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7 B.S. (or at least half-truths) you hear about HIV in the Philippines

For Michael David C. Tan, “a big part of why the Philippines’ HIV situation doesn’t seem to be getting better is because of the continuing use of ‘lies’ (okay, fine, let’s just call them half-truths!) in dealing with HIV.” As such, it’s time to debunk long-held beliefs that aren’t helping deal with this issue.

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PHOTO TAKEN DURING AN OUTREACH PROGRAM TO PLHIV OF THE PROJECT RED RIBBON

In 1998, when Shola Luna started her antiretroviral therapy (ART), she had to take 30 tablets in the morning and another 30 tablets at night. It can be said that things are not as “bad” as they were in the early days of HIV. Nowadays, when compared to the early plight of the likes of Shola, many Filipinos living with HIV (for instance) need only take one antiretroviral (ARV) tablet a day.

But this is not to say that everything is now rosy, considering that: the country registers approximately 31 new HIV cases EVERY DAY; less than half of PLHIVs in the Philippines access ART (in June 2017, that’s 21,035 of the 45,023 total reported cases); and those getting infected with HIV are getting younger (again in June, half of 1,013 cases reported were from the 25-34 year age group while 32% were youth aged 15-24 years).

I advance the position that a big part of why the Philippines’ HIV situation doesn’t seem to be getting better is because of the continuing use of “lies” (okay, fine, let’s just call them half-truths!) in dealing with HIV.

1. There’s a law that protects persons living with HIV

Yes, we have RA 8504, which – aside from mandating efforts to stop the spread of HIV in the Philippines – actually offers SOME (that’s in CAPS for emphasis) protection against discrimination of PLHIVs.
BUT (again in CAPS, for emphasis) the law itself is FLAWED, not to mention that having this law doesn’t mean it is actually being properly implemented.

Issues with it being flawed include: not allowing minors to get tested for HIV sans parental/guardian’s consent, even if the age of those getting infected in the Philippines are getting younger; only medical professionals who disclose one’s HIV status is punishable; lack of PLHIV representation in the national body (that’s the Philippine National AIDS Council) that is also supposed to look after their issues; and lack of clarity re bodies responsible re implementation (or non-implementation) of the law’s mandates (for instance, insurance companies still discriminate sans sanctions).

Issues with implementation are numerous, including: abundance of agencies that mandate HIV testing even if this is against the law – e.g. some are government offices and employment companies; absence of bodies PLHIVs can actually approach if/when violations happen; non-formation of Local AIDS Councils in local government units (with the devolving of healthcare to local governments); and so on…
So consider having a law as a good thing; but that it’s largely toothless makes it… largely inadequate.

HIV stigma and discrimination and official indifference?

2. Social media caused the surge of HIV

Eric Tayag of the Department of Health was one of the earliest to stress that easy access to social media networks (online and app-based, like Grindr, PlanetRomeo, Blued and even the likes of Facebook and Twitter) helped cause the surge of HIV infections in the country.

I’d say this is true… BUT only to the extent that technology made hooking up easier (and with more sexual partners, one’s risk of exposing oneself to STIs increases).

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I contend, nonetheless, that this is also a questionable blanket statement because even if you are not into monogamy but practice safer sex, your risk of getting infected may be lower than someone who is in a monogamous relationship but: A) does not know his/her HIV status; B) have had unsafe sex prior to the relationship he/she has now; or – if one is HIV+ – C) has issues with his/her meds so his/her VL is in doubt.

In the end, educating people on how to stay negative (or if positive, how they won’t infect others) is the BETTER approach, instead of the admittedly catchier extensive claim of the Internet as (solely) blame-worthy for the spread of HIV.

3. Most affected by HIV are men who have sex with men (MSM)

Many people will not necessarily agree with me here; and they have every right opposing me. After all, data shows that the population most affected by HIV in the Philippines involves MSM. For instance, in June 2017, of the 1,013 Filipinos who were newly infected with HIV, most (93%) were male.

BUT for those willing to hear me out, my position is largely based on anecdotes we’ve encountered while interviewing (and even attending training) for articles developed for Outrage Magazine.

For instance, I have spoken with HIV counselors in Cagayan de Oro City and in Davao City who alleged that they were blatantly told by agencies implementing HIV-related programs in their localities to “only test MSM.” I personally attended a government-sanctioned training (to give community-based HIV testing) where the participants were told to “only use the rapid test kit to MSM, and NOT women (even if these women wanted to get tested)”. We also heard of populations (e.g. women in prison) who want to get tested, but aren’t tested.

So YES, existing figures show that MSM “drive” the spread of HIV in the Philippines. But I’d argue that THIS DOES NOT SHOW THE WHOLE PICTURE.

On this, note that we refer to the key affected population as “men who have sex with men”. Meaning, these are men who are not necessarily gay or bi, but are hetero-identifying men who just happen to have (had) sex with other men (e.g. DOTA boys, sex workers, masseurs who give extra service). Any other time, they will (also) have sex with women (they’re hetero, after all). So that if they have HIV, they may also infect these women they have sex with. Now, if we don’t test women (particularly those who want to get tested), our efforts are lacking…

4. Antiretroviral medicine is free

You’d often hear NGO workers, and EVEN GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS claim that Filipinos should get tested to know their HIV status because – if they turn out to be positive – meds are given out for free anyway.

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Let’s call this a B.S.

Because the general rule is for a PLHIV to pay PhilHealth (if voluntary, this totals to P2,400 per year) first before he/she can get the ART. Specifically, in the Philippines, the treatment, care and support received by most people living with HIV (PLHIVs) are covered by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation’s (PhilHealth) Outpatient HIV/AIDS Treatment (OHAT) Package. To those who are enrolled in PhilHealth, P30,000 is allocated per PLHIV per year, or P7,500 every quarter.

