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Op-Ed

Finding my Pride by not holding back

Though he was bullied while growing up for being part of the LGBTQI family, Edward Maalihan now says that “there’s always a rainbow after the rain. You go do you, even if it’s hard, even if it’s impossible. Because in the end, you’ll grow old and only remember how you held back to life and wished you had just ‘let it go’.”

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PHOTO COURTESY OF EDWARD MAALIHAN

By Edward Maalihan

Since I was young, I’ve been bullied by my schoolmates, friends and even my own relatives for being feminine – in the way I walk, my voice, and the way I reacted to things. So through high school and college I was in hiding even if others knew what I really am.

It was hard. I tried to suppress who I am because of what they always say to me: “Lalaki at babae lang ang ginawa ng Diyos (God only made a man and a woman)”, “Mga bakla, pinagtatawanan (Gays are there to be ridiculed)”, “Ang gwapo mo pa naman, sayang ka (You’re good looking; such a waste/what a pity!)”. Heck, I can say hundreds more like these; and because of it all, I came to a point where I believed them, that being gay is wrong. I even tried to force myself to have a girlfriend (obviously it didn’t work), and believe me you won’t want your sons and daughters to feel that way.

But after I graduated from college, I got into my first REAL relationship. And from then on, the weight of the world on my shoulders slowly started to lighten up. I could finally breathe and see what life really offers, without being chained to a heterogender system.

When I joined my first Pride gathering, I realized many things. It also made me ask myself: Were those bullies from the past at fault? Should I blame them for making me feel miserable?

Maybe, right?

But for me now, it’s their lack of knowledge about being LGBTQI; it’s the society that made being gay wrong; it’s those movies that made gays look ridiculous (yes we’re funny, but we are also deep and sensitive); it’s the “church” that made us sinners (yes we can be, but so can others) that are to blame.

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They don’t see that, yes, we are not perfect, but we also just try to be good citizens/people.

I already forgave all of my bullies, and I am even bestfriends with some of them now.

I still want to say so much more, but I’ll end now with this: There’s always a rainbow after the rain. You go do you, even if it’s hard, even if it’s impossible. Because in the end, you’ll grow old and only remember how you held back to life and wished you had just “let it go”.

FOLLOW @EDWARDMAALIHAN

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From the Editor

On beauty pageants and messed up priorities in dealing with HIV in Phl…

After encountering a young PLHIV who has to prostitute himself just to access ARVs, Michael David Tan finds it infuriating that the Department of Health saw it fit to allocate lots of money to HOLD A BEAUTY PAGEANT. For him, from the get-go, this approach needs to be closely looked at.

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Photo by Valentin Salja from Unsplash.com

I am chatting with a person whose HIV rapid test only recently showed he’s reactive. He was told by this satellite clinic in Mandaluyong City that he can actually proceed to get the meds; though only if:

  1. He pays his PhilHealth; and
  2. He pays for all his lab tests.

The problem is, this young person – who did not even finish schooling – is unemployed.

So he is chatting with me now to “manghiram ng P100 (borrow a hundred pesos) so I can go to a client who will give me P1,000; which I can then use to pay for my lab tests.”

Yes, he is resorting to selling himself. To access life-saving medicine that is supposedly – and ERRONEOUSLY claimed to be – “free”.

It is cases like this young person’s that make it infuriating that the Department of Health saw it fit to allocate lots of money to… HOLD A BEAUTY PAGEANT.

In a pageant-obsessed country like the Philippines, at least superficially, this seems like an “intelligent” move.

But from the get-go, this approach needs to be closely looked at.

  1. The pageant is supposed to create “HIV advocates”. BUT only those who fit specific qualifications can enter – e.g. age limit, height limit, vital stats requirement of participants (with the candidates even told to ‘model’ in swimwear as part of the screening process). So now – with this ‘move’ – what is being insinuated is that you need to be young and beautiful first before you can be an HIV ‘advocate’…
  2. We are supposed to dismantle this lookist society; to recognize people’s worth NOT based solely on how they look like. Pageants – by their very nature – promote the status quo (of lookism) by giving “positions of power” only to those who “fit” socially-constructed standards of beauty and attractiveness.
  3. The country has a lot of REAL advocates who do for free what should be DOH’s job – e.g. community-based HIV screeners who go from barangay to barangay without any payment. There are those doing community-based HIV screening (CBS) who are RUNNING OUT OF RAPID TEST KITS, so they are now unable to serve; unable to be advocates. Seriously now, if there’s money for a beauty pageant, surely there’s money that can be given to those already working on the ground, or even to buy life-saving paraphernalia used in battling HIV in the Philippines.
  4. One of the supporters of this beauty pageant told me that Pia Wurtzbach’s effort to bring the spotlight to HIV is a good example of the “relevance” of a beauty pageant like this, as it could “create another Pia”. In a marketing standpoint, this is not a well-thought response; mainly because if you wanted to “create” someone to be like Pia to promote HIV awareness in the Philippines, then… JUST HIRE PIA HERSELF!
    Besides, as a friend aptly said: You can’t just “create” a Pia. She “works” because she’s unique.
  5. If you need a crown, a title and the prize money before you start advocating for HIV-related issues in the Philippines, then you’e not really an “advocate” and what you’re doing is not “advocacy”.

PLASTIC CROWNS
There remain many life-threatening and urgent issues concerning HIV in the Philippines. And if you try bringing these issues up (e.g. to government people, or NGOs), you’d more likely be told “there’s no money”. But apparently there is. Just not for the urgent ones…
Photo by Pro Church Media from Unsplash.com

The fact is, numerous HIV-related issues continue to plague the country.

