Suspension of Disbelief

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Pride in the eyes of those at the fringes of LGBT community

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Outrage Magazine | 23 June 2017

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Everything LGBT-related is magnified in June every year, marked as the month when LGBT Pride is supposed to be celebrated (thanks, largely, to its Western-led identification as “Pride Month” because it was when the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City in 1969).

But while discussions on the evolution of Pride has already been happening overseas (again, largely in Western contexts, with the commercialization of Pride getting flak, such as THIS, THIS and THIS; and yes, some support), the same has not been really happening in the Philippines. Yes, discussions about the annual “walk” being identified as a “march” (meaning it’s political) versus a “parade” (meaning it’s just for show) have happened in the past, but – by and large – the evolution of Pride here to end up mimicking Western model/s can be argued to be not happening.

Fact: There will be opponents and supporters of both sides.

But in the midst of the noise, what needs to be kept in mind is that Pride is supposed to celebrate the “rainbow diversity”. That is, it’s supposed to be for everyone, not just for the select few (who can afford to access it).

Because there remain many members of the LGBT community whose narratives are often just left in the cutting room, marked as “not sexy” or “not newsworthy”.

These are the #KaraniwangLGBT, our LGBT brothers and sisters who are at the fringes not just of society, but even of the LGBT community. Those whose idea of Pride is limited to “it’s not for people like us”.

Outrage Magazine chats with some of those still looking for Pride… and yet seemingly left by the very movement that’s supposed to help them find this Pride.

THE LESBIAN CONFIDANT 

People always mistake them as lovers. They’ve known each other for more than five years now.

But “magkaibigan lang kami. May boyfriend siya at mga anak, tapos ako, may nililigawan (we’re just friends. She has a boyfriend and kids, and me, I’m wooing another),” Jeng said.

They both live in Tondo, among the informal settlers there. Each day, they share meals together – with the kids and other family members.

Alas-otso ng umaga nung tumawag siya sa akin. Iyak siya ng iyak. Binalita niya sa akin na nakuha na niya ‘yung HIV test niya, at positive siya (She called me at eight in the morning. She was crying. She told me she got the result of her HIV test, and that she tested positive),” Jeng continued.

Jeng is a pedicab driver. On a good day, “kumikita ako ng P150. Pero kung wala masyadong pasahero, P50lang. Nagbibigay pa kasi ako sa may-ari ng pedicab (I earn P150. But if there aren’t many passengers, just P50. I also have to give the pedicab owner his share).”

But nowadays, “mas mahirap kumita. Kasi binabantayan at sinasamahan ko siya palagi kapag nagpupunta sa ospital. Hindi ko siya kayang pabayaan kasi ang dami na namin pinagsamahan. Noong ako ang nagkaproblema dati, nandun siya palagi sa tabi ko. Kahit na hirap ako sa sitwasyon ko, okay lang kasi masaya ako at kasama ko best friend ko (it’s harder to earn. I go with her to the hospital. I can’t leave her alone. We’ve been through a lot already. When it was me who had problems, she was there. It’s not easy but, I’m happy I can be with her),” Jeng said.

Asked about Pride, and the annual march/parade, she looked confused: “Pride March? Ano ‘yun? Puro kasiyahan lang yata yan at same-sex marriage. Paano naman kami makikinabang dyan (What’s that? It’s just for partying and for same-sex marriage? What’s that to us)?” she asked.

THE ‘KERI LANG’ WORKER 

“Al – two letters lang. ‘Yan ang binigay sa akin na pangalan. Keri lang, at least madali lang tandaan (My name is Al – just two letters. That’s the name given to me, so that’s okay. At least it’s easy to remember),” he said.

Al flips burgers for a living.

Wala akong basic na sahod, porsyento lang. Kapag kumita itong store, may take home ako (I don’t get basic salary, just a percentage of what the store earns. If the store earns something, then I get to take home something),” he said.

Al works for 16 hours every day. Sometimes, he earns P500 in a day. But on a regular basis, his take home is from P150 to P200 per day.

Pinapaaral ko pa kapatid ko. Tapos nangungupahan lang kami (I also send a sibling to school. And we just rent our place),” he said.

Then trying to sound optimistic: “Keri lang, buti nga at may trabaho ako. Hindi katulad ng iba dyan, hirap na hirap maghanap ng trabaho (It’s okay, at least I have a job. Others have a hard time finding a job),” he added.

With Al only getting some five hours of rest every day, “celebrating” Pride is far from his mind. The priority, he said, is for him to earn a decent living – even a small amount – as long as “wala akong ginagawang masama (I don’t do anything illegal).”

THE DEVOTEE

Ano pangalan mo? Dadasalan kita. Sa ngalan sa Amahan, sa Anak ug sa Espiritu Santo, amen. Senyor Sto Niño, Mama Mary, Senyor San Pedro Calungsod, mga santos, mga santas. Mahal na Senyor Sto. Niño…”

Her name is Gretchen. She has been a candle vendor at Magellan’s Cross in Cebu for more than 30 years now. She inherited her job from her ancestors. It was passed onto her mother, and after she passed away, Gretchen took over.

Araw-araw ako nagdadasal dito kay Senyor Sto. Niño. Si Sto. Niño, mas more na malapit kami sa kanya, maraming blessing siya binibihgay sa amin,” she shared.