There are “exceptions” – e.g. for some, their fees are paid by local governments (say the mayor), NGOs, faith-based organizations, et cetera. But again, as a general rule, payment happened before the service (including the meds) is accessed. Meaning, you have to first cough up the money to access the life-saving meds (and HIV-related services).

This is important to point out here because:

A) Telling people outright that the meds are ALL FREE is a lie; and

B) Many PLHIVs consider themselves “lucky” for being “served” by treatment hubs, when the fact of the matter is that they paid for that “service” and therefore have every right to complain if that same service sucks.

5. PrEP is now available in the Philippines

Here, it’s a yes and no.

YES because it is being piloted, with a very select few chosen for the pilot.

So NO, too, because IT STILL ISN’T AVAILABLE FOR EVERYONE WHO WANTS/NEEDS IT (e.g. opposite sex couple who want to get pregnant, and those in serodifferent relationships). So if you’re a fisherman or a farmer somewhere in Visayas or Mindanao (and yes, there have been reported cases of HIV infection in these populations!), PrEP isn’t available for you (though for that matter, so is ARV).

What’s ironically funny for me is this: PrEP was already proven to be effective, so why the continuing delay in just rolling it out in the Philippines?

As a side note here: Do you know that even post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is still not (widely) available in the Philippines?

6. There’s no money for HIV

A common message we hear in HIV advocacy is that there’s not enough money to deal with a burgeoning problem.

I say: Yeah, right!

When we have NGO workers who: A) get to travel the world (for leisure at that!) using (most of) the money supposed to benefit people living with HIV; B) can afford to buy high-end gadgets (e.g. Apple Watch, think of the latest iPhone units, including iPhone X) and luxury goods (e.g. LV, Coach, et cetera) from a “low” salary; C) can afford to pay for cosmetic surgery from the same “low” salary; D) can buy properties (e.g. car/s and condos); and E) have “meetings” in – say – Boracay (and then present the same as an “achievement” to donor agencies), then we know THERE IS MONEY if not FOR, then at least IN HIV.

The emphasis, therefore, is NOT on whether there is money; but on WHERE THE MONEY GOES.
Of course, it’s easy to blame the government’s continuing seeming non-focus on HIV (e.g. remember those ARV procurement issues that happened because of non-payment of taxes?).

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But I’d also argue that part of the problem are some donor agencies that partner only with “big” NGOs, and then solely base indicators of “success” on reports given to them, as if these can’t be (or aren’t) faked.

For instance, there are many (admittedly smaller) HIV-centric NGOs in the Philippines that DO NOT HAVE MONEY to implement their projects, and yet there are many (bigger) non-HIV NGOs that get funds to run HIV-specific projects. The main difference is the “established systems” (e.g. accounting) of the bigger NGOs. A common practice is, therefore, for the bigger NGOs to get the money, and then hire (and pay less) the smaller NGOs to implement the projects for them. In a way, they become the “middleman” who gets “cut” not necessarily because they know what they’re doing, but solely for holding the power of the purse…

If these donor agencies really wanna help, I’d say EMPOWER THE SMALLER NGOs/CBOs by giving them the money (including to train their people to become competitive with the bigger NGOs) and JUST GET RID OF THE (profiteering) “middlemen”…

Another senseless indicator of success, for me, is the “noise” made in social media. For instance, I’ve attended a presscon of a well-funded “effort” to encourage people to get tested for HIV by using celebrities. The budget went to these celebrities (some even had the gall to complain that they were getting “peanuts” from the project), the photographers/videographers, PR firm, et cetera. After the project (and the money was spent), actually counting people who got tested because of the effort was sidelined because, as was said, “that’s not an indicator for success”.

Again, to emphasize, there is money for HIV. It just isn’t necessarily getting spent where it ought to be.

7. The HIV “community” is unified – NOT!

When somebody from the HIV community claims to speak for the entire HIV community, he/she is bullshitting you. This includes “speaking on behalf of the HIV community in amending RA 8504”, or giving citations to very select people who are supposed to have helped HIV advocacy in the Philippines (and even if their roles in HIV advocacy are questionable).

Remember that study about thinking twice before talking about the “LGBT community”? Yes, there would be similarities in the experiences (e.g. the need for ARV). But the same principle holds true here – i.e. this community is so diverse that speaking for it AS A WHOLE is not only erroneous, but ill-advised.

The first step to doing something about anything is acknowledging the truths (and lies, for that matter) about it. And so for me, here are the BASIC truths/half-truths/lies we need to tackle when discussing HIV in the Philippines…

The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Though he grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City in Maguindanao), even attending Roman Catholic schools there, he "really, really came out in Sydney," he says, so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing and a developed world". Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

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Haircut battleground

FACT: A number of trans students fail to complete schooling because of strict implementation of uniform policies that affect their gender identity and expression. School officials claim they’re simply implementing (discriminatory) policies; while activists claim human rights violation. And while the discussions happen, the students are caught in the middle, who – in the end – really just want to finish schooling while being true to oneself.

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Photo by Mohamed Nohassi from Unsplash.com

In July 2018, Jenny* (not her real name), a transgender Senior High School (SHS) student from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) was allegedly told to report to the principal’s office for the first time.

Pinatawag ako nung principal, tapos she told me that ano… kapag hindi ako nagpagupit until tomorrow morning, ganon, papalabasin niya ako ng PUP (I was told to report to the principal’s office, and there, she told me to get a haircut the next day, or risk getting asked to leave PUP),” she recalled to Outrage Magazine.

Jenny got a haircut this January. This had to be done as a prerequisite when she applied for graduation. But she said that she was promised that “after that, (I) won’t have to cut my hair again when I process my papers in the future.”

Jenny said that the experience affected her psychologically; because of this, she wasn’t able to go to school for two days. And with the eventual haircut, Jenny’s gender expression was also dictated by another, affecting her sense of self.

But in an interview with Dr. Minna L. Comuyog, PUP-SHS principal, she denied that she threatened any student, and that neither her office nor PUP-SHS’s registrar’s office denied any student of transaction or that their documents will be held if they won’t cut their hair.