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We get 31 new cases every day now.

A growing number of those getting infected are getting younger and younger (e.g. in July, 28% were from the 15-24 age bracket).

The ARVs in treatment hubs are OLD – e.g. many have expired, and the Philippines still uses meds already discontinued in Western countries. Don’t get me started with the shortage that the DoH continues to deny is happening.

We still don’t have widely-distributed pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Newly-diagnosed PLHIVs – like that young person at the start of this article – are still unable to pay for their baseline tests; and so they can’t proceed to the next steps, which is to start their ARV therapy.

There are treatment hubs that do not have viral load machines, so that PLHIVs do not know their VL years and years after they tested HIV-positive. And this is even if they have been paying the same PhilHealth amount that should give them that VL test.

There are accredited hubs that do not even offer CD4 test. This is accepted as “normal”, and again, this is even if the PLHIVs in these hubs still pay the same PhilHealth amount that should grant them the CD4 test.

There remains lack of updated knowledge even among existing service providers – e.g. try asking them about U=U, and you’re more likely to encounter internalized stigma and discrimination, largely because… this is not even openly discussed in the Philippines, including by DoH.

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There are no Filipino Sign Language interpreters who can assist Deaf Filipinos to get tested for HIV; and – if they test HIV-positive – access treatment, care and support.

I can go on and on and on…

But just try bringing these issues up (e.g. to government people, or NGOs) and you’d more likely be told “there’s no money”.

Well… apparently there is; just not for these…

As it is – and yes, I recognize this – I’ve already been repeatedly told that I’m too… negative.

I’m not sure I’m being “negative”; instead, I am being more “realistic”.

And the thing is, as long there are PLHIVs like that young person who has to prostitute himself just so he can pay to access life-saving meds and services, we all should be…

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Literary Pieces

Both Eyes Open

Some members of the LGBTQI community live in the shadows. Until they and the people they love start to get hurt.

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Photo by Harry Quan from Unsplash.com

The ticking of the clock was the only sound you can hear in the living room. That large, wooden clock Father brought home from Frankfurt last year was particularly loud. Spring has come late to our village, and people are a little antsy about how to put together a festival in such short notice. The cherry trees will begin to bloom soon. My parents were off in the town hall to attend one of the many meetings with the council preparing for the influx of tourists who are sure to come through town in a couple of weeks.

Everybody was in a bit of a rush, since they haven’t exactly finished putting up the observation decks at the public causeway lined with cherry blossom trees, nor the small collection of food stalls that the local merchant guild was planning. The first few groups of tourists have started to arrive and our inn was starting to fill up with guests.

I poured myself a drink at my father’s bar and I sat in one of our overstuffed settees.

“Touma?”

I see her walk in, dressed in a simple linen robe, her hair down, preparing for bed.

“Will you wait up for Mother?”

I nod. She approaches and quietly refills my drink.

“The children are sleeping. Should I draw you a bath before bed?” I nod. She smiles and gathers up her robe.

“Hana?” She looks back and I see her small smile once more. “I am sorry for missing the New Year Festival again. I must really get control over my work schedule. I will make it up to you and the children during the summer.” I placed my drink on the lacquered table beside me. “I have booked us all a trip to the city to stay at that hotel in the city that you like, we can go shopping and get the kids some new clothes and toys. The boys seem to be growing much faster than ever before.”

“I think that is a wonderful idea. Thank you. And don’t worry about my birthday: It was work. It really can’t be helped.” She turns around and stops at our family shrine. She reaches out and gently touches a Daruma doll she placed there about three years ago, its single eye looking at her, slightly askew.

I look at the clock on the wall. Of course she understands, Hana has always been very understanding.

***

Konnichi wa.”

I look up from the guest ledger and see this ruddy faced foreigner with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

Konnichi wa, and welcome.” I reply. I bow slightly, and see him return the greeting.

“I made a reservation, it should be under Phillip Thompson?”

I scan through the names on the ledger and find his reservation. I enter his arrival in the log and hand him his safebox key.

“Thank you.” He picks up his bag and smiles. I look at his face, fair, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of his nose, between wide blue eyes. He had a set of straight white teeth behind a big, bushy beard, the color of straw. “When will the cherry blossoms begin to bloom?”

“Maybe within the next couple of days: We’ve already seen some trees beginning to change color.” I open a small door and pick up his suitcase. “This way please.” I lead him down the hall towards his room.

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“This is my first time in Japan during the spring, but I’ve heard such beautiful things about this season.”

“Yes, it is beautiful in the spring. And the weather is so much more forgiving, especially in this area. Once the trees turn, I will arrange to have a place for you along the causeway. Do you prefer viewing the cherry blossoms in the afternoon or at dusk? They set up the park with lights at night and I could prepare some traditional Japanese confections for you to enjoy during your viewing.”

“Oh, that would be great! I think an evening viewing would be best.”

I set his suitcase down and kneel to slide open the paper screen that leads to his room. “Would you want to bathe before dinner? We have our own onsen, and you can try it out. I can also prepare your bed while you bathe so you can rest before eating. You must be tired from travelling.” I move into the space and put away his bag off to one side of the room.

