On HIV and Realities

MANILA, Philippines – Amid continuing debate over the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, the Department of Health (DOH) recorded 104 new cases last month.

The figure brings to 1,305 the number of HIV/AIDS cases this year alone, the DOH said. 

It is also 30 percent higher than the 80 HIV/AIDS cases registered in October 2009.

The DOH’s HIV/AIDS Registry showed that since January 1984, a total of 5,729 HIV cases – 852 of them have progressed into AIDS – had been reported. 

The numbers have become increasingly alarming. Every time the 6 PM news blare out, or when I receive my daily newsletter from news websites, stuff like these catch my eye. While I know there are many issues that the country face every single day, I thought, that in this little space I have in the world wide web, I can help spread the awareness.

About two months ago, a friend of a friend found out he is HIV positive. I saw him a few days after that and he seemed normal. I thought to myself, that if this guy had unprotected contact with an unassuming partner, the virus could easily be transferred and there goes another statistic. I had no judgments, but I was sad. And I also felt like being slammed with a harsh truth. I used to only hear about HIV from the movie Gia and the musical Rent. Locally, there was Sarah Jane Salazar. These were all distant truths, HIV, that is, until I was in the presence of one.

Some years ago, I've read about Wanggo Gallaga's story. Still this is someone I do not know personally, I only read his articles from newspapers, and I knew that he is one of Philippines' premiere director's sons. But his way of advocacy presents a far more viable process: by sharing his story. We all know World AIDS Day, brands launching AIDS-awareness campaigns of their own but what do we really know about HIV, AIDS and how to avoid it?

I don't want to start preaching and say that the only way is to abstain. In fact, since I am not a medical person who can dole out health references,  I will let Wanggo Gallaga's story speak for it, through the writing of Gang Badoy.

7 Things I learned from my friend Wanggo
by Gang Badoy
1. Sometimes your parents know you more than you know yourself. He said when he was 12 years old his parents told him that if he turned out gay, they would completely love him just the same.  He was young then and had not defined yet what or who he was so he kept telling them that he wasn’t gay. So they said, okay but we need you to know that we’ll understand and we love you regardless. Then, years later – apparently, he discovers he is gay. “Well, they were right,” Wanggo says and we break into laughter.

2. It is good to know exactly what you’re getting into and that there will be consequences – if those do come, you have to bravely embrace them. Wanggo knew that the lifestyle he chose had risks. He dated other men and was overtly sexually active.  It was the time of the burgeoning social networking site called Friendster and he met many people online.  Was viva enough to go and make arrangements to hook up.  He did not make it his rule to use a condom, but he thought HIV was more of a ‘foreigner’ thing and that it wasn’t in the circles or the country even – so he really did not put his foot down nor set rules with the lovers.  So he only used a condom a small percentage of the time he was sexually active.  “So, now I’m HIV-positive, I have to deal with it as best I can and see myself through it,” Wanggo says with a tight lipped smile on his gentle face.  I kept looking at his jawbone and how defined and handsome it was when he clenched his teeth.

3. In the business of healing, there is not much space for blame and vengeance. Wanggo told me that he knows his focus ought to be his health, then he shifts and says his focus is his life.  (I wondered, but didn’t say out loud, if those two were not one and the same?) Then as if he heard my silent thought he immediately says he understands one cannot be without the other so for now, he says he’ll finish his existing projects, articles and assignments but knows that he will have to opt for a family time rest period pretty soon.  Then he said the reason why he agreed to be the main spokesperson for “The Safety Series” campaign was because he’d like for more young ones to hear his story.  This way he can best demonstrate to other (young) people how the risks they take have real consequences.  “I don’t need to know who I got the virus from, I have a feeling even he didn’t/doesn’t know he was/is infected.  I don’t think anyone is that sinister to willingly still have sex with someone when he knows he has HIV, that’s too mean.  So I went public because I wanted the rest (of my lovers) to know and get tested too.  It was too hard to find everyone’s phone number and to call them all, diba? So no, I never really thought of the big blame question. Why waste time on blame?”  He shrugs and I nod.

4. While we all want to be in the business of ‘optimizing life’ – we need to remember that some of the risks we take have irreversible results. Wanggo says he was pushing his body to the limit for a stretch of time.  He recalled going through grueling work days with very little sleep.  Then at night he partied hard and hooked up with people he’d meet on the internet almost regularly.  He was young and carefree as most of us have been/will be in our lifetimes.  When I asked him why he didn’t really insist on using condoms he calmly explains that he may have prided himself to be such a giving lover that if his partner didn’t want to use one, he felt it was an imposition (or even rude) to insist on what he wanted.  While on this note, I learned too that the sexual act between two people is also a realm wherein the muscle of consideration and selfishness is tested.  Wanggo strikes me as someone who is afraid of being selfish (he really is a generous one) and this spills over onto even the other decisions.  He says, “if I could go back maybe I’d still party as hard, but knowing what I know now there are some things pala that I cannot reverse or solve.  Like this virus, I can’t send it away, it’s here. That’s that.” He picks on one corner of his scarf.  I pretend I’m writing something.