As a devout Catholic and believer of Sto. Niño, Gretchen is always ridiculed because she is trans.

But she said: “Unsa ang kinahanglan nga ako kaulawan? Dili ko usa ka kriminal, dili ko usa ka kawatan (What should I be ashamed of? I’m not a criminal. I’m not a thief),” she said.

Gretchen thanks God that despite the discrimination she is experiencing, there are still many people who continue to trust her with their religious intercessions.

But – aside from praying for others – every night, she also prays for people to respect her for who and what she really is.

Mahal na Senyor Sto. Niño, salamat sa pagpasaylo kanako (thank you for forgiving me). Viva Pit Senyor! Mahal na Sto. Niño,” she ended. 

THE CHARMING WAITRESS

Nagkaroon ako ng boyfriend dati, estudyante lang siya. Gwapo siya, fresh na fresh ang itsura. Kaya lang tuwing nagkikita kami, binibigyan ko siya ng allowance para may panggastos siya sa school (I had a BF before. He was a student. He was handsome. But every time we met, I had to give him money, his allowance for his schooling),” Kakay shared as she prepared the paresorders. “Wala naman akong choice. Wala ako mahanap na matinong lalaki na pwedeng maging boyfriend. Isa sa marming rason, wala akong maayos na trabaho – trabaho na pwede ako ipagmalaki at iuwi sa bahay para ipakilala (It’s not like I have a choice. I couldn’t find a proper man to be my BF. One of the reasons is I don’t even have a good job – a job that will make him proud to introduce me to his family).”

Kakay works in one of the pares houses in Manila. She has been with them for many years already, even if“mababa lang ang sahod, okay na rin (I don’t earn much, though that’s just fine).”

She tried her luck – several times actually – to apply for other jobs. But the usual answer that Kakay said she gets: “Hindi kami tumatanggap ng bakla. Mahirap na, baka magkaproblema pa kami sa iyo (We don’t take in gay people. You could just give us problems).”

Kakay identifies as a woman, and she longs to be able to transition. “Hindi ako pamhinta, hindi ako bakla, babae ako. Hindi niyo palang nakikita ang totoo kong anyo (I’m not ‘straight-acting’, I’m not gay, I’m a woman. But you haven’t seen my real personhood yet).”

Kakay is proud with her life – somehow. Pinaghirapan ko ang lahat ng ito (I worked hard for what I now have),” she said. “Pero kung may pagkakataon na mas maging okay ang sitwasyon ko, syempre attack ako doon. Pero sa tingin ko malabo na mangyari ‘yun, kasi hindi naman kami nakikita (But if there’s a chance to do better, I’d go there. Though this doesn’t seem realistic because no one really sees us).”

THE ANGEL BARKER

Outrage Magazine first met the Angel of Quezon Avenue in 2014, a transgender woman barker who said “matagal ko na ginagawa ito. Bata palang ako,barker na ako (I’ve been doing this for a while now. I was just a child, I was already a barker).”

She did not finish college because her family could not afford to send her to school. She was left with no choice but to succumb to one of the easiest ways to earn a living.

Sumubok ako rumaket sa iba last year pero walang nangyari. Tapos naghanap ako ng ibang trabaho, wala rin tumanggap sa akin (I tried looking for other jobs, but nothing happened. No one wanted to hire me),” Angel said. “Ganito talaga ang buhay, kailangan mong tanggapin ang sitwasyon mo. Ngayon tiis-tiis lang. Basta magkakasama kami ng pamilya ko (That’s life. You have to accept your situation. Now, you just put up with things. As long as I’m with my family).”

Of course, if given a chance to do a different work with a better pay, “tatanggapin ko ‘yun! Walang pagdadalawang isip (I’ll accept that – no second thoughts).”

Today, Angelo continues to be a jeepney and FX barker. She earns P50 to P60 in a day.

THE SEX WORKER

PJ just turned 18 last May. He celebrated his birthday with two of his closest friends over a bottle of Red Horse Mucho and Chippy while walking at Plaza Divisoria.

Ito lang kaya ng budget. Wala kasi masyadongcustomer. Okay na rin, na-celebrate ko namanbirthday ko (This is all I can afford. There aren’t a lot of customers. But it’s okay, I was still able to celebrate my birthday),” he said.

PJ is from Cagayan de Oro. When he was 16 years old, he went to Manila to look for work. In just a matter of two days, he got a job at the pier. He was earning P150 per day.

Pero wala akong tinutuluyan ‘nun, doon lang din ako sapier natutulog. Tapos syempre maliit lang ‘yung P150 na kita. Kadalasan isang beses lang ako kumakain sa isang araw (But I was homeless then. Often, we just slept at the pier. Also, P150 isn’t a big amount. At times we just eat once a day),” PJ recalled.

To augment his income, he resorted to sex work.

Pagkatapos kong magbuhat ng mga delivery, naglalakad na ako sa Roxas Boulevard hangang Star City. Minsan may edad na babae ang kumukuha sa akin, minsan matandang bakla, minsan mag-asawa (After work, I’d walk along Roxas Blvd. until I reach Star City. At times, older women hired me, at times older gay men, and at times couples),” PJ said.

But after three weeks, he lost his raket at the pier. And since he did not have a place to stay or know anyone in Manila, he saved up – from paid sexual encounters – and went back to CDO.