“Yes, I would like that very much.” I open one of the closets and take out a robe and hand it to him. He changes into the robe as he makes more idle chatter. I take down his bedding and check to make sure it’s fresh. I absent-mindedly turn around to set the bedding on the tatami mat. He had his back turned towards me as he slipped his arms through the sleeves of the robe, and I had a brief glimpse of his broad shoulders. I feel a familiar sensation that stirred at the bottom of my belly.

I push it down. And drop my eyes to the floor.

Photo byFernando @cferdo from Unsplash.com

***

“I see that Mr. Thompson has checked in today.” Hana looks over to me as she reviews the guest ledger. “I heard from Akane-sama that the pavilion opens tomorrow for the viewing. Shall we make arrangements for him?”

I put down the paper I was reading, and I look at her. Yes, I reply. He wants to arrange a nighttime viewing.

She picks up the phone and begins to organize a private viewing for him. I go back to reading the paper, though, I was only skimming the words on the page. My attention is lost among the fog of my thoughts. The clock on the wall ticks on and on.

“Touma?”

I look up at her again.

She’s sitting there, cradling the small Daruma doll in her hands. She traces her finger along the edge of paper that came away from the body of the doll. She takes some paste from a drawer, and gently pressed the paper back in place.

“I have asked the kitchen to prepare a bento of sweets for tomorrow night, but I won’t be able to accompany Mr. Thompson to the viewing. Would it be alright if you go with him? I have some things to attend to.”

I put the newspaper down. “We have discussed this already. I do not understand why I must attend to the guests.”

She sits there silent for a moment. “No games, Touma. I just can’t go. That’s all.”

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“Fine.” I got up and poured myself a drink. She sets down the doll on the shrine and went back to writing. I look at it, the red paint has faded significantly, with one forlorn eye staring out at me.

***

“You weren’t kidding! This place is amazing!”

Phillip and I walked along the banks of the small river that cut through the park. Paper lanterns lined the path that reflected off of the gentle ripple of the water. There were groups of people in colorful robes, weaving through the trees, admiring their foliage, or sitting on low benches enjoying their bento boxes filled with cakes and dumplings.

You can smell the aroma of roasted fish and other foodstuff from the collection of stalls on the other side of the stream. We didn’t have to go though; the kitchen has outdone itself in preparing both savory and sweet boxes for us to enjoy this evening.

We reached a low hill in the middle of a bend in the river where the view was particularly breathtaking, and set down our dinner on the bench that sat under a tree. Viewing the cherry blossom trees this early in the season meant that no cascading petals would go in our food. And you get to fully appreciate the magnificent foliage at the pinnacle of their glory.

“I have heard a story about how the cherry blossoms represented fallen warriors during the war.” Phillip sat down on the opposite end of the bench, looking out at the stream and the trees that lined the opposite bank, lit by soft hues of yellow and mauve. I offered him a bento filled with rice, grilled sea bream and pickles. He took it and he started to eat. “How can something so beautiful represent something so sad?”

I sat beside him, and started to softly play a tune on my shamisen. “Cherry blossoms represent impermanence in our culture. Like the cherry tree that is so short lived, it serves to remind us that nothing stays the same forever. We live, we bloom, and we die.” He was looking at me as I say this, and I see him look out into the water again.

“Once there was a man who had a cherry tree in his backyard. He loved the tree he grew up with, playing under its shade for many years as a boy. As he lived, his children played under the shade of the tree which gave him much joy.” I see him close his eyes as he listened to my story.

“As he lived, and as time passed, his children grew up, his wife passed away, and one by one his children had families of their own, moved away, and died. However, death would not come for the old man.” I struck a sad note. He opens his eyes and looks at me.

“He lived for so long, alongside his beloved cherry tree. Till one day when he went out into the garden to sit under its branches, as he has done countless times before, he found that the tree had died.” Phillip looks at me intently. “Overcome with grief, the old man wept and called for death. He took his sword and took his own life under the dead boughs of the cherry tree he loved. As his spirit escaped his body, it bonded with the tree, and it bloomed for one last time.”

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“That was beautiful.” Phillip wiped the tears that welled in his eyes. “Sad. But beautiful.”

“Just because there is suffering, does not mean the story is sad: The old man lived a full life and in the end was granted a beautiful death. He was blessed with this fate, and death did not rob his life of its meaning.” I sat beside him and looked out into the water. The river started to fill with light. We sat there in silence, watching the cherry blossoms dance with the gentle breeze.

“Why did you come here, Phillip?”

“I missed you so much. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”

I felt his head gently rest on my shoulder.

“Hana doesn’t know.”

I hear him sigh. “I know.” He said under his breath, his voice was like an echo of mine over the surface of the water.

Photo by Jenna Jacobs from Unsplash.com

***

The clock ticks on, as I sat there reading the paper. Hana comes in with a glass of whisky on a small tray. She walks over to me and places it on the lacquered table beside me.

“How was your viewing?”

I put the paper down. “It was beautiful.” I reply. I can taste the venom in my voice.

“That’s good. I wanted to join you, the trees are particularly splendid this year, but I was kept busy here at home. The children needed tending.” She picks up the Daruma doll and sets it down on the desk in front of her.

She uses her finger to push it forward, and it rolls forward and settles upright. She pushes it from one side to the other, its wobbling making soft noises as it recenters itself in front of her on the polished desk.

“Did Phillip enjoy his stay?”

I can feel it. That coiled snake in my belly is moving.

“Why do you do this? Why did you do this?”

She doesn’t look at me. But still I know she was crying.