Comuyog said that, in fact, PUP-SHS has a “No Discrimination Policy”, which is implemented in the entire PUP system (which includes SHS).

Hindi namin ina-identify ‘yung mga estudyante namin na bading ‘to, tomboy ‘to. Basta when they come here, estudyante namin sila (We don’t separately identify students as ‘He’s gay, she’s a lesbian’. For us, when they come here, they’re all students),” she said.

Comuyog added: “As a teacher, ang aking training ay students sila (They are students). They have their unique personalit(ies) and we adjust our lessons to their needs. So kahit anong mga bata ang dumating sa amin (So no matter what kind of student they are), we accept them for who they are.”

But notwithstanding the “No Discrimination Policy”, Comuyog believes that the haircut policy should be implemented and be observed by all students (in this case, particularly those under her care; i.e. PUP-SHS).

Comuyog claimed that she is unaware of the existence of transgender students in PUP-SHS; thus of transgender students being forced to cut their hair due to the school’s haircut policy. “It’s something na (that is) not known to me,” she said.

But Comuyog added that she looks at the students using the gender binary dictated by the assigned sex at birth – i.e. “I look at them as male, female, ganon ang classification nila (that’s how I classify them).” And so she believes that even if a student is a transgender woman, this student will still be mandated to get a haircut befitting those assigned male at birth (that is, she still won’t be allowed to have long hair, which is deemed socially acceptable only for those assigned female at birth).

On the handling of students who are transgender women (or those assigned male at birth) and with long hair, Comuyog said that she “normally asks” these students “what they needed to change or do.” As part of her training as a teacher, she lets the students think. And in this case, it is the students who often end up saying that it is their hair that they should change.

NON-DISCRIMINATION AS A POLICY

The Department of Education (DepEd) actually has pro-LGBTQIA policies, which – in December 2018 – it reiterated via a statement reminding “all public and private Kindergarten, elementary, and secondary schools of the necessity and importance of adopting and enforcing anti-bullying policies in their respective institutions.”

Various (specific) policies particularly touch on non-discrimination (including of LGBTQIA students).

DepEd Order No. 40, series 2012, or the “DepEd Child Protection Policy,” institutionalized zero tolerance against any form of violence against the child and provided for the establishment of a Child Protection Committee (CPC) in all public and private schools.

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DepEd Order No. 55, series 2013 (DO 55 s. 2013), or the “Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of Republic Act No. 10627 (R.A. 10627) Otherwise Known as the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013,” requires all public and private schools to submit a copy of their child protection or anti-bullying policy to the Division Office.

Meanwhile, Rule IV of DO 55 s. 2013 underscores that “the bullying prevention program in schools shall be comprehensive and multifaceted, and shall involve all education stakeholders and personnel. Schools shall develop intervention strategies like counseling, life skills training, education and other activities that will enhance the psychological, emotional and psychosocial well-being of victims, bullies, and other parties who may be affected by the bullying incident.”

Particularly pertaining the uniform policy (which touches on the haircut policy), DepEd released in 2008 DepEd Order No. 46, s. 2008, guidelines on “proper school attire”. It stated that “while the general policy is that the wearing of a school uniform shall not be required in public schools (as embodied in DepEd Order No. 45 s. 2008), it is necessary to provide guidance on what constitutes proper school attire.”

The following principles are offered as a guide:

  1. A student’s basic right to go to school, study and learn is of paramount importance and should be respected and promoted at all times.
  2. A student’s attire should reflect respect for the school as an institution for learning.
  3. A student’s attire should not become a cause for discrimination particularly for students belonging to a lower socio-economic status.
  4. Promoting physical hygiene and proper school decorum is part of the teaching- learning process in schools, thus a student’s attire and physical appearance should manifest learnings from this process.

Nowhere in the DepEd Order No. 46, s. 2008 was “proper” haircut discussed.

According to PUP Kasarianlan’s Watson Vergara, the haircut policy implemented in schools is a form of oppression. “Not only the right of the student to express oneself was trampled, but the student’s right to education was put on line.”
Photo by Cassidy Kelley from Unsplash.com

Having policies and actually implementing them are – however, and also – two different things.

In 2015, for instance, a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report observed that only 38% of schools submitted child protection or anti-bullying policies in 2013, and the “low rate of submission has been attributed to a low level of awareness of requirements of the Act and weak monitoring of compliance.”

Releasing a report in 2017, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) also touched on the uniform policies (including forcing particularly transgender women to get haircuts) and stated that “students who are transgender or do not identify as their sex assigned at birth face especially pervasive discrimination as a result of uniform and hair-length policies and other gendered restrictions.” This is made more apparent because “right to free expression of students is violated when schools limit displays of same-sex affection or gender expression solely for LGBTQIA youth” – meaning, the policies are used differently for them to make them tow some lines.

Also, according to Watson Vergara, who heads PUP Kasarianlan, the official student organization for people with diverse SOGIE in PUP, even anti-discriminatory policies (such as DepEd’s) fail to take into consideration the power dynamics within educational institutions.

Vergara said that they know of students who asked for help from PUP Kasarianlan, claiming that they feel threatened that if they won’t cut their hair, then their names will be taken out of the list of graduating students. Non-compliance may also be seen as insubordination, which means that these students won’t be given a good moral certificate (which is needed when enrolling in college/university), or will even be kicked out of PUP.

PUP Kasarianlan also documented other cases like Jenny’s – e.g. in one case, a student claimed that she was kept in an office, prohibited to go out unless she signs a statement stipulating her to cut her hair.

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Syempre (Of course), the kid, crying, shaking and afraid, signed the paper. Kasi wala siyang (Because she did not have a) choice, she wants to go out,” Vergara said.

Vergara is aware that there are people who may see this as a non-issue – i.e. it’s “just hair.”

But PUP Kasarianlan also received stories of transgender students who refused to have their graduation photos taken, and of one transgender student who “can’t do homework or even eat properly because of this (traumatizing experience).”

