treats all potential blood donors with respect and ensures a safe, sufficient blood supply is readily available for patients in need.”
The commitment of the Red Cross to achieve this goal continues today via our participation in the ADVANCE study, a pilot funded by the FDA that could lead to a significant change to blood donor eligibility for men who have sex with men.
But for me, the most powerful moments I’ve experienced as a gay man at the Red Cross relates to our response to the Pulse massacre, which occurred five years ago this month. That terrible shooting – fueled by violent, anti-LGBTQIA hatred at a gay nightclub in Orlando – claimed the lives of 49 innocent people and injured many more. I recall learning of the horrific shooting five years ago, immediately leaving my husband and son in NYC, stopping by my house of worship, and then racing to the airport to deploy as a Red Crosser.
Upon arrival, for the days and weeks that followed, we saw LGBTQIA Red Crossers and allies serving devasted families and a shell-shocked community, doing all we could to offer solace and resources wherever and whenever needed. As any Red Crosser can imagine, there are many searing memories from that experience.
Among the people I’ll never forget is Adrian, a 27-year-old convenience store clerk from Cuba. I first met Adrian when he shared at a public meeting how he had lost five friends—and almost his husband Javier—at Pulse that chaotic Saturday night. The couple was on the dance floor when the shooting began, and as they dropped to their knees amid a wave of falling bodies, they became separated. Adrian lay for a time under one of the bodies, then was able to escape out a back door. But when he realized Javier was still inside, he went back into the club to try to find him. Somehow Adrian and Javier, with a bullet in his abdomen, escaped and survived. But so many did not. So many families received the worst possible news.
To see our volunteers and staff from around the country tirelessly giving the best of themselves to support survivors like Adrian and Javier, in addition to the 49 families who’d lost loved ones, as well as the larger, traumatized Orlando community, was not something I’ll ever forget. And it made me, and the LGBTQIA folks who deployed on the Pulse response, so very proud to be Red Crossers.
This Pride Month, we at the Pride Group collectively celebrate the bravery, perseverance, and fabulousness of our membership and of the broader LGBTQIA population across America. And we are so grateful that the Red Cross offers a place for us to openly volunteer and work as enthusiastic and equal contributors. Happy Pride Everyone!