“Why? I don’t know.” She wipes away the tears on her pale cheeks. “I’m tired, Touma. Just say it so I can go to bed.”

“You are impossible. There is nothing to say.”

“No.” There’s a cold fierceness in her voice. It sounded like steel. “No. I see how you look at him. At  them. It kills me every time I see it. That’s why I wrote to him. I asked him to come. I just… I needed to see it for myself.” She took a brush and started to grind some ink on her inkstone. I kept quiet. I know. I know it’s wrong. I know.

“Hana. Don’t do this. Please.”

“No. I’m tired Touma. Now I truly understand.” She takes her brush and dips it into the ink. She takes the Daruma doll and paints a big staring pupil on the other eye.

“Enough. No more secrets.” She stands up and leaves the room.

And there, on the desk, sat her Daruma doll, staring at nothing at all, with both eyes open.

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Literary Pieces

I Am Here

Have you ever been “lost” in a labyrinthine gay bathhouse? Here’s a poetic glimpse at its nerve-wracking – yet intoxicating – appeal.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba from Unsplash.com

I stood there in front of that door for God knows how long. Staring at that small sign that says “Pull”, I felt my heart pounding as I fumbled for my wallet in that harshly lit alley in downtown Tokyo. I knew I shouldn’t be there, which explains the hesitation, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. This is a mistake; I mutter under my breath, it’s been too long-much too long.

It’s getting cold. This is ridiculous. Go in or go back to the hotel.

I reach out, and all of a sudden the door opens. Out pops an old man in a greatcoat, about 60 years old, his hat pulled down low on his brow, with flushed cheeks and brandishing a briefcase. He takes one cursory look at me as he brushes past me and starts to shuffle towards the train station down the block. I could hear a man’s voice coming from inside, gruff and clipped. I don’t speak Japanese, so I feel this sudden (though not thoroughly unfounded) jolt of guilt that I was wasting their heat since I stood there holding the door open like a frozen doorman. I quickly found myself inside.

There they stood, peering at me. These two men, one significantly older than the other, stood there and bowed. The younger of the two smiled, revealing a toothy grin. “American?”

I shook my head, no. “No, no, Filipino.”

“Ah! Filipino! Welcome, welcome.” He put out a cup of steaming barley tea and motioned me to drink. I cupped it between my hands to warm them and breathed in the nutty aroma wafting from the small ceramic cup. “Manila?” He asks. “Yes.” My voice was tightening in my throat. “How much?”. He smiles again and points to the ticket machine off to the side of the door. The machine had a laminated sign on it that says ¥2,800. He went over and took the money I fished out of my wallet and fed it to the machine. It spits out a ticket, and he hands me my locker key on those elastic bands not unlike the vintage phone cords I played with when I was younger. I slip it on my wrist, and follow him as he led me past the split curtain and into the locker room.

***

Photo by John Baker from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes. It is pitch black.

My eyes slowly start to adjust to the darkness and slowly, shapes begin to form around me. Undulating bodies, slick with sweat, they writhed under my touch. In this surreal landscape, I could feel my mind slowly melt away, along with the stress built up on the knotted muscles on my back.

I feel it, the hot breath on the back of my neck as I slowly rise from where I lay my head, rising from the warmth of some faceless chest that served as my pillow for the past half hour, as the rest of the room pulsed with lust. I felt two strong hands suddenly grip my arms as I steadied myself to stand.

“Wait. We’re not done.”

“I need to freshen up, aniki, and I need a smoke.” I watch as Touma stands up, his muscular bulk slowly rising from the floor. I feel him approach and pull me into a deep, long bear hug. “Don’t take too long. I might not find you again.” He growled into my ear. “You are mine tonight.”. I feel him stiffening against the inside my thigh, and I knew he wouldn’t last too long, with or without me. I noisily breathed in the smell of his musk, kissed his neck, and he lets me go.

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I wind my way out of the maze of corridors lined with men of all shapes and sizes, obscured by the dark. I can feel their eyes on me as I brush past them, their hands “accidentally” brushing against my body. I feel the cold draft coming from the shower area, and I close my eyes against the light that greets me as I open the door.

***

I opened up my locker and started to undress, the guy from reception looks on as I peeled off the winter gear I had on. The guy from reception steals glances at my little awkward striptease. I ask him if I need to be totally naked.

“Yes. Or underwear.”

I stop pulling down my boxers, and I start to close my locker. He says something in Japanese again, and holds up a strip of fabric. A fundoshi. Oh no. I slowly removed my boxers, and neatly folded them. I placed them inside the locker and closed it, I stood there and reached for the fundoshi, and he smiled.

“After bath.”

Of course. This is becoming more and more embarrassing as each moment passes. He hands me a small washcloth and goes back through the door to the reception area. I stood there for a moment, looking at the calligraphy scrolls that adorn the walls of the space. I slowly make my way towards the long corridor where I could hear the faint sound of water. I wonder where all the people were.

I enter one of the shower stalls and begin to wash off the stench of the city.

***

I settle down in one of the hot tubs, my washcloth folded neatly on my head. I relish the feeling of being almost lulled to sleep by the gentle rippling of the water, and the almost iridescent heat of the stone tiles on my skin.

Why do I do this to myself?

I breathe in the heady mix of steam and jasmine. I am getting much too old for this. I know. I’ve seen the looks the younger ones give me. How they see the wrinkles that have appeared almost overnight. Not that I care much. I have always been very cavalier about my appearance, even when I was younger. Partly because I have always been unhappy with how I looked. Only later was I able to think of my features as mildly attractive to others.