For Vergara, this is a form of oppression. “Not only the right of the student to express oneself was trampled, but the student’s right to education was put on line.”

For Kate Montecarlo Cordova, if uniform is really needed, then schools should implement gender neutral school uniforms (e.g. gender neutral or unisex design and cut of school uniforms, and no prescribed length of hair for those assigned male at birth). Or, simply, “let the students wear uniforms based on their sense of being,”
Photo by Chen Feng from Unsplash.com

DETRACTING FROM SENSE OF SELF

According to Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founder of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines (ATP), “One of the identified positive benefits of school uniform is to promote a “sense of community” (which actually refers to classification or clustering). But this can be detrimental to transgender students if not properly managed/implemented for this can deprive their self-expression, their sense of identity, their authenticity.”

Cordova added that “the imposition of school uniform with strict observance to the heteronormative gender binary can be an utter threat to transgender students while serving a meaningless purpose to learning.”

There are somewhat practical efforts that can be done.

For one, Cordova suggested that if uniform is really needed, then schools should implement gender neutral school uniforms (e.g. gender neutral or unisex design and cut of school uniforms, and no prescribed length of hair for those assigned male at birth). Or, simply, “let the students wear uniforms based on their sense of being,” Cordova said.

Secondly, Cordova said that it is important for any educational institution to “undergo extensive trainings, workshops and lectures not just about gender sensitivity but also, specifically, about transgender issues to understand the complexities of transgender human rights and health needs.”

And thirdly, Cordova suggests for transgender students to “rightfully assert and claim their rights to exist and learn by standing up to what is just and righteous to their authentic self by: 1. Being knowledgeable of their rights, 2. Being vocal about their identity, and 3. Being brave to socially present their sense of self.”

STARTING THE DISCUSSIONS

Back in PUP-SHS, the school principal Comuyog thinks that high school students are “confused” because they can see some transgender college students grow their hair, and they may also want to do the same. While she acknowledges how some of the SHS students want to “emulate” the college students, she also said that this isn’t necessarily possible because of “certain policies”.

Particularly, Comuyog noted PUP-SHS’s Code of Conduct that highlights (in Section 3) that “every student shall dress up according to the conventions of decency and proper grooming… dyan nakapaloob ang haircut for male and hairstyle for female.”

Section 3 of the Code of Conduct specifically states: “Every PUP student shall dress up according to the conventions of decency and proper grooming.

Also, to wit:

3.1 – Every PUP Senior High student is expected to demonstrate personal grooming standards of cleanliness and to wear the prescribed uniform while inside the school premises, during educational exposures or work immersion, and during official off-campus events.

3.2 – Students must observe the following provisions when wearing the prescribed school uniform:

3.2.1 – Uniforms should be kept buttoned and properly worn;
3.2.2 – School ID must be worn at all times within the school premises;
3.2.3 – The hairstyle for female should be simple and well kept, while the acceptable haircut for male must be off the eyebrows and above the collar line (EMPHASIS OURS);
3.2.4 – Moustache and side beards are not allowed;
3.2.5 – Hair color may be allowed provided that it is not vulgar.

The Code of Conduct does not discuss SOGIE (and implications to the uniform policy), but enforce these requirements based on assigned sex at birth.

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Comuyog quipped that it is only now that the said (haircut) policy is becoming an issue. And here, she also holds accountable some educators.

Yun namang teacher nila, napapabayaan sila kaya if there is a person na mas liable, itong mga teacher kasi ina-allow nila. Kasi may teacher din tayong mahaba ang buhok, may teacher tayong nakatali ang buhok. ‘Yun ang nakikita nitong mga bata (There are teachers who just let their students be, so if there’s someone liable, it’s the teacher who allows this. This may also be because some teachers assigned male at birth grow their hair long. And this is what these students see),” Comuyog said.

But – again – since there aren’t any students who talked to her and said that she is a transgender person, Comuyog said that she remains “unaware of this.” And that “just in case that she will be aware” of this, then she will have to consider the individual student’s situation.

For Professor Earl Guzman, SHS and college professor, and an open member of the LGBTQIA community, forcing the students to cut their hair, especially if they identify as gay or transgender, is abuse. “Kasi itong mga taong ‘to, itong mga kabataang ito, yung buhok nila (These kids’ hair) and how they present themselves are part of their gender identity,” he said.

Guzman added that teaching the students how to be gender sensitive yet confining them in the same heteronormative stereotypes, same heteronormative ways of expressing themselves, “kind of defeats its purpose.”

Tayo as PUPians (Products of PUP), we’re so proud of being at the frontier of fighting for sexual equality. Eh eto nga, ginigipit natin ngayon (And now we’re pressuring these students to conform). It all makes us look like hypocrites,” Guzman said.

For Guzman, the principal should listen to the students as well because what is happening most of the time is that teachers become just enforcers of rules or policies, and teachers owe it to the students to listen to them.

Anong klaseng lesson kasi ‘yung tinuturo natin sa students kapag ganon (What kind of lesson are we teaching the students), when we refuse to hear them out? Are we telling them that we know better than them? May mga pagkakataon na (There are times when) we know better than them pero kasi (but also) we’re not the ones living their lives right now, it’s them,” he said. “Maybe we should take their experiences into account; maybe we should listen to what they have to say. Kasi hindi puwedeng ano (Because the case shouldn’t be)… in our desire to enforce obedience, ang nangyayari ay (what happens is we create) blind obedience.”

For his part, PUP Kasarianlan head Vergara said that this kind of discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA community also happens in other schools – i.e. this goes beyond PUP-SHS.

In “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippines Country Report” – written by Michael David C. Tan for USAID and UNDP – it was reported that forcing transgender women to get haircuts before allowing them to access education is one of the common anti-LGBTQIA policies still common in the Philippines, along with: the conduct of “masculinity tests” (where effeminate students had to “prove” they were “man enough” to be allowed to enroll, or stay in school) conducted by some schools, and instances when LGBTQIA students were made to sign “contracts” to ensure they did not express their sexual orientation or gender identity while going to school.