Today, he is with his boyfriend and girlfriend – yes, he is in a relationship with two people. Both are also sex workers.

Wala naman masama kung tatlo kami sa relasyon. Nagmamahalan kami. Mabuti rin ito, at least tatlo kami nagtutulungan sa buhay (There’s nothing wrong with having three people in a relationship. We all love one another. It’s also good since we’re all able to help each other out),” PJ ended.

THE FATHER AND THE SON

Dati akong construction worker, pero huminto na ako ngyaon. May anak akong bakla (I used to be a construction worker. But I stopped. I have a gay son),Mang Rey shared.

His gay son is only 16 years old and they live in Quezon province. Every two months, they wake very early in the morning, around 2:00 AM, to travel to Manila.

Nalungkot ako nung nalaman ko na HIV-positive ang anak ko. Tinatanong ko siya kung saan o paano niya nakuha yung sakit, pero hindi siya nagkukwento. Tumutulo na lang ang luha niya (It saddens me knowing he has HIV. I ask him how he got infected, but he doesn’t tell me. He just sheds tears),” Mang Rey said, wiping his own tears.

Their family used to be in a better financial situation, but because of his son’s medical condition – and the insufficient support that PhilHealth gives to PLHIVMang Rey is now struggling to make ends meet.

Lumapit kami sa iba’t-ibang agencies para humingi ng suporta. Tapos nung nalaman nila na bakla ang anak ko, parang naging komplikado yung proseso. May ganun pa pala hangang ngayon (We’ve approached various agencies to ask for help. But when they found out my son’s gay, the process changed. I didn’t know things like that still happen these days),” he said, dismayed.

He added: “Sana ung mga NGO dyan o ung mga grupo para sa mga bakla at may HIV, tignan nila ung mga may kailangan talaga, hindi lang ung mga may kaya. Kami ang mas may kailangan ng atensyon at suporta (I hope NGOs, LGBT groups and groups for PLHIVs look at those who really need help, not those who are affluent. It’s us who really need attention and support).”

Pride – we say – is for everyone, including (if not particularly for) those at the fringes, the people most in need of finding this Pride.

Because sans them in the equation, ours is a tattered rainbow, with the destruction coming from within…

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(Established in April 2007, Outrage Magazine remains the only publication exclusive for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied community in the Philippines.)

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Having HIV as an ongoing personal battle

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Outrage Magazine | 21 July 2015

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

Positive-life

When Paolo – who was diagnosed to be HIV positive in 2007 – started taking antiretroviral (ARV) medicines, his life changed permanently. But even with the life-saving ARVs, he continues to have doubts if his status is, as many continue to believe, a punishment for his bad deeds, or maybe even a death sentence. After all, there was a point in his life when – knowing how difficult having HIV could be, he still irresponsibly knowingly engage in risky practices that may have infected his partners (i.e. spreading “the gift”). Not surprisingly, Paolo still experiences chronic depression.

Only last month, he faced another battle. His attending physician conveyed her concern toward his declining CD4 count. Because of this, Paolo may have to be shifted to the second line of ARVs.

“It was late last year when my doctor at San Lazaro Hospital told me that I should watch out for my declining CD4 count. She said that it might be a sign of too much stress or a problem with my ARV combination,” Paolo said.

When he went to the hospital last April to get his ARV supply, he was only given meds for one month (versus the usual 3 1/2 months’ supplies). It was also then when he was told that they have to wait for his latest CD4 count before they can give him more supplies.

The following month, Paolo had his CD4 count tested. True to form, yet still shocking Paolo, the decline continued. “My CD4 count was in a downward trend: 388 in May 2015, 426 in November 2014, 454 in May 2014, 470 in November 2013, and 533 in May 2013.”

Paolo’s CD4 count was 582 in December 2008, when he had his baseline tests; with the number immediately falling to 327 in June 2011.

There have been fluctuations (e.g. from 327 in June 2011 to 368 in March 2012), but Paolo’s attending physician said that ever since the last increase, “the numbers continued to go down, and it may be a sign of drug resistance or treatment failure.”

He was immediately asked to have a viral load test to check the number of HIV copies in his blood. His doctor also gave him a heads up on what he should expect if the result was high.

“The test costs P6,000. Even if I’m an old PhilHealth member and I’m able to avail free CD4 count tests and ARV medications, under the OHAT package, I was still asked to pay that amount. When this happens to you, complaining is the last thing on your mind. For me, I just want to know the result,” Paolo said.

He was told to return after three weeks for the result.

“It was probably the longest three weeks of my life. A lot things started running in my head: What if it’s high, would I be able to take the side effects of the level 2 medications? What if it’s low and my CD4 count continues to decline, what will happen to me?” Paolo asked. “During that three weeks, I had sleepless nights. I couldn’t even disclose it to the 16-year-old guy I was seeing. I was really afraid. I had no one to run to. I don’t want to die yet.”

Paolo was also reluctant to reach out to support groups.

“It’s not them who can and will help you because they don’t really know what you’re feeling, HIV is a personal thing. Support groups are not really supportive enough. Yes, you will have someone to talk to, but at the end of the day, it’s not them, not your friends, not even your family, who can help you get over what you’re feeling. Just yourself,” Paolo said.

But Paolo’s life did not stop while he waited for the test ascertaining his viral load.