The door opens and he stood there, staring. I see a hint of surprise and a slight pink flush to his cheeks, and a towel in his hand. I smile slightly, completely unaware of what my face was doing. He takes it as a positive sign. He walks towards me slowly, his body well-proportioned and well put together. He had a sexy, compact and stocky build, with thick arms and calves that are covered by coarse hair. I move to make room as he steps into the tub and sits across from me.

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I took the time to study his face: Those eyes that seemed to me so full of curiosity, as if they were drinking everything in. That thick beard that came away from the sides of his face, filled with crystal droplets that dripped down to his chin and fell one by one into the tub. I could see the swirling patterns of the hair on his back and shoulders. I see him looking at me.

He can’t resist. He can’t fight it.

***

Photo by Jakob Owens from Unsplash.com

He stood up, the water washing down his lithe body making it gleam under the soft lights of the bath. He gracefully steps out of the tub, and I can’t help but look at him in awe. He takes a towel from a small squat table and proceeds to dry himself off. I don’t know if it was the heat, or the heavy scent of flowers that pervaded the room, or just a deep longing that I feel at the pit of my stomach, but I can’t help but watch transfixed as he seemed to move in slow-motion.

He walks back towards the tub, and he sits on the edge. His hand reaches down and runs his fingers through my beard, and traces the outline of my jaw. I smell the subtle scent of vetiver on his wrist as he does this. I feel my anxiety start to subside in my gut as this gorgeous stranger continues to trace his fingers around my face, across my brow, down my nose, and against the side of my neck where my pulse was racing. I closed my eyes in delight.

“Izumi.”

“Anton.”

I feel his hands move to the back of my neck, gently feeling the tense muscles he found there, and moving his fingertips in small circles. I don’t think he speaks English. With my luck, he probably doesn’t. But as it always happens, right now is not the time for words. I got up from the tub and step out. He got another towel from the table and began to slowly dry me off, taking his time with fascinating precision. After he dried my legs, he lets the towel drop to the floor.

There we stood.

He says nothing. Just looks at me with a perfectly still, handsome, inscrutable face. I feel his hand in mine and he silently leads me into the void.

***

I see nothing. I don’t need to.

My hearing picks up where my vision left off, and I hear the soft padding of his feet behind me as I move further into the maze. I sense the other people hiding in corners, their eyes moving faster than their bodies, as they watch him with either hunger or cold, dispassionate ambivalence. I find a little empty corner just as my eyes begin to get used to this twilight world once more. I push him against the wall and look at him.

Handsome. Within and without light.

I feel his forearms, my fingertips lightly brushing against the strands of hair, until I reach his broad shoulders. His averted and while it may first seem impossible to explain, I feel the heat of his blush. I lean in and kiss him on the lips, a number of small tentative kisses that lead to longer, deeper ones. He was hesitant at first, but he began to return the kisses, gripping my arms tight and pulling me closer to him: obliterating what little distance there was between us. He spins me around and pins my hands above my head on the wall with an audible smack that the people around us turned towards us. He’s strong, I think to myself, I fight back somewhat but he persists.

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His hands felt soft against my skin, and they burned with warmth that surprised me.

Why do I do this to myself?

My mind snaps back to here. I feel his chest under my palms as he busied himself under me. I feel the fur under my fingers like I was riding a wild beast. This emptiness inside me is lost in the thrum of excitement I feel deep in my belly: the same soft thrum that slowly sets my mind adrift, makes my body convulse, and makes me feel as if my joints have come apart like wax.

***

Photo by Rene Böhmer from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes.

“Tea?”

The guy from reception smiled as he offers me another cup of barley tea. I look over to the other end of the room where a huge guy was sitting, dozing off. I check my watch and realize that I would need to take a cab back to the hotel. I never noticed the first time I walked in, how graceful the small stone garden was, and how intricately carved the big stone lion was on the entryway. I picked at my fingernails nervously as I waited for him to come out.

He comes out of the locker room into the reception area, his hair slicked back, and dressed in a wrinkled shirt and a slim tie. He returns his locker key to the reception desk. He looks at me, and smiles.

“Izumi?”

I see the big guy get up and start gathering his things. He looks at me, and gives a slight, almost imperceptible bow and put on his coat and hat. He looks back at Izumi and motions for him to follow, saying something in Japanese before heading into the street. I look back at Izumi, and he smiles. He gives a little bow, and opens the door to follow the man outside.

I stood there for what seemed like forever. Quite unsure what to think or feel. I smell the light scent of vetiver left hanging in the air.

“How do you like?”

I like him very much.

The guy from reception grinned at me from behind the desk. I come over to return the locker key. Everything is great, I said. He puts back the key on the hook, and thanks me again, looking at me with those knowing, but soft, brown eyes. He gives a bow and asks me to come again. I put on my coat and after one last sniff of that perfume, I step out into the brisk cold of a clear winter night.

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From the Editor

3 Terms you need to know in HIV advocacy in the Philippines

HIV advocacy in the Philippines has evolved – and in many ways, devolved – to highlight erroneous practices. Here are at least three terms in use locally that highlight how BROKEN HIV advocacy is in the Philippines.

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Photo by Samantha Sophia from Unsplash.com

I was in Northern Mindanao when I first heard of a term used to refer to a service “provider” who – in a word (and there really is no going around this) – ALLEGEDLY “molested” masseurs who had to be tested for HIV as required by their line of work.

