In 2012, after attending a forum on HIV after he was encouraged by LGBT friends, Stephen Christian Quilacio recalled starting seeing things with a different lens. “I noticed how discrimination remained rampant in Cagayan de Oro City,” he said, adding that while “it may not have been blatant, but its presence was there, so much so that it helped create the so-called ‘forced invisibility*’ of so many LGBT people.”
And so it was then when Stephen co-founded the Northern Mindanao AIDS Advocates (NorMAA), an organization that now chairs to help mainstream the issues of many people living with HIV (PLHIV) in Mindanao.
For Stephen, there remain many “key issues we should focus on in the LGBT community in the Philippines, including stigma and discrimination even within the LGBT community, and absence of laws that protect our rights (for instance, we don’t have gender recognition law, which makes it difficult particularly for transgender people to be their true selves in schools and workplaces). We all need to take these in deep contemplation,” he said.
Unfortunately, stressed Stephen, “at times we are our worst enemies. Most LGBT advocates are divided… as far as social class is concerned. This affects the priorities. And often, those who are at the lower end of the spectrum are left behind.”
Nonetheless, it remains inspiring that “more LGBT now raise their voices, refusing to keep silent to lead LGBT activism for many others in various parts of the country.”
Thus far, Stephen is proud for helping spotlight how HIV affects many in Northern Mindanao, particularly Cagayan de Oro City. NorMAA helmed, among others, Hulagway, a photo campaign that gave face to those who are infected and affected by HIV in that part of the country; as well as Lima, monologues that similarly tell the stories of people whose lives were touched by HIV. “We’ve also been hands on in helping people living with HIV (PLHIV),” said Stephen, “since we’ve been helping (them) access treatment, care and support, which continues to be challenging for so many in these parts of the country.”
At the end of the day, “let it be known that we’re doing our best to ensure that no one is left behind in accessing treatment, care and support,” Stephen said, adding that “access to healthcare should be a universal right, and since the issue of HIV is closely tied with the LGBT community, this ensures that we also fight for equal access to human rights for all.”
For now, “even as we continue eyeing lofty goals, we take all steps we can to achieve all that we can,” Stephen said. NorMAA continues to partner with other local LGBT and HIV organization “to continue giving those in Mindanao their voice. We know we’ll get somewhere; and we’re starting taking the steps ourselves,” Stephen ended.
*FORCED INVISIBILITY, IN THIS CONTEXT, MEANS THAT IN A SOCIETY THAT PUNISHES BEING LGBT, LGBT PEOPLE OPT TO STAY INVISIBLE, ELSE BE PUNISHED.