May 2015 is remembered by many as the month Ireland granted equal citizenship to all its citizens regardless of their sexuality. At Dublin Castle, rainbow flags were raised aloft as the institution of marriage was opened to all men and women.
In the same month, Tomás Heneghan, a student journalist from Castlegar, Co Galway, walked into an IBTS (Irish Blood Transfusion Service) clinic in D’Olier Street intending to donate blood. As is required by all donors, he filled out a questionnaire and underwent an interview process to determine his eligibility. As part of the questionnaire, prospective male donors are asked to confirm whether or not they have ever engaged in sexual activity with another man (MSM). Heneghan replied honestly to the question, and as a result he was informed he was to be permanently and irreversibly banned from donating blood in Ireland.
During the interview, Heneghan informed the clinic staff that the sexual activity he had engaged in was categorised by the Health Service Executive (HSE) as posing “no risk” of acquiring HIV. He also provided the clinic with test results confirming that he had tested negative for all sexually transmitted infections including hepatitis and HIV, and that he obtained the test results well after the window period of detection had expired. (This window period refers to the incubation period where viruses can remain undetectable.)
Three days before Ireland voted through the Marriage Equality Bill, Heneghan was permanently denied the opportunity to donate blood solely because he admitted to having sex with a man. The nature of that sexual activity, when it took place, and most importantly, the fact that his blood was medically viable in every respect, had no bearing on the decision. It is not without a cruel irony then that the IBTS last year called for a greater number of men to donate blood amidst a national shortage.
Heneghan sought to challenge the decision of the IBTS and brought the case before the High Court. The case is ongoing, so solicitor Colin Lenihan spoke to Trinity News on Heneghan’s behalf: “Tomás argues that the permanent deferral issued against him is in breach of European Union law and that the current policy of the IBTS is disproportionate and discriminates against homosexual males contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights.” The case will be next be heard by the High Court on 26 April.
During the marriage equality campaign, Trinity students were nearly unanimous in their support for the Yes campaign. This conviction that sexuality should bear no hindrance to equality under the law recently resulted in the Students’ Union passing a motion to campaign for reducing the lifetime ban on gay men giving blood to a six-month abstention period. Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has similarly hinted that there may be a case for reducing the ban to a 12 month abstention period, following the examples of the UK, the US and Australia.
Samuel Riggs, the LGBT Rights Officer for the SU, brought the motion before Council in December. Speaking to Trinity News, he says that ideally a six-month abstention period would be a “stepping stone” to full equality where no abstention would be required, as is generally the case for women and heterosexual men. However, Riggs freely acknowledges there is some scientific thinking behind the bans and proposed abstention periods imposed on gay men: Permanent bans were introduced globally during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, where gay men were the group most at risk from contracting the disease. Even today, Riggs explains, “HIV diagnosis is far more likely to present in gay men.”
Blood donated by a gay man is therefore more likely to contain the virus than blood donated by a heterosexual man. However, Riggs argues that if lifetime bans were introduced out of fear during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, “they are certainly not justified now.” He points to a greater understanding and detection of HIV and other STIs, along with the fact that the current law is discriminatory, not considering the eligibility of each donor individually with the scientific facts of their case. As the example of Tomás Heneghan demonstrates, a gay man with viable blood who fulfills the abstention period will still be rejected.
For Riggs, such an illogical situation can only exist because of an enduring homophobia: “It is a phobia in the purest sense of the word – a literal fear of gay men giving blood.” He points out that the vast majority of gay men have never and will never contract HIV, and the disease can of course occur in heterosexual individuals too. This demonstrates that the absence of an abstention period is regarded as a very small risk for the majority of donations. Added to the fact that all blood is screened for infections before it can be used for medical purposes, it becomes difficult to disagree with Riggs that the restrictions placed on gay men are anything other than a relic from relatively recent age when homosexuality was feared by lawmakers.
Since the motion passed, he has spoken with SU president Lynn Ruane about the aims and practical implementation of the campaign. “It will have two prongs: visual and political.” Riggs explains that this semester, he and a growing team of volunteers will produce a series of videos, posters and sharable web content to raise awareness of the issue. Speaking to Riggs a few days into Trinity term, the details of the campaign had yet to be finalised, however, he said that the second, political element of the campaign has been particularly approved by Ruane, who is keen to train students in activism and lobbying political representatives.
Riggs is visibly excited by the prospect that students trained to lobby within the walls of Trinity might “go home to their counties and lobby local politicians.” He explains that his team will produce a lobbying document, with clear and concise points presenting the argument for a reduction in the MSM blood donation ban.
Ultimately, Riggs is hopeful that the campaign will receive national attention, believing that “if TCDSU started kicking up a fuss, people would start noticing.” In practical terms, this means that he would like to see the issue raised in the Seanad, and meetings arranged with TDs. And asked if he would like to see the MSM blood donation ban become an issue at either the upcoming sabbatical elections or the General Election, Riggs replied very succinctly: “Yes, both.”
As national elections approach, many students who were politicised by the Yes campaign for marriage equality will join the electorate for the first time. Riggs is hopeful that the MSM blood donation campaign can provide a new avenue for these energies and the national movement for equality kept alive.
Illustration by Odhran McLaughlin.