“I started to see things from a different perspective. I’m able to appreciate and value even the smallest and simplest things. I know that it may be temporary because of the situation I was in, but it gave me a reason to smile and be thankful,” Paolo said.

He told Red, a friend his who is also HIV-positive, about his situation. Paolo reconciled with him after a long time.

“I know I was going to explode if I didn’t tell anyone about my situation. I felt a bit relieved after I told him what I was going through,” he said.

After then, both at work and at home, Paolo became more relaxed. He also started joining different LGBT- and HIV-related events. He even participated in the 21st Metro Manila Pride March last June, where he marched for the first time.

Paolo wanted to much to be optimistic. “There are so many better things that one can do, regardless if you’re a PLHIV or not,” he said.

And then the third week came. Paolo went back to San Lazaro Hospital to get his test result.

“The anxiety of waiting for the folded and stapled paper to be handed to you was really exhausting. The lady who was assisting the clients in the laboratory was moving very slowly. And when she finally handed the paper to me, I was able to breathe normally,” he recalled.

His result indicated 84 copies/mL.

“I was told by my doctor to rest more often and that I should also lessen stressful activities,” Paolo said.

His ARV medications stayed the same, and he was already given three months’ worth of supplies.

His CD4 count will be checked again after six months. And his doctor, provided that he continues to improve his lifestyle, remains optimistic that everything will be okay.

“I know I’m not the perfect role model. But based on what I’ve gone through, being a PLHIV is one difficult challenge. It’s not as simple as some doctors or support groups say. No one can and will help you, but yourself,” Paolo said. “It’s not easy to accept your situation, but instead of being too negative, why not do something about it?”

Paolo recommends self-sufficiency in facing being HIV positive.

“You can always live your life to the fullest, just don’t forget to look out for yourself. It may sound selfish, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own welfare,” Paolo ended.

*NAMES WERE CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE MAIN INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF THE PEOPLE INVOLVED

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Confessions of a former ‘gift’ giver…

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Outrage Magazine | 08 June 2015

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

POZ

“I felt a sudden jolt after I came/orgasmed inside the person that I was having sex with bareback,” Paolo said. He didn’t look particularly happy; he even had a blank stare.

But he was open about sharing his sexual experiences with me.

Particularly that part in his life, when he used to be a “participant of a small group of HIV-positive straight-acting gays who frequent different places in the metro and engage in different sexual activities.”

Paolo, by the way, was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. After he registered and submitted his medical documents in San Lazaro Hospital, he didn’t go back until early 2011.

LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST

“Maybe I’m the type who doesn’t dwell much on problems. I was aware that I will be battling a lifelong endeavor (being HIV-positive), but I didn’t want to think about it to the point that my life would be hindered,” he said.

When his boyfriend at the time broke up with him, right after he regained his strength from the ARV trial period he had to endure, he lived each day as if it was his last.

“I revealed my condition to some friends and they have been very supportive,” Paolo said. His friends were so supportive, in fact, that “we were going out almost every night.”

It was during one of those night outs that he met Red*.

Red is also HIV-positive; he was diagnosed a year later than Paolo. They became fast friends after their first meeting. “There was nothing sexual nor intimate between us. We were just really good friends,” said Paolo, who found solace in the company of Red.

Partying for Paolo meant frequenting the likes of gay bars, including Bed Bar and O Bar. “I was living my life to the fullest; like I’m HIV-free,” Paolo said.

Bar-hopping – according to Paolo – also happened in the likes of Fahrenheit, Palawan, Blue Fairies, and others.

Though Paolo admitted that he was a regular in those establishments, for a while, he went there solely to party.  Picking up was not in his mind, as he was “still afraid and very cautious to have sex with another person. I was only doing oral sex that time.”

Soon, though, everything changed.

NEWFOUND INDEPENDENCE

As shared by Paolo, during one of their “crazy nights” in a bar in Quezon City, “Red and I met a group of good looking and gym-toned straight-acting gays. We had drinks at (this) bar. And after an hour of laughter, we left the club and went to (a bar) in Ortigas,” Paolo recalled.

The night went by like their “regular night outs”. They watched the performances, ordered several bottles of beer, and flirted with different people.

Little did Paolo know that he actually signed up for a different type of fun that night.

“I think it was around 3:00 AM and we were all very tipsy, when one of our newfound friends, Marvin*, started kissing someone he just met on the dance floor,” Paolo narrated. “And then he pulled me closer to them and started rubbing my crotch.”

Tara, sama ka sa amin (Come join us),” Paolo remembered Marvin saying with a smile.

The three of them left that bar and went to Marvin’s apartment.

“While I was getting head from the guy we picked up from the bar, Marvin positioned himself behind him. He started penetrating him without a condom,” Paolo recounted. “After several minutes, he held the bottom guy closer to him, holding his waist tightly, and shot his load.”

After their encounter, the guy they picked up just got dressed and then immediately left. And while Paolo was fixing himself, Marvin asked if he wanted to grab an early breakfast. He agreed.

Their conversation while eating turned from recounting what happened at Marvin’s apartment to being confrontational.

“’I saw what you took when we were at O Bar, and it wasn’t a party pill!’, Marvin told me. I was silent at first, and then he continued: “It’s okay, don’t worry, pareho lang tayo (we’re the same),” Paolo said.

