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'They openly debated what sort of sex I had': What it was like being at the centre of the blood-ban case

Tomás Heneghan took a case against the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to get rid of the lifelong ban on gay men giving blood.

Tomás Heneghan

“WHEN CAN I donate again?”

That was my first question after I decided with my legal team to drop my High Court challenge against the Irish Blood Transfusion Aervice and the Minister for Health last month.

From the moment I began donating blood, I never thought I’d stop. I was sure none of the various restrictions would apply to me. I hadn’t lived in the UK and never intended to be an IV drug user or a sex worker. I was 18 years old and never imagined being an openly gay man either.

Life changed. I had a boyfriend. I loved him, and we were intimate, but only to an extent. Being a blood donor was part of my identity, and I didn’t want to sacrifice that or lie on the blood donor questionnaires. Throughout my time donating blood I abstained from anal or oral sex, just to allow me to contribute to what I believed was my civic responsibility.

Later when the Irish Blood Transfusion Service put me on a two-month ban from donating simply because of an anonymous tip-off, I realised a man didn’t have to have sex with another man to face problems donating blood. All a man had to do was identify openly as gay and he would automatically be viewed as a problem, whether he had broken the rules or not.

Ban

To me, the status quo appeared completely unscientific and indefensible. I wrote to politicians, the blood service and anyone who would listen. I organised a petition at a donor clinic in my university, but it was ignored. Nothing was working.

The day of my last attempt to donate blood came three days before Ireland voted ‘yes’ in the Marriage Equality referendum. It was a weird coincidence in timing. As I sat in the reception of the D’Olier Street clinic, Dublin, my hand trembled.

I was looking at the green form, looking at that box asking me if I had ever had oral or anal sex with another man. I heard a voice in my head telling me: “Don’t tick it. Get up, hand the form back and leave. Don’t tick that box.” I knew once that box was ticked there would be no going back, I’d probably be banned for life from donating blood. I eventually ticked it and began a ripple that would last over a year.

I waited weeks for the blood service to confirm the ban in writing. I made calls, sent an email, left messages but no one could or would tell me when I could expect the official letter I had been told I’d receive. Eventually, I got through to someone who could answer my questions and was told there would be no letter, no official confirmation – I was banned the day I went to the clinic, and that was the end of it as far as the service was concerned. There would be no detailed explanation. A stern voice just told me: “You know why you were deferred.”

Court case

A month later I was sitting at the back of a room in the Four Courts, praying and willing myself not to be there. After I had run out of options, it was the only road that remained if I ever wanted to donate blood again. For a few months, I discussed the idea of a potential legal challenge with a small team of human rights lawyers.

I was prepared and thought I knew what to expect beforehand, but it was incredibly different sitting through it. My sex life was being aired in a room full of strangers, and I could see some of the black-robed figures leaning in to hear all the details. It was a unique case so of course lawyers would be intrigued by it, but that didn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable.

Before that day in court, I had never really been tongue-tied when an issue I cared about came up for discussion. However that day, outside the courtroom as a court reporter stood taking notes, I found myself struggling to say anything coherent. After all the preparations and hard work to bring it to that point, what I wanted most at that moment was to hide in a corner of some café with my closest friends, where it would be safe and comfortable.

Instead, in a matter of days, I became an object of public discussion, with complete strangers deciding whether I was a front for some gay lobby group in the US. They openly debated what sort of sex I had, how many men I’d slept with in my life, what infections I was carrying around, how much money I hoped to get from the case.

Most of my family stood by me throughout the case, even those I didn’t expect to. My sister was the exception. She was livid at what was happening and didn’t hide it very well.

Change

In the end, I didn’t win my case, but I didn’t lose it either. The State made some of the moves our case had argued for. After several adjournments to allow the State to prepare and carry out the necessary changes, the Minister for Health announced a reduction in the ban in June this year from a lifelong ban to a 12-month ban.

I’d be a liar if I said the new policy change was perfect. Having low-risk, protected sex with another man is still labelled as being more dangerous to the national blood system than getting several needles jabbed into my skin while getting a tattoo. Of course, that doesn’t make a lot of sense but the State took a big step forward in the space of a year and to have played a significant part in that is meaningful.

What matters most to me now is getting back to a donor clinic and finally giving my 11th blood donation after a three-year delay.

Tomás Heneghan is a journalist, University of Limerick graduate and campaigner for LGBTQ and reproductive rights.

Read: ‘One of the most horrible experiences of my life’: An Irish woman on travelling for an abortion

Read: ‘My sister was failed in life and in death’: We need to restore the bereavement grant

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