When interviewed, some of these masseurs alleged that a certain medical practitioner who – during testing – would “dulaan ang among itlog ug utin (fondle our testicles and our penises).” And then – as if to show them who’s the boss – “mu-ngisi pa jud siya, unya mu-schedule sa uban sa amo-a ug booking (this person would smirk at us, and would even schedule trysts with some of us).”

That was the first time I heard of a term that is apparently used to refer to people like this person: “advoKATI”, a play on “advocacy” and “makati (literally, itchy; and contextually, a slut)”, because they supposedly use advocacy as a cover for their itch/desire to pick up or sleep around.

Through the years, other terms being used related to HIV advocacy also came to my attention. And here are at least three of them; all of them highlighting how BROKEN HIV advocacy is in the Philippines.

***

1. advoKATI
n. Refers to a person who uses the advocacy as a front to get sexual partners.

The medical practitioner mentioned above is an example; though – by no means – is his case unique. Other examples include: giving (donated) vacc in exchange for sex with a PLHIV; providing after-testing services only to good-looking newly-diagnosed persons with HIV, while the not-so-good-looking are left to fend for themselves; and “counselors” using the confused state of mind of newly-diagnosed PLHIVs to sleep with them.

2. advoCASHy
n. Profiting from HIV advocacy; or people who profit from the same.

Let’s get this straight: Profiting from HIV is not exactly new; nor is this exclusive to the Philippines.

Globally – and perhaps even more apparent – is the profiteering done by pharma companies that produce the life-saving ARVs for PLHIVs. There is also the issue with accessing “good” drugs by developed countries (e.g. PrEP) versus “dumping” of those not already used by the developed countries in the poorer countries (e.g. phase out of Nevirapine and Efavirenz).

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Perhaps Peter Mugyenyi said it best when he tackled in “Genocide by Denial: How Profiteering from HIV/AIDS Killed Millions” the “incredible self-indulgence of the pharmaceutical companies and the cold-heartedness of the rich world that turned a blind eye until it was far too late, and then responded too slowly with too little.”

Now not just the big “bodies”, but even the other players in responding to HIV are mimicking this. And yes, this includes HIV “advocacy” in the Philippines, which is emulating this, too.

Here, we continue hearing that “there is no money in advocacy”, much more for those affected by HIV. This is supposedly why it’s difficult accessing existing treatment, care and support (TCS) – because, as always stressed – “there just isn’t enough money to go around”.

And then you hear about HIV “advocates” who can afford to buy numerous stuff (from a number of cars to a number of properties to luxury items to high-end gadgets to getting cosmetic surgery, and so on) from their “small” salary as NGO workers.

Or “advocates” who have drivers. WITH UNIFORM.

Or “advocates” who can tour the world using only their “meager” earnings from their “small” salary.

This is NOT to begrudge people their salaries.

BUT when you couple these with:

  • Inability of newly-diagnosed PLHIVs to go to treatment hubs because they don’t have money to pay for their fare.
  • Complaints from PLHIVs about inability to access to treatment because they can’t pay PhilHealth.
  • Non-access to other meds for opportunistic infections (or the need to beg the likes of DSWD or PCSO to fund these meds).

I am starting to sound like a “sirang plaka (broken record)”, repeatedly writing about issues I’ve already written about.

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BUT there’s this disconnect that is too painful to just ignore.

All because there are “advocates” who see HIV as a cash cow.

3. advoKATKAT
v. The use of HIV advocacy for social climbing. “Katkat” is a Bisayan word meaning “to climb”. This is often related to advoCASHy as it emphasizes only the glam in “helping” even sans the actual helping.

There are NGOs paying PR firms to promote HIV “advocacy”. Ask them how many people got tested because of the “campaigns”, and they’d tell you: Our indicator is the number of Facebook likes. “Likes” derived from the money paid to celebs, bars, photographers/videographers, alcohol consumed, et cetera. Partying in the guise of advocating.

There’s an “award” for people who “helped” HIV advocacy in the Philippines – even if grassroots HIV workers question the “winners” (e.g. who these people are, how they were chosen, what they’ve really done for the HIV community). What’s seemingly important is the hype created; particularly since celebs “joined” the “cause”. More photo ops mean more exposure means more (possible) funds.

There’s the funding of a photo campaign because the one disbursing the fund are “models” in the campaign, themselves.

There’s a well-funded beauty pageant even if we have (often denied) ARV shortage (not to mention hubs that still do not offer all tests included in the OHAT package, from CD4 count to viral load count).

As already noted in the past, there’s this focus on the glam/social climbing (e.g. get celebs to promote testing), perhaps forgetting that real advocacy goes beyond that.

Too much focus on the glitzy fibs, less emphasis on the grimy truth

And so here we are now, with 31 new HIV cases reported every month in the Philippines. Ten years ago, we only had one case EVERY DAY.

We are fucked. But we’re not only fucked because of lack of sex education, non-promotion of condom use, antiquated practices (e.g. we have yet to teach U=U in the country, or make PrEP and PEP widely accessible), and so on.

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We’re also in deep shit because the people who should be serving us want us to be there so they can benefit from it.

This is the new(er) world of “advocacy”…

It’s called advoCASHy to promote advoKATI and advoKATKAT.

***

Back in Northern Mindanao, I asked those who alleged to have been victimized if they complained – officially.

I was told: “Na, kinsa ra ba mi (Yeah, right! Who do we think we are)? Kolboy kontra sa medical practitioner, paminawun ba mi (Sex workers versus a medical practitioner, who would listen to us)?”