SHARING “THE GIFT”

From then on, Paolo and Marvin’s group became this close-knit circle that frequented the bars, flirting and picking up random people, and inviting them to go with them for sex.

“It became my routine. I went to those places three to four times a week to meet different people. And I always performed unprotected sex with them. At that time, I thought I was satisfying my ego, that I had the upper hand and in control,” Paolo said, shaking his head.

He also thought “I was sharing the ‘gift’.”

It reached a point where he no longer joined Marvin’s group and just went out to party and pick up on his own.

“Last year was really the height of my inappropriate routine. As people flocked O Bar, for instance, my choices widened. Every time I went there, I always made it a point that I will be bringing someone home. It became very addicting,” he admitted.

And there were times that “after finishing someone, I would go back to bars to pick up someone again.”

Red*, who ended up knowing about Paolo’s “addiction”, tried talking him out of it.  Paolo just “refused to respond to his calls and text messages.”

TURNING POINT

Last March, according to Paolo, when he went to a bar in Ortigas, “I met this really cute guy. He was about the same height as I am, and he had a really good built,” Paolo said.

They shared drinks together and danced to several songs. And like usual, he invited this guy back to his place.

Paolo had unprotected sex with him. But unlike most of the his one-night encounters, this new guy chose to spend the night at his place.

“We had sex three times that night – at all times, I came inside him. The following day, he gave me a call saying that he wanted to have lunch with me,” Paolo recalled.

They met and had lunch together. It was also then that he found out that this new guy really likes him.

“He also confessed to me that he was only 16 years old,” Paolo added.

Paolo paused and lit another cigarette. Suddenly, his phone rang; he excused himself.

He returned, looking apologetic.  “Sorry about that. It was the 16-year-old guy I was telling you about,” he said.  He lit another cigarette.

And then sitting across me again, he continued: “We started dating after that unfortunate night. I really like him. But at the same time I feel guilty. He is still young and I (may have given) him the disease. I was awakened. I wanted to die after learning that he was only 16 years old. I felt really sorry for myself… that I had to do those things.”

Paolo was misty-eyed while talking; he even rubbed his eye, looking more like wiping his tears. He cleared his throat, and then continued smoking, finishing his cigarette.

“I know that I’m a bad person because I did all those things and it took me a long time to realize that,” Paolo said. “If I could only turn back time, I would not have done all those things.”

He also added that if he would be given a chance, he would talk to all the people that he had unprotected sex with and ask for their forgiveness.

“Some people living with HIV do really go around to spread the ‘gift’,” Paolo said. There are those who “are out there victimizing HIV-negative members of the community.”

Being more aware, Paolo also believes in one’s responsibility over oneself – helped, obviously, with further education that empowers people to protect themselves.  “Even if you’re having a fun time, never let your guard down. You should never completely trust anyone when it comes to sex, especially when you are at your most gullible and vulnerable self,” Paolo ended.

*NAMES WERE CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT THEIR PRIVACY

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Paolo: Being HIV-positive as a personal struggle

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Outrage Magazine | 25 May 2015

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

POZ2

He was standing on the balcony of one of the coffee shops in Tomas Morato, puffing his cigarette before he spotted, and then waved at me.

“Hi, I’m Paolo, patient H42007XXX*,” he said to me when we were face to face, introducing himself as he reached for my hand.

Several weeks back, I received an email from an unfamiliar sender, asking if I wanted to write about the “real deal of being a PLHIV in the Philippines”. Having written about the issues facing the HIV community in the Philippines, including the ARV stockout, this was not exactly uncommon.  Outrage Magazine also has a campaign – “More than a number” – that aims to give a human face to those affected by HIV.  But the following day, the same sender sent another email; and this time, it seemed more… convincing.

Dear Mr. Pascual,

I came across your contact details while browsing Outrage Magazine.

I am reaching out to you for an interview. I want to give firsthand details and experiences on what it’s like to be a PLHIV. I want to share my perspective. We can set a meeting so you can listen to my story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking anything in return, I just want to share what I know and what I have been to in the last eight years; probably, to help and inspire other PLHIVs and to educate members of the LGBT community.

Hoping for your favorable reply.

Regards,

Patient H42007XXX

WAKE-UP CALL

“I remember the time when I found out that I am HIV-positive. It was the summer of 2007. My friends and I usually get ourselves tested every six months because of the kind of lifestyle we were practicing,” Paolo recalled.

Before being diagnosed, he spent most of his nights in different LGBT places in the metro, including clubs and bathhouses. He admitted to partying, drinking, and taking recreational drugs like there was no tomorrow.

He did go to “San Lazaro to register and submit my test results. I felt that it was the right thing to do,” he said.  Paolo also admitted his status to his closest friends, even if kept it from his family.

Even after he tested positive, Paolo’s lifestyle remained as wild as usual.  “I was out every night. Because whenever I’m sober, when I’m alone and the surrounding is quiet, that’s when depression kicks in. Yes, I’m okay. Yes, I already accepted my status. But, things are not that easy. I always need a distraction to take my mind off things,” Paolo said.

After his few initial visits to the treatment hub, he stopped going for four years and only returned in early 2011, when one of his friends also tested positive and asked for his help.

“My CD4 count at that time (in 2007) was 582; it was high enough. But when I went back to the hospital in 2011, it was already 327. I was really worried,” Paolo said.

