Tuesday 21 May 2019

Tomás Heneghan on his High Court case: Why was I shaming the family? Why was my sex life being opened up to public scrutiny?

'Why was I shaming the family?' - reaction to his High Court challenge to blood donation ban

Tomás Heneghan. Photo: Mark Condren
Tomás Heneghan. Photo: Mark Condren

Tomás Heneghan

THIS time last year I was a 23-year-old University of Limerick student preparing to go to court for the first time in my own right.

I was confident and had run the scenario through in my head many times. The reality was very different to what I had imagined.

I sat at the back of a courtroom in the Four Courts, trembling with nerves. The room was sprawling with lawyers, complete strangers. And then my barrister stood up and began to speak and I started praying, while trying to hide myself behind the sea of black robes.

For 20 minutes that afternoon a room filled with strangers heard about one of the most intimate parts of my life. I felt a flicker of regret and I held onto the friendship bracelet one of my closest friends had given me years ago. I prayed.

Why was I doing this to myself? Why was my sex life being detailed and opened up to public scrutiny? Was it too late to change my mind?

Read more: Gay man drops challenge to blood donation ban after change in policy announced by Health Minister

We were granted leave that afternoon to bring a legal challenge and it felt like we had won the first round of what I was sure would be a long-running battle against the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and the State.

I didn’t sleep the night before court. I listened to music and prayed. I watched the Veronica Guerin movie and tried to take confidence from the depiction of an inspiring journalist. The previous night I had been to see Ted 2 with some of my family. I watched as the fictional talking teddy bear fought an uphill court battle of his own and the nerves began to kick in.

The morning of my court visit I told no one what was happening, not even family. I left when they were still sleeping. My dad, brother and aunt assumed I had just gone to town with friends for the day.

That evening when I got home again I played along, as my social media filled with news articles about the legal case, messages of support from friends and requests from journalists for an interview (all of which I had been advised to decline).

The next day there was an article in a national newspaper. No one in my family reads national papers much but I needed to tell someone so I showed it to my aunt and brother and told them what had happened.

It was another week and a half before I told my dad. It hadn’t been on RTE News so he didn’t know until someone told him our neighbours were gossiping about it. They said the neighbours felt bad for my dad, having such a difficult son. I was shaming the family in public and airing things which should never be aired. For them I was trying to destroy lives for my own petty and selfish notions of equality.

Telling my dad the full story then became more difficult, but I did tell him. I walked him through it over a few hours across the kitchen table. He wasn’t overjoyed, but he accepted I was doing what I felt needed to be done. Eventually the news trickled out to everyone.

The personal cost, the one you can’t measure in numbers, was higher than I had imagined at the beginning. The whole journey was incredibly lonely, even with messages of support from people. It’s difficult to describe but it felt as though no one else would fully understand. As for the financial cost, it did exist, although not as high as it could have been.

Six months earlier I had gathered a legal team of two solicitors and two barristers. They agreed soon after our first meeting to take my case on a pro bono basis. I was a student, already in debt from university loans but we all believed strongly in the issue.

A few days after the case was given leave by the High Court people started to question how it was being funded. Speculation said I was a front for some wealthy American gay lobby group or the case was the work of Irish groups pushing their luck after the marriage referendum. None of it was true. It was just me and my four human rights lawyers.

Although I didn’t have to pay legal fees, there were other costs that built up over time. There was the cost of trains and buses every day I had to go to court or meet with the lawyers. In fact the Friday before we went into court I had to borrow money from family to afford the €23 train fare to Dublin to meet the lawyers.

Even before that there were costs from previous years, from the letters I had to send to politicians and the blood service, to the photocopying costs of hundreds of sheets of paper. Individually they were relatively small in the grand scheme of things but when you’re sending up to 80 letters it all starts to add up, while still trying to stay on top of rent, bills and living expenses at university.

Before I launched the case I was asked if I wanted to seek damages, as you might expect when someone sues the State. I immediately refused. The case was never about money. I wanted no money whatsoever from it. We proceeded without asking for any damages.

Sitting in the George bar in Dublin as Dublin Pride came to an end this year, I felt partially vindicated when news popped up on my Twitter feed saying the Minister for Health had accepted the recommendations of the blood service to reduce the MSM ban from lifelong to 12 months.

On Tuesday this week I dropped my legal challenge as the changes we were seeking in my original legal pleadings had been announced. It wasn’t perfect but it was a major step in the right direction. Throughout the year the legal case had put significant pressure on the State to make the necessary and long overdue changes.

There was no court order at the end like I had imagined. There was no pronouncement from the steps of the Four Courts. The court photographers outside didn’t even bother taking a photo as I left. It was a very muted affair. But once the new policy is fully implemented I will be at the door of whatever blood donor clinic in the country that is open that day, my sleeves rolled up and ready for my very delayed 11th donation.

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