But Watson also acknowledges that – sadly – they can only do what little help they can.

In 2017, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that “students who are transgender or do not identify as their sex assigned at birth face experience especially pervasive discrimination as a result of uniform and hair-length policies and other gendered restrictions.”
Photo by Ryan Tauss from Unsplash.com

In the end, Guzman hopes that this will be settled, with all parties involved discussing this. “Let’s be civilized. Let’s add something positive to the discourse. ‘Wag nating gawing (Let’s not turn the issue into an) excuse para siraan ‘yung mga bagay, tao, o policy na hindi naman natin dapat siraan (to destroy people or policies that need not be destroyed). And then, let’s come to an agreement. I think we should all try to understand where everyone is coming from,” Guzman said.

And while the discussions happen, the likes of Jenny are caught in the middle, who – in the end – really just want to finish schooling while being true to oneself.

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#KaraniwangLGBT

Lesbian Lumad

What is it like to be a lesbian and also a part of an indigenous group? For Teng Calimpang, the Tagbawa ethnic group of people at the foot of Mt. Apo accepted her, so she hopes other lesbian Lumads live good lives both as LGBTQIA community members and as Lumads.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Dili lisod mag-lesbian ka diri kay tanan diri murag paryente lang nako, mga pinsan lang (It isn’t hard to be a lesbian here because everyone here is just like a relative, just like my cousins),” Teng Calimpang, who is from Meohao at the foot of Mt. Apo, said. “Tanan pud mga tawo nakabalo kung kinsa ko ug unsa ko (People here also know who I am and what I am).”

Teng’s family is from the Tagbawa Manobo ethic group of people. Originally from Bansalan, her mother met her father in Meohao, where they decided to eventually settle. Also because of being based here, Teng is fluent in Bagobo Diangan, spoken by another ethnic group of people particularly at the foot of Mt. Apo.

At least in her experience, being a lesbian is a non-issue for her people (Tagbawa Manobo), as well as for her “adopted” Bagobo Diangan family.

Teng was 10 when she recognized her “otherness”; she did not like wearing girls’ clothes, and she preferred doing things that boys do. At 15, “diha na nako napansin nga… na-feel na nako nga dili gyud nako ma-love ang boy (I noticed that I was not attracted to members of the opposite sex).” Teng said that “babae ang mugawas sa akoang heart ba (I was attracted also to women).”

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Teng told her family about “ang tinuod (the truth).” And “okay lang sa ilaha. Tanggap gyud ko nila (it’s fine with them. They accepted me as a lesbian).”

Now 48, Teng works for Dole Phils. (Stanfilco Division). After work, she is also a local healer, giving “hilot (traditional massage)” to those who seek her out for the same.

Teng credits her “lolo (grandfather)” for her gift to heal.

She was 15 when she was “taught” how to “help people”; she dreamt her then-deceased grandfather show her how to do so, serving as a passing-of-the-torch to heal others.

Teng said that there are two kinds of people who help – one who expects to be grandly paid for the effort, and one who doesn’t. “Donation, okay lang sa ako-a (I’m okay with just receiving donations),” she said, adding that it already makes her happy that “nakatabang ko sa ilahang kinahanglan sa lawas (at least I’ve helped people with their needs).”

Teng had a heterosexual-identifying GF in the past; but that relationship didn’t last. She noted that there are some women who just want to be financially supported; they leave their partners when they have gotten what they wanted, or if their partner can’t offer them what they really want (i.e. wealth). “Pait kaayo ba (This makes being lesbian hard).”

Now single, Teng has other lesbian friends, and not all of them from Lumad communities. But her friends are now based overseas, where they work. She admitted that it can be lonely at times, but that technology (e.g. social networking sites) help alleviate the loneliness since she can at least chat with them even if they’re apart.

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Teng also has an adopted child, given to her when the child was only a month old. She is now 18.

Lisud gyud (sa sinugdanan) kay syempre ang acting nimo is as a boy, so nalisdan ko pagpa-dako niya (It was hard for me to raise her at first because I am masculine/not stereotypically motherly),” Teng said. “But I gradually learned how to properly raise her.”

To other lesbians who may also belong to Lumad communities, Teng said: “Kung unsa gyud sila sa ilang panginabuhi, ipadayun na nila (Continue living your true selves in living a good life).”

And in the end, “learn from me as I say that you can be good people as lesbians.”

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All hail the beauty queen

A glimpse into the life of a trans woman beauty pageant enthusiast, Ms Mandy Madrigal of Transpinay of Antipolo Organization.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

“I feel accepted.”

That, said Mandy Madrigal, is the main appeal of joining beauty pageants.

“I feel so loved when I join pageants. Especially when people clap for us, cheer for us. And when you win… it (just) feels different.”

FINDING ACCEPTANCE

Assigned male at birth, Mandy was in primary school when her father asked her if “I was a boy or a girl”. That question scared her, she admitted, because – as the only boy among six kids – she thought she did not really have “any choice”. “So I answered my father, ‘I am a boy’.”

But Mandy’s father asked her the same question again; and this time, “I said, yes, I am gay.”

No, Mandy is NOT gay; she is a transpinay, and a straight one at that. But the misconceptions about the binary remains – i.e. in this case, she is associated with being gay mainly because she did not identify with the sex assigned her at birth.

In a way, Mandy said she’s lucky because “I believe he (my father) accepted (me) with his whole heart.”

The rest of her family did, too.

Though – speaking realistically – Mandy said this may be abetted by her “contributions” to the family. “Hindi naman aka basta naging bakla lang (I’m not a ’typical’ gay person),” she said, “na naglalandi lang o sumasali lang ng pageant (who just flirts, or just joins beauty pageants). Instead, Mandy provides financial support to her family by – among others – selling RTW clothes and beauty products. In fact, some of her winnings also go to the family’s coffers. By helping provide them with what they need, “it’s easy for them to accept me as a transgender woman.”