STARTING TREATMENT

When his CD4 count reached that level, he was advised by the doctors to start taking antiretroviral medications.

Paolo was willing to start the trial period of the treatment, but one of the hub’s policies at that time was for a patient to have a treatment partner before they allow and give them the medicines.

“I have no one to ask,” Paolo said.

He was living on his own that time.

“And although my friends knew my status, I didn’t want them to go through the endeavor I was going through,” he recalled.

So he convinced the doctors to allow him to start the treatment on his own and assured them that he would comply with all the requirements of the hub.  Paolo was made to sign a waiver, indicating that whatever happened to him, the treatment hub or attending doctors will not be held liable.

“I was given two weeks’ worth of Lamivudine/Zidovudine and Nevirapine. The doctors also gave me a list of allergy-causing food and was asked to avoid them for three months,” Paolo said.

During the first few days of intake, Paolo started feeling pain and was feverish.

“The doctors explained the possible initial side effects of the ARVs; but to actually feel it first hand, it was like hell. Two days in, my whole body was in pain. My fever was rising every day. I wasn’t allowed to take Paracetamol. I wanted to stop taking the medications, but I know it wouldn’t do any good,” Paolo said.

He lost almost 30 lbs after one week. His fever played from 39°C to 43°C, and patches of red marks also started to appear in different parts of his body.

“I was very weak. I called the treatment hub and told them about my condition. I was asked not to stop taking the ARV meds and finish the two-week trial. But before I was able to reach the 14thday, I was experiencing unbearable headaches and muscle pain, it felt like I was going to die,” he said.

The first thing the following day, he went to the hub and waited for the doctor.

He was injected with a high dose of Iterax.

“That morning, the antihistamine that was given to me was really strong. I took the train on my way home. It was really difficult. It was a mix of headache, nausea, and muscle pain,” Paolo recalled.

After one week, he was asked to go back to the hub. He was given another set of ARVs.

“Good thing they shifted my medication to Efavirenz. Even if I feel groggy every time I take it, it’s more tolerable than Nevirapine,” he added.

FEELING LOW

“I remember when I lost weight and when red patches started to appear on my skin, I felt so low. I couldn’t see myself anymore. I wore a jacket all the time so people would not see how ugly I WAS becoming,” Paolo said.

He was also making every possible effort to act and look normal at work, even if it was close to impossible.

“In the office, I was always blank and not functioning normally. Some of my officemates even started teasing me when they noticed the red patches on my skin. I felt really down, I almost felt suicidal,” he said.

Though his friends communicated with him everyday to check his condition, for Paolo, it was not enough.

“Even if I have friends who were there for me, the feeling was so impalpable. It was unexplainable. No one can really gauge what PLHIVs feel except themselves. At the end of the day, after you separate with the people who listen to you, the depressions would start to kick in. And every time I’m alone in my room, that’s when the tears start to fall – not because I have HIV, but the struggle I experience everyday in dealing with this,” Paolo shared.

He also joined different organizations that cater to the needs and welfare of PLHIV, but that didn’t help him either.

“Those support groups, yes, they’re doing a superb job, no doubt about that. But in reality, it’s not them who can and will help you because they don’t really know what you’re feeling, HIV is really a personal thing. Support groups… I have been involved with three of them, and they have not really offered enough support particularly when you’re experiencing a chronic type of depression. Sometimes, crying all by yourself while you’re drunk is better than repeating your story over and over again to a group of people,” Paolo ended.

*EXACT PATIENT CODE WAS REMOVED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT HIS PRIVACY

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Once there was a poz trans advocate

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Outrage Magazine | 21 October 2014

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

Dani

PHOTO BY RED CASTRO PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF DANI

Her story is not unique. Her journey has been explored by many individuals who are also in the same situation. But what she does, and how she uses her “gift”, is what makes her exceptional.

Her name is Dani*. She is a transgender woman, a pageant queen, and an advocate of HIV awareness and rights.

“When I was a child, I didn’t know what bakla meant. That is, until I was being called one. I asked my parents what bakla means and it was only then that I got the concept of being homosexual,” Dani recalled.

It was when she was growing up that she slowly realized that she’s “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” And from then on, “I identified myself as a transwoman.”

She lived her life as a woman, and – stereotypical as it may sound – she is into joining beauty pageants (she has, in fact, won several titles).

Dani would like to think she’s also like many “traditional women” who, when love knocks on the door, give everything unconditionally and oh-so-selflessly. One time, in particular, when she fell in love, she surrendered everything to her ex-partner, even the safeness of her physical health.  They practiced unprotected sex.

“I remember before 2009, I thought HIV was not yet in our country. I thought at that time that it was only happening in the US and in other countries, so why should I worry? Why should I use condoms?” she recalled.

But life took a sudden turn.

“I am now HIV positive. I was diagnosed back in 2009,” Dani disclosed.

Since then, she has started learning about HIV and AIDS. She attended seminars, and she was present in almost all of the counseling sessions at her treatment hub. She became friends with different people living with HIV (PLHIVs) and advocates. And she did all these as she pulled through her life.

When she finally gathered her confidence and strength back, she used her knowledge and experience to inspire newly diagnosed HIV-positive people to slowly recover from their misery and help them face their new lives.