5. While we think we can resolve things by strategically distracting ourselves, there should always be a stage where we face things squarely and not flinch. I asked him what his days were like and he said while taking in the rhythms of medication and maintaining his immune system to be as strong as possible, he decided to keep things as normal as possible.  He still does shoots with aplomb, finishes his articles on time, submits himself to creative planning meetings and everything he did even before he found out he was positive.  Then he looks at me straight and says, “Soon I will be resigning and dropping some responsibilities and maybe I can make this HIV-awareness campaign my main focus.  Maybe it’s time I decide to make my work about HIV kasi I have it and the campaign needs a voice.”  I interrupted him and said that the campaign needs his voice, and in characteristic self-effacing Wanggo fashion he says, “Anyone, actually! Me lang it’s different because, well, I know it best.”  And I agreed with him.  He does know this one best.  I took this cue and told him how I thought his role in the campaign is irreplaceable and that I was so grateful – and he cuts me with a rather graceful wrist flick and says, “Oh please, thank you – this is fun, too. Well…”  We both trailed off and just nodded at each other.  I like Wanggo, he’s my main teacher as of late.  I find myself nodding a lot.   I wonder if he notices.

6. How meaningless life is without friends. He told me once that he had to go to a check up for an ear infection recently and that he told a friend.  Then all of a sudden, everyone online was abuzz and praying for him.  He laughed and told me how ‘arte’ that was and that it was just a check up, he wished his friend didn’t make such a big deal out of it but then after a while he quietly said,  “It’s nice to know that people care and all that – “I just don’t like being fussed on.”  I could see that Wanggo pulls through also because of his friends.  He taught me the need for the great balance between knowing when to be around for a friend and when to step back to give my friends their cool space.  Mostly – Wanggo showed me how valuable it is to just accept what your friends offer you – even if you don’t like what they’re offering.  “Yuck, I was just going for a routine check up, ang dami dami nang nag text agad.”  Wanggo indulges us, too and embraces our amateur ways of dealing with a friend who is HIV positive.  How little we know of the disease! But perhaps the lot that we know of friendship will make it easier for him (and us) as we face this virus while standing strong beside each other.  He uncrosses his legs, then crosses them right back.

7. How sometimes our most extravagant dream is to really just have a ‘regular’ day. Wanggo always uses the phrase, “Wala, normal.”  He says this when I ask him how he feels, how he reacted when he first found out he had HIV, how did it feel coming out in public about being HIV-positive, did he know that I consider that a courageous (and very generous) act.  He says the same phrase first before he expounds.  He first says it again, “Wala, normal.”  He addresses his condition with a regimen of medication and other healing methods, I don’t know how grueling the side effects are, I can only imagine it actually, but I know that it is not an easy, smooth road.  So despite that, he’s been regularly doing our “Safety Series” stint bar tour – and this is how it goes: Wanggo and I go to the front and ‘talk’ to each other about HIV, I interview him in between the band sets while in Saguijo or Route 196, once even at the big central plaza of Eastwood and he answers as candidly as possible.  Our goal?  Just to let people hear a real conversation on HIV.   Many of us know of the virus in theory but we barely relate the red ribbon to behavioural choices.  Many of us are uncomfortable discussing the realities.  The reality is there are men who have sex with men, there are women who have sex with many men, there are many men who pay for sex, and there are sex workers who, by the nature of their work, have multiple partners, and that there are women or men who have spouses who work overseas and contract the virus elsewhere and transfer them when they come home to visit, there are babies born with HIV from an HIV-positive mother.I take offense that the people in charge of managing knowledge and the ones with the power to disseminate information sometimes ban discussion. Why ban discussion when we can actually grab this chance to educate? The issue of HIV is not a religious issue, though I acknowledge that many make it to be one but that is not my expertise so I won’t go there.   HIV is neither a gay man’s issue or a sex worker’s issue, though they are most at risk, it is everyone’s business.   HIV is a health issue.  It is here and it is staring us in the face while we so clumsily confuse our bible verses and ‘turn the other cheek.’  There is no room for judgment tonight.  It is here. It is preventable, but it cannot be addressed if we never even want to talk about it or what causes it.  Let’s stare at this one bravely, shall we? We need to inform people of the many options they can take to prevent HIV from settling into our spheres.  To those who are at risk, we can tell them about the choice to abstain, we can encourage the building of a monogamous relationship and we can even opt to push for use of condoms if having multiple lovers is one’s route. Condoms work, too.  The argument can be placed that they don’t work 100% of the time, but they do work a percentage of the time – more than if you didn’t use one.  So there.   “Wala, normal.”

We need to dream BIG, we need to dream of a world that is HIV free.  A world where we all have chances to have a normal day.  A world where we have stretches of normal days.  If you’re having a normal day, then repost this and spread the understanding not the judgment.  Spread the knowledge and not the prejudice. My friend Wanggo is teaching me all this and I am grateful, so I share it with you.

Do with it as you please.

After all, it starts with knowing.