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Growing up, Mandy realized that while “makakapagsinungaling ka sa ibang tao, pero sarili mo, hindi mo maloloko. Kaya mas magandang tanggapin mo ang sarili mo para matanggap ka ng ibang tao (you may be able to lie to others about who you really are, but you can’t lie to yourself. So it’s better to accept your true self so that others will be able to accept you too).”

Mandy was “introduced” to beauty pageants when she was 13 or 14. At that time, a friend asked her to join a pageant; and “I won first runner up.” She never looked backed since, even – at one time – earning as much as P20,000 after winning a title. Like many regular beauconeras (beauty pageant participants), she also heads to distant provinces to compete, largely because – according to her – prizes in provincial competitions tend to be higher. The prize money earned helps one buy more paraphernalia for the next pageants, and – in Mandy’s case – also helps support her family.

Generally speaking, Mandy Madrigal said that “ang tunay na queen ay may malaking puso (a real queen has a big heart).”

FORMING A FAMILY

Beauty pageants are competitions, yes; but for Mandy, pageants also allow the candidates to form bonds as they get close to each other. Pageants, she said, can be a way “na maging close kami, magkaroon ng magagandang bonding… at magkakilala kami (for us to be close, to bond and get to know the others better).”

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Pageants can be costly, Mandy admitted – for instance, “you have to invest,” she said, adding that a candidate needs to be able to provide for herself (instead of just always renting) costumes, swimsuits, casual wear, gowns, and so on.

In a way, therefore, having people who believe in you helps. In Mandy’s case, for instance, a lot of people helped (by providing necessities she needs) because “naniniwala sila na I am a queen inside and out,” she smiled.

But this support can also rack the nerves, particularly when people expect one to win (particularly because of the support given).

One will not always win, of course; and this doesn’t always give one good feelings. In 2017, for instance, Mandy joined Queen of Antipolo, and – after failing to win a crown – she said many people told her she should have won the title, or at least placed among the runners-up. “naguluhan ang utak ko (That confused me),” she said. “‘Bakit ako ang gusto ninyong manalo?’ But that’s when I realized na marami ako na-i-inspire na tao dahil marami nagtitiwala sa akin (I ask, ‘Why do you want me to win?’ But that’s when I realized that I inspire a lot of people, which is why they count on me).”

This gives her confidence; enough to deal with the nervousness that will also allow her to just enjoy any pageant she joins.

A TIME TO SHINE

Mandy believes pageants can help LGBTQI people by providing them a platform to showcase to non-LGBTQI people why “hindi tayo dapat husgahan (we should not be judged).”

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Generally speaking, Mandy said that “ang tunay na queen ay may malaking puso (a real queen has a big heart).”

And she knows that not every pageant is good for every contestant. There will be pageants where you will be crowned the queen, she said, just as there will be pageants where you will lose. But over and above the winning and losing, note “what’s most important: that there’s a lot of people who supported you in a (certain) pageant.”

At the end of the day, “sa lahat ng patimpalak, pagkatandaan natin na merong nananalo at may natatalo. Depende na lang yan sa araw mo. Kung ikaw ay nakatadhanang manalo ay mananalo ka; kung nakatadhanang matalo ay matatalo ka talaga. Yun lang yun. Isipin mo na lang na meron pang araw na darating na mas maganda para sa iyo (in all competitions, remember that there will always be a winner and a loser. It all depends on your luck for the day. If you are fated to win, you will win; if you are fated to lose, you will lose. That’s that. But still remember – even when you lose – that there will always come a day that will be great for you).”

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Paolo, naked

Paolo Dumlao, a pansexual Filipino performance artist, uses his naked body as a canvas, believing that art can help the people – both the artist and those who see the artworks. “It makes people think, ask… and feel,” he said, all relevant because “we’re not robots; we’re humans.”

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Four years ago, Paolo Dumlao, a pansexual Filipino, did his first performance art “as mema lang (out of whim),” he said. At that time, he just wanted to “tick off something from my bucket list.” But he fell in love with the form, and so stayed with it.

Here’s the thing: In his performances, Paolo is always without clothes since he is a nude artist.

There is reason behind this, he said. “It’s not because it’s something different, or because it’s something new since it’s been done before… but because for me, the feeling (when one is nude) is very vulnerable, and I think it’s my most vulnerable form, and I want to be in that state when I perform so I can emphasize with people.”

To be clear, Paolo is not a performing artist; instead, he is a performance artist.

Performance art is different from performing arts. With the latter, “you are portraying a character that is not you. So you’re using your body as a canvas to create another character. When it comes to performance art, you yourself are the character, and the message you relay is different outside of the text,” he said. “At least that’s what I am doing.”

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Paolo noted that there are people who see performances of nude artists as sexual, and he said that this is not necessarily true.

On the one hand, just because one is naked doesn’t mean the piece is sexual, as “it could be pure, it could be wholesome (even if the performer is not clothed). And I am able to show these (through my performances), and that (things aren’t) just black and white.”

And so, it is worth stressing, “it is not pornography; I am not selling my body, I am just using my body as canvas for my art.”

Paolo said that malice needs to be removed when viewing particularly his performances – i.e. “We don’t give malice when seeing a naked child, so why give malice when seeing a naked adult?” This is particularly true when “they’re not doing anything malicious or anything sexual.”

On the other hand, Paolo said with emphasis, even if the piece is also sexual, it’s not like there’s something wrong with that. “We’re all different; sensuality is different for everyone, just as sexuality is different for everyone. You can be modest and that empowers you, and that’s fine. You could be very, very promiscuous and very sexual, and that empowers you, and that’s fine, too. As long as you’re responsible with yourself, you’re responsible when dealing with other people, and you know for a fact you’re not stepping on other people’s toes.”

Though Paolo has been inspired by various artists, his main inspiration are the people he deals with while performing. “My interaction creates an experience for me, and from that experience, I get inspired to make more art,” he said.