“This advocacy is very close to my heart. I know what PLHIVs are going through because I speak from experience. I consider my status as an open secret – what I’m doing, that is helping PLHIVs, is a good medium for me to discuss what I went through and how I’m dealing with it,” she said.

As an HIV awareness and rights advocate, Dani is in a class of her own. She selflessly takes advantage of her own story to help other people.

When The Project Red Ribbon was established, Dani found a community of HIV positive advocates who also shared the same way of thinking: to help PLHIVs through the power of inspiration and real stories.

“We help them get through the saddest days of their lives– how they can get along with it, what they can do to have a better mindset about their situation. They need to become more aware that this is their new life already, and that there’s much to be considered,” she said.

Dani still joins beauty pageants and she still wins different titles.  She still hangs-out with her transgender friends. And she still falls in love whenever she meets someone special.  But this time, she values her own welfare and the safety of other people.

“Sometimes, someone will call me in the middle of the night, crying and sometimes suicidal. I gladly receive the call and just listen to their frustrations and fear. I feel responsible for them. Because I know how they feel – the feeling of being alone. I don’t want other people to feel like there’s no hope,” she said.

Being a transgender and HIV positive can be extra challenging (Read about Dabawenya Tricia Cabrera). But Dani’s spirit remains high.

“The essence of being a transgender is having the best of both worlds (so to speak). You can have a caring heart of a woman and you can have an iron fist of man,” Dani said.  “And being HIV positive, you have to accept and fully understand your new life so you can also inspire new PLHIVs. And living an HIV positive life is not easy nor difficult, but it is manageable.”

*NAME CHANGED, AS REQUESTED, TO PROTECT THE INTERVIEWEE’S PRIVACY

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Problems abound in implementation of PWD benefits

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VERA Files and Yahoo Philippines | 06 September 2014

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LGBT community remembers those who died of HIV

LGBT community remembers those who died of AIDS

“Denver” (not his real name) is HIV-positive. He has been an outpatient at one of the HIV/AIDS treatment hubs in Manila for seven years already. And he just learned recently that he can avail some benefits and privileges from the government.

“I cannot blame them for not orienting us, the patients, that we can apply for a PWD ID, because they’re attending to a lot of patients already. We just hope that our government improves the dissemination of important information to the public,” Denver said.

Problems like that of Denver have been encountered by sick people whose disabilities are not physically obvious. It’s not just inadequacy in information dissemination but more on the issue of what is “chronic illness.”

Republic Act 7277, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons defines Disabled Persons as those “suffering from restriction or different abilities as a result of a mental, physical, or sensory impairment, to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.”

R.A. 7277 was amended by Republic Act 9422 granting additional privileges and incentive to Persons with Disabilities (PWD).

It states that “Identification Cards shall be issued to any bonafide PWD with permanent disabilities due to any one or more of the following conditions: psychosocial, chronic illness, learning, mental, visual, and orthopedic, speech and hearing conditions.”

Chronic means a condition or disease that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects. HIV is one example of chronic illness which also includes asthma, diabetes, cancer lupus, and many more.

Problems arose when many persons suffering from a chronic disease but did not look physically ill were denied discounts by drugstores and other establishments.

Denver, in fact, said when heard some of his fellow PLHIVs (people living with HIV) tried to inquire and request for necessary papers needed for the PWD ID application, one attending nurse remarked, “hindi naman talaga kayo PWD, mas marami pang ibang nakaadmit dito na mas kailangan ng PWD membership.

In a Nov. 22, 2011 memo to a City Social Welfare Office in Alabang, Social Welfare Undersecretary Alicia R. Bala laid down the policy on 20 percent discount for persons with “chronic illness.”

Bala said, “It should be disability resulting from chronic illness that should be included in the ID.”

“For persons with skin allergy or asthma, although it is under chronic illness yet it is not included as disability whereas for diabetic person, if such illness results to a partial or total blindness, then a person can be considered PWDs because it affects his/her vision,” Bala further said.

Paz, a 40-year-old PWD who’s currently dealing with scoliosis, also expressed her frustration towards the government for not having enough facilities to accommodate them.

“People line up for hours to catch the MRT, taxi stands, and in bus stops, I don’t understand why the government is not doing anything for us,” she complained.

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs, said “the LRT and MRT are implementing a special coach for PWDs, senior citizens, and pregnant women – they have to be in the priority lane. All they have to do is to show their PWD IDs.”

The Accessibility Law or the Batas Pambansa Blg. 344 mandates certain buildings, institutions, establishments, and public utilities to install facilities and other devices that can help accommodate PWDs.

“Although some institutions and establishment have implemented the necessary changes for PWDs, it’s [still] very sad to say that after more than 30 years of being a law, it’s only now that government agencies and even the private entities are really cramming to catch up with the implementation of the Accessibility Law,” Zubiaga said.

Penalty for violation or none implementation of the Accessibility Law provisions includes imprisonment of not less than one month but not more than one year, or a fine of P2,000 to P5,000, or both.

“Even though we have a law that protects us, it’s very vague in terms of penalties and sanctions for those who do not comply. We are now coming up with amendments to it. We are now developing the National Comprehensive Accessibility Law, which does not only cover physical environment, but also information and communication technology that will cater to our blind and deaf members,” Zubiaga said.