Despite recognizing power structures and all that, I admit I still initially found the “excuse” inexcusable. Lodging a complaint against an abusive service “provider” seems like a good first step to remedy this situation. Letting things as they are only allows the erroneous system to continue.

And then – much later – the person they alleged did them harm formed a new NGO, and this NGO was funded by a bigger NGO based in Metro Manila. I mentioned the allegations to one of the heads of the Metro Manila-based NGO, hoping – perhaps – for them to closely look at the allegations since, and after all, they were “enabling” the person involved by funding this person.

Let me get this straight: These are all allegations, of course, and they need to be investigated to be validated/invalidated. Everyone involved ought to be heard – from those who accused, and the accused. But that they exist at all should already be cause for concern.

Alas, the allegations were ignored.

So this “provider” continues to be coddled – and enabled – so long as this person’s NGO churns out reports that the bigger NGO can use to get even more big bucks.

All too apparent, people choose to turn the blind eye so long as money keeps flowing in…

No wonder HIV advocacy is in the Philippines remains broken…

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Op-Ed

Reconsidering Kofi Annan’s AIDS legacy

At the turn of the century, AIDS denialism was at its peak. Kofi Annan helped to break it. Here, Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, pays tribute to the former UN head.

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By Michel Sidibé
UNAIDS Executive Director

A shining light of Africa has passed away. An African at heart, but a global citizen, Kofi Annan symbolized the best of humanity. He was a rabble-rouser, a troubleshooter and a change-maker.

At the turn of the century, AIDS denialism was at its peak. Mr Annan helped to break it. “More people have died of AIDS in the past year in Africa than in all the wars on the continent. AIDS is a major crisis for the continent, governments have got to do something. We must end the conspiracy of silence, the shame over this issue,” he said.

When Mr Annan began his term as the new United Nations Secretary-General in 1997, the outlook for the AIDS epidemic was bleak—some 23.9 million people were living with HIV, there were 3.5 million new HIV infections and access to life-saving treatment was only available to a privileged few.

He cajoled world leaders, humbly, diplomatically, and when the message did not sink in he spoke out publicly and forcefully. “Friends, we know what it takes to turn the tide against this epidemic. It requires every president and prime minister, every parliamentarian and politician, to decide and declare that “AIDS stops with me. AIDS stops with me,”” he said.

Under his leadership, in 2000 the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1308, identifying AIDS as a threat to global security. In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS was held—the first-ever meeting of world leaders on a health issue at the United Nations.

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In 2000, at a time when less than US$ 1 billion was being invested in the AIDS response, he called for a war chest of at least US$ 7–10 billion for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. That call, and his concerted lobbying of world leaders, led to the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which went on to save millions of lives. Mr Annan remained a patron of the Global Fund, helping to ensure that it is fully funded.

The Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the spread of AIDS and the 2001 United Nations Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS set HIV prevention targets, but did not set concrete targets for access to treatment. At the time, the cost of antiretroviral medicines was astronomically high. Sitting down with the pharmaceutical industry, Mr Annan helped to pave the way for an eventual reduction in their prices. Who could have believed in 2001 that the cost of life-saving antiretroviral medicines would fall by 2018 to as low as US$ 60 per person per year. Today, some 21 million people are on HIV treatment.

Mr Annan deftly used his convening power for good. When he learned that less than 30% of people had knowledge of HIV, he brought together media leaders and helped to launch the Global Media AIDS Initiative. As a result, hundreds of hours of AIDS awareness programmes were run pro bono by public and private media companies around the world. Mr Annan even appeared with an HIV-positive Sesame Street character, helping to reduce stigma and discrimination against children affected by HIV.

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His heart was with people affected by HIV. He saw first-hand the realities of the HIV epidemic. He knew that real change came when women and girls were empowered. “It requires real, positive change that will give more power and confidence to women and girls and transform relations between women and men at all levels of society,” he said. “It requires greater resources for women, better laws for women and more seats for women at the decision-making table. It requires all of you to make the fight against AIDS your personal priority not only this session, or this year, or next year, but every year until the epidemic is reversed.”

He embraced diversity. He was vocal about the rights of sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and transgender people. “We need to be able to protect the most vulnerable, and if we are here to try and end the epidemic and fight the epidemic, we will not succeed by putting our head in the sand and pretending that these people do not exist or that they do not need help,” he said. “We need to help them and we need to resist any attempt to prevent us from recognizing the need for action and assistance to these people.”

Mr Annan had a special place in his heart for UNAIDS. He made time for us, kept informed about the progress made in the AIDS response and donated the royalties from a book of his speeches, We the peoples: a UN for the twenty-first century, to UNAIDS. Four weeks ago, when I met with him for lunch, he expressed happiness over how far we had come but was equally concerned that the response was not keeping pace with the ambition we had set.

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Two decades ago, he characterized the impact of AIDS as the single greatest reversal in the history of human development, the greatest challenge of our generation. I recall his words as he accepted the UNAIDS Leadership Award in 2016. “Today, we see tremendous progress, but the fight is not over. We must continue the struggle and wake up each morning ready to fight and fight again, until we win.”

At UNAIDS, we promise that we will not rest until the AIDS epidemic has ended. We owe it to him.