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Paolo said he gets two reactions when he performs. For one, there are people who get “the vulnerability,” he said. And, secondly, “there are times when (people) get intimidated.” But with performance art, “your art is effective when you get a reaction, once it creates discourse.” And so for Paolo, the piece still works “even if only one person gets it.”

There are members of his family who disapprove of what he does, though Paolo said this is largely due to security/safety issues – e.g. he could get harassed, or he could be accused of harassing and could get in trouble for this. But Paolo said that he is actually cautious when planning performances, making sure that – yes – he does so in a safe space where he won’t be harassed, and only in contexts where he won’t knowingly end up harassing people.

For those who oversimplify what he’s doing as “just getting naked”, Paolo said performing is actually very draining, not just mentally but also physically. Which is why “I look after my body,” he said, “because I use my body as my canvas and I need to take care of it. I always make sure I am ready for it; it’s strenuous.”

If there’s one lesson his performances taught him, it’s that “we share similar stories,” Paolo said. “We share similar pain, we share similar happiness or success… The levels may be different on how we deal with these, but they’re similar.”

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And after his performances, if there is one thing he wants those who see him to take away from seeing him, it’s the ability to “ask questions,” Paolo said. “Never be afraid to ask questions. It’s a start of being curious, of interacting with other people. So if possible, ask all the questions you can ask. It’s a way to grow as a person.”

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Worsening #ARVshortage in the Phl?

On Jan. 9, the Philippines gained a new HIV and AIDS law that is supposed to better the lives of Filipinos living with HIV. But many in the HIV community mark this day with distress, largely because of the worsening ARV shortage.

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In September 2018, Xander (not his real name; anonymity requested), a Filipino living with HIV, claimed that he was told by the person working in the pharmacy of his hub to “consume already-expired medicines (the three-in-one tablet of Lamivudine/Tenofovir/Efavirenz)”, and that “it is “still good for three months after the expiration date.”

Since dealing with ARV-related issue is not new to him (it happened to him in the last quarter of 2013), he complained and was given newer meds. Noticeably, “those who didn’t complain – like I did – ended up using the expired meds,” he said.

Xander can only recall how he earlier lamented – again in 2013 – that the ARV shortage will happen again, particularly considering the continuing denial of the Department of Health (DOH) about this issue.

TAINTED ‘SUCCESS’

The 9th of January is supposed to be a happy day particularly for Filipinos living with HIV and their advocates. On that day, the newly-signed Republic Act 11166 or the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act was released after it was signed into law by Pres. Rodrigo Roa Duterte. By replacing the 20-year-old Republic Act 8504 or the Philippine National AIDS and Control Act of 1998, this new law is supposed to boost the government’s response to HIV and AIDS by making health services for HIV and AIDS more accessible to Filipinos.

But many in the HIV community mark this day with distress, largely because of the worsening ARV shortage, which is not helped by the denial of the issue by various heads of offices – including government officials, as well as those helming treatment hubs/facilities and even select non-government organizations (NGOs).

In an unsigned statement (as if so that no one can be “chased” to be held accountable for the same statement), the DOH seemed to belittle the issue by outright claiming that there’s an ‘alleged’ shortage of ARVs; even as it also stated that they take the issue of HIV infection in the country seriously. Part of this is to take “great steps to ensure that access for HIV treatments are available for those who are diagnosed with HIV.”

The DOH statement added:
“As of October 2018, we have enrolled 32,224 persons living with HIV for treatment with ARV such as Nevirapine, Lamivudine/Tenofovir. The DOH has been providing free ARV to Filipinos living with HIV through our HIV treatment hubs.
“Based on our records, there are 3,200 registered PLHIV who are on Nevirapine and 1,791 PLHIV on Lamivudine/Tenofovir, as of December last year.

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That just about half of the total PLHIVs in the Philippines use ARVs is worth noting, even if it’s another issue altogether.

But the mention of these two meds/cocktails is important because the complaints reaching – among others – Outrage Magazine, Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center) other and HIV-related community-based organizations/non-government organizations particularly currently mention these.

In Quezon City, for instance, at least eight PLHIVs alleged that they have been given incomplete medications – i.e. they were supplied with either Lamivudine/Tenofovir or Lamivudine/Zidovudine, but they have not been receiving Nevirapine because this is not available. These people are, therefore, taking incomplete meds.

Pinoy Plus’s hotline, PRC, has received similar allegations of non-delivery of Nevirapine.

In Cavite (Imus, Bacoor and Dasmariñas), at least three clients surfaced to allege about the same issue. PLHIVs are now “borrowing” each others’ Nevirapine supply just so they don’t miss their required dosage because their hub does not have supplies from the DOH.

There are similar allegations in Cagayan de Oro City, Davao City and Zamboanga City.

And in Alabang, the pharmacy of a treatment hub even posted on January 8, 2019 an announcement that “due to the shortage and delay of the deliveries at DOH, only one bottle will be dispensed of the following medicines: Nevirapine (200mg tablet); Lamivudine (150mg)/Zidovudine (300mg tablet); and Lamivudine (300mg)/Tenofovir (300mg tablet).” The same hub is telling its clients to “wait for further announcement on stock availability.”

Note that the RITM-AIDS Research Group’s pharmacy is putting the blame on the DOH.

DOH’s CLAIM

The same DOH statement stressed that “the latest data, as of January 4, confirms that Nevirapine has already been delivered to the 16 treatment hubs to meet the requirements for February-April 2019. For Lamivudine/Tenofovir, a month’s supply has also been delivered to Regions X, VI and I. The rest of the regions will expect deliveries within this week.”

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Noticeably, the DOH statement responds to issues only this January, even if this concern has been circulating in the PLHIV community since 2018, and only peaked now.