Despite the setbacks, Zubiaga is still positive because Filipino PWDs are becoming more aware of their rights and are asserting for their implementation. “We also educate the parents, so they can instill in their children with disabilities that like any other children, they have the same set of rights.”

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(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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RITM: PLHIVs may not receive ARVs next week

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Outrage Magazine | 03 September 2014

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ARV

Time to panic?

Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG, one of the treatment hubs in the country), highlighted the dire situation faced by Filipino people living with HIV (PLHIV) after she reportedly said that the distribution of antiretroviral medicines (ARVs) may be stopped due to processing delays.

In a letter sent to the Department of Health (DOH) Secretary, Dr. Enrique Ona, dated September 2, HIV activist Pozzie Pinoy of the Red Ribbon Project, quoted Ditangco for saying that if the ARVs that are currently being held by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) will not be released by Friday, September 5, then “HIV treatment will totally stop all over the country.”

The Project Red Ribbon claimed receiving insider information that “BOC is requiring DOH to pay P5 million for the tax of the shipment (i.e. ARVs)”, and that “the said shipment has been in the storage of BOC since August of this year.”

DIRE SITUATION 

The number of HIV and AIDS cases in the Philippines already reached 19,915 as of July 2014, the National Epidemiology Center of the Department of Health (DOH) reported. And from January to July this year alone, the number of Filipinos living with HIV who are on antiretroviral therapy (ART) reached 7,172.

Obviously, the numbers are expected to rise, considering the continuing growing number of new cases reported by the DOH.

ON DEAF EARS

This issue was actually raised as early as February of this year, when PLHIVs started receiving limited supplies of ARVs from their treatment hubs. In a blog post by Pozzie Pinoy, Ditangco was quoted as saying that most Philippine HIV treatment hubs give out supplies for only either two weeks or one month, because of the delay in the delivery of meds to DOH.

After two weeks, Ditangco reported that the DOH will already deliver the ARV supplies to the respective treatment hubs.

Interestingly, according to Dr. Jose Gerard Belimac, head of DOH’s National AIDS/STI Prevention and Control Program, there is no delay in the procurement of ARVs, just as there is no “official pronouncement from the DOH to the treatment hubs to control [the distribution of ARVs] because of a delay in the procurement [of ARVs],” he said in an exclusive interview by Outrage Magazine.

Belimac also assured that “this is something we are trying to resolve, to ensure the continuity of treatment for PLHIV.”

What is not discussed is the delivery of ARVs differ from what PLHIVs use, with changes made to regimens of PLHIVs without medically sound reasons.  As a PLHIV whose medicines were changed last March stated, “the ARVs given [to] me were changed because there’s no stock of my usual ARVs. [The doctor said], no choice.”

ABNORMAL SITUATION?

Despite all these pronouncements about the availability of supplies, the fluctuating supply of ARVs continued in the next months. Different PLHIVs from different treatment hubs complained about the insufficient (from two weeks’ to one month’s supply, depending on the hub), ARVs given to them every time they get a refill.

Ditangco, in an interview by Outrage Magazine last April, said that “ang ARV supplies natin ay wala naman talagang problema. Nagkaroon lang tayo ng abnormal situation becausenagkaroon ng miscalculations in ordering (our ARV supplies do not have problems. We’re just having an abnormal situation because of miscalculations in ordering). There’s no need to cause unnecessary panic among PLHIVs.”

But panic is what is happening now.

During those months of notable ARV shortage, Project Red Ribbon actually purchased four boxes of Lamivudine and Tenofovir, a two-in-one mix of the two drugs.

“If there is no problem, why is it that we are buying from other countries to supplement the problems with the stocks? And we were able to release it from the (BOC) in just one week, as opposed to what other people are saying that it’s hard to release it from Customs. The PLHIV community is panicking for the past months now. The DOH has not been transparent with its programs when it comes to ARV medicines,” Pozzie Pinoy stressed.

Also, even as the DOH continues to deny that there is a problem with the supply of ARVs in the Philippines, one by one, treatment hubs started borrowing ARV supplies from other hubs that have “enough supply”.

Ditangco was in fact quoted by Pozzie Pinoy as saying that RITM-ARG, in the last two weeks, has been lending their ARV stocks to other HIV and AIDS treatment hubs in Metro Manila and in the provinces because of the shortage.

DELAY = DEATH

Last August 26, different LGBTQIA organizations from all over the Philippines – including Ladlad Caraga Inc., The AIDS Treatment Action Group Philippines (TATAG), REDx, Northern Mindanao Advocates, and The Well Philippines – wrote a letter to the BOC for it to provide a clearer picture on the following issues:

  1. What and how much were the duties and taxes imposed for the particular shipment?
  2. What is the basis of computation for duties and taxes levied against the imported ARVs?
  3. What is the cause of delay for the release of life saving ARVs to DOH?
  4. Is the agency taking any steps to expedite the release of ARVs to DOH?

To date, no response has been received, no matter the urgency of the issue.

Pozzie Pinoy is appealing to the DOH and the BOC to do something about this life and death situation.

“I am pleading and begging you, on behalf of the entire PLHIV community and the entire country, to please look into this matter immediately and find a quick solution to this problem. What we can do now is to call for the attention of your department, and of the BOC to take action before this gets out of hand,” he stated.

Outrage Magazine is one with the PLHIV community in demanding that the Department of Health should look into this matter as soon as possible and address this issue immediately. 

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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