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From the Editor

On doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result…

The anti-discrimination bill has been pending in Congress for 19 years now. There are anti-LGBTQI politicians hindering the bill’s passage; but it may also be time to REALISTICALLY look at the current handling of the ADB to ascertain what needs to be changed from within the LGBTQI community so we don’t wait for another 19 (or more) years…

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Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos from Unsplash.com

Insanity: Doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.

This witticism has been attributed to, among others, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain (though when Rita Mae Brown used it, she attributed it to the Narcotics Anonymous “Basic Text” released in November 1981). But no matter the “origin”, the thought remains – i.e. it’s silly (perhaps even idiotic) doing the same thing over and over and over again when we already know what the result will be.

This thought kept nagging at me in the way the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) is being handled – particularly why, after 19 years, it continues to languish in Congress (in either the Lower or Upper House, or in both – depending on the year being discussed).

Let’s state the “givens” first.

1. There will always be haters IN Congress.
In the past, in the House of Representatives, it was Rep. Bienvenido Abante (6th District, Manila City) who – this one is the most ironic of all – chaired the Committee on Human Rights; as well as the likes of Rep. Lito Atienza (of Buhay Partylist). Currently, and in the Senate, we have the likes of Sens. Tito Sotto, Manny Pacquiao and Joel Villanueva.

2. Numerous politicians use the LGBTQI community to advance personal interests.
For instance, Sotto’s “Eat Bulaga” earns a lot of money by parading members of the population he refuses to grant human rights (i.e. Super SiReyna and Suffer SiReyna). And Villanueva USED TO support LGBTQI human rights, back when he needed the votes; but when he already got that, the narrative changed…

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3. The haters can be “persuaded” to side with what’s right.
Even the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (somewhat) changed it’s tune: it is now anti-discrimination of LGBTQI human rights (as long as it will still be able to discriminate, of course).
Some forms of “persuasion” can be harder/harsher – e.g. take the moolah away from Pacquiao, and he starts “reaching out” to the people he considered “masahol pa sa hayop (worse than animals)”. Some efforts are done behind closed doors – e.g. trans Rep. Geraldine Roman reaching out to Atienza to allay his fears that the SOGIE Equality Bill has nothing to do with marriage equality (and discuss the “toilet issue”), so that he ended up supporting this.

Now here’s where the “argument” of this article enters the picture.

Largely, it seems that the current approaches to promote the ADB (seem to just) continue to be the same.

And so we continue to be failing.

Consider these:

1. The ADB development continues to be “exclusive”.
Even when the ADB was comprehensive and mentioned other minority sectors (like PWDs, seniors, Indigenous Peoples, religious minorities, people living with HIV, et cetera), no representatives of these sectors were invited in the development of the same ADB.
Forgive me for saying this, but this is typical of a “top-to-bottom” effort – i.e. when someone basically dictates what’s good for… everyone (without hearing from the supposed beneficiaries).

2. The constant “othering”. And this happens outside and inside the LGBTQI community.
“They” are the “enemies”; only “we” are the “heroes” (there were even pro-ADB factions who wanted to discredit Roman who helped pass the ADB in the Lower House in 2017 after only a year).
“They” don’t know what’s good for the people; only “we” know better what’s good for them.
“We” don’t have to engage “others”; “they” do nothing but complain and complicate the ADB.
“We” can’t support any other form of ADB; we just want “our” version to pass.
This is “our” ADB because we’ve backed this for so long.

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3. Efforts related to ADB tend to be elitist.
The “handlers” of ADB continue to not see that – yes – online presence is good, but if the people supposed to benefit from it do not even know of it, of what good it could do to them, then the “noise” created is just that, exactly: noise.
I say: Try going to some beauty parlor in Valenzuela, or Quiapo, or Tondo, or… just about everywhere in the Philippines. Ask the parlorista if he or she knows of the ADB. If he or she does, that’s GREAT; but if he or she doesn’t, then reconfigure plans to make sure that these people know of it.
I remember during the Pacquiao debacle, when Luzon-centric activists/“activists” were flown to Mindanao to meet with the boxer. The local LGBTQI community there were – basically – ignored, treated as inconsequential to the cause they’re supposed to be part of.

4. We can’t show the numbers.
Last June, “we” were so proud to have held a “Pride” event in Marikina that was attended by approximately 25,000 people (the claim).

Metro Manila’s LGBT gathering breaks attendance records, highlights ubiquity of LGBT people if not causes

But – get this – when a “unified political rally” was held to push for the ADB, we couldn’t even get 1/4 (or even 1/8!) of that number. And then another more recent “rally” was held in the Senate, again to push for the ADB, and the attendees did not even reach 50. We’re not “25,000 strong”; instead, it seems, and in a few words, we are “25,000 weak”.

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One of the continuing “sore” issue re ADB is its association with marriage equality. The truth is, many people – including politicians – continue to think it advocates marriage equality. If – after 19 years! – the ADB continues to be misunderstood even by people who are supposed to have access to copies of the ADB, then – let’s admit this much – the messaging is failing…

Nineteen years is far too long a time to wait for the passage of a law that will protect us from discrimination because of our SOGIE.

So yes, we thank everyone – from Etta Rosales to Kaka Bag-ao to Roman to Sen. Rosa Hontiveros, and so on and so forth – who are pushing the ADB (no matter the version) in Congress.

But we also have to REALISTICALLY look at ourselves (and those handling the ADB) and check why we continue to fail. Again, we have “enemies” on the outside, yes. But unless we see (and admit, and start doing something about it) that some of what needs to be changed are from within the LGBTQI community, then we may have to wait for another 19 (or more) years…

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