There are fewer ARV refills now. If, in the past, the usual practice is for hubs to give PLHIVs three bottles of ARV to last them for three months, a growing number are now complaining about the supply being cut to one month in numerous hubs – e.g. there’s that post in RITM’s pharmacy. Some allege that they are even supplied ARVs just for a week or even just for three days.

Due to the ARV shortage that the DOH is not outright confronting, expired medicines are allegedly being given to PLHIVs – as in the case of Xander.

Also due to the ARV shortage, the medication of a number of PLHIVs are allegedly being changed not because it’s medically sound, but because their usual medicines are not readily available. In Mandaluyong City, there are PLHIVs who claimed to have been told to use Lamivudine/Tenofovir/Efavirenz because it’s the only available ARV. If they refuse to do so, then they will have to stop taking their usual medications until such time when the delivery of supplies are normalized again.

To allow the DOH to respond to these claims, Outrage Magazine repeatedly reached out to the government body. Upon calling the media relations unit (at +63 2 651-7800 loc. 1126), we were turned over to the office of Dr. Gerard Belimac (+63 2 651-7800 locs. 2355, 2352, 2354). Five attempts were made to speak with Belimac or any other authority in his office, but he has been unavailable at those five times; and even after leaving requests for a statement from him on the ARV shortage, as of press time, the publication has not heard back.

As this is a continuing story, coordination will continue to – eventually hopefully – extensively hear from the DOH on this issue.

WHAT NOW?

The DOH statement also stated that it is “working closely with our suppliers to ensure that there are no gaps in our supply chain. In fact, we are waiting for deliveries of an additional 12,375 bottles of Nevirapine good for another three months and 7,024 bottles of Lamivudine/Tenofovir good for another two months.”

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The DOH also claimed that it is continuing to explore “for more partners in providing excellent support for Filipinos living with HIV-AIDS and in ending the deadly disease.”

As if wanting to pacify the complaining PLHIVs, the DOH statement transferred to responsibility to “HIV doctors to explore possible options”, or visit Facebook page (PLHIV Response Center) or email dohnaspcphiv@gmail.com. Note the use of a gmail account for a body with millions in budget.

No investigations on where the errors in the supply chain is happening so that these can be fixed is forthcoming. No one being held accountable here.

THE NEED TO GO BEYOND LIP SERVICE

Incidentally, Article V, Sec. 33 of the newly signed HIV law states: “The DOH shall establish a program that will provide free and accessible ART and medication for opportunistic infections to all PLHIVs who are enrolled in the program… A manual of procedures for management of PLHIV shall be developed by the DOH.”

The IRR is not even there yet, but this mandate to provide life-saving meds is now already cast in doubt.

Xander – who only had a refill of his ARVs – said that many like him who posted about this issue online were told to stop doing so “because we are supposedly creating panic among PLHIVs.”

He now says that people who cover up this issue are “as worse as those paid to work on this issue. Because if you go to the HIV community, we’ve long lived with worrying that our meds may not be given us at any moment. If some people think complaining about this is wrong, then they shouldn’t be in HIV advocacy, but work as PR people of those failing to do their jobs.”

In the end, “this needs to be resolved fast. Enough with discussing semantics on what we’re having is a shortage or a stockout; the fact remains that there are PLHIVs not getting their supplies. Lives are at stake. So supply the ARVs; now.”

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PSA tackles in Filipino Sign Language what happens after rapid HIV test

What happens after you get tested for HIV? Particularly to “help simplify the HIV discussion for the Deaf community in the Philippines,” a public service announcement was released on getting tested for HIV in the Philippines, and what happens after one gets tested.

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One of the biggest confusions re HIV testing in the Philippines is answering the question on “what happens after one gets tested for HIV,” said Disney Aguila, board member of Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center) and concurrent president of Pinoy Deaf Rainbow (PDR).

The confusion is not helped by numerous factors – e.g.: various testing facilities are, in a way, “autonomous”, so there are varying practices; and information about post-testing remains limited.

No matter the reason/s for the confusion, “the effect is the same: it discourages many people from getting HIV testing and/or screening,” Aguila said.

To demystify particularly rapid HIV screening to “help simplify the HIV discussion for the Deaf community in the Philippines,” a public service announcement (PSA) was released on getting tested for HIV in the Philippines, and what happens after one gets tested.

The PSA is the third in a series of PSAs produced as part of a Bahaghari Center project backed by a collaboration between Youth LEAD and Y-PEER (Asia Pacific Center), which eyed to address Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) needs of Young Key Populations (YKPs) in Asia and the Pacific.

PSA on HIV basics released in Filipino Sign Language

Particularly pertaining rapid HIV test, “we want to educate particularly Deaf Filipinos about post-testing – that, if you are non-reactive, there are steps you can do to stay non-reactive; and if you’re positive, help is available to help you access treatment, care and support (including getting antiretroviral medicines) so you can live a long, healthy life.”

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PSA on getting tested for HIV released in Filipino Sign Language

Aguila stressed that knowing one’s HIV status is important to protect oneself and others around him/her.

If one is HIV-positive, then he/she can start taking antiretroviral medicine (ARV) that will prevent the HIV (virus) from replicating and thereby help him/her stay healthy and live longer/normal lives.

And if one is HIV-negative, then he/she can take steps to stay negative (for example, by practicing safer sexual practices).

“It starts with getting oneself tested,” Aguila said, “which is why we encourage people to get tested.”

Most hospitals and clinics can give HIV testing.

Social hygiene clinics (SHC) located in select barangays can also give HIV testing and/or HIV screening.

Various non-government organizations also offer HIV testing and/or screening.

There are also people who are certified to give rapid HIV test.

A series of community-based HIV testing trainings are given to select members of the Deaf community in Metro Manila/Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao is to “empower members of the Deaf community to be more proactive in dealing with HIV by allowing the Deaf to help the Deaf.” These trainings are provided by The Red Ribbon Project, Inc.

Other supporters of the project include: Outrage Magazine, Fringe Publishing, Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, TransDeaf Philippines, Deaf Dykes United and Pinoy Deaf Queer.

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