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Janfred Palikpikan: Challenging HIV stigma in faith communities

The life of Janfred Palikpikan changed when he learned about his HIV status. Now as an advocate for the rights of PLHIVs, he believes in the need for a paradigm shift in Biblical teachings that continues to malign and intently condemn homosexuals as immoral perverts, and abomination. “I would like to challenge the ministers of God. To take a second, third, fourth look again at the Holy Scriptures and make a paradigm shift on what they have been lecturing from the start of their ministries,” says Janfred.

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

Janfred Palikpikan learned about his HIV status after a failed local medical examination as he was slated to travel for overseas employment in Singapore through one of POEA’s accredited list of recruitment agencies. He Googled the overseas job vacancy through workabroad.ph, and part of the requirement before the job offer is given was to undergo a medical exam through its partner clinic.

“We paid for our medical exam. I think it was P2,500. I could recall it was my second time to apply in the same recruitment agency kasi nag-fail ako sa (because I failed in the) first application screening after I intentionally held on to my beard or goatee, and the client didn’t like that. It took me another month to try (to have a second chance),” Janfred recalled.

After a month lapsed, he applied again to the same agency, knowing fully well how to groom himself this time. The initial screening and interview went well this time, and after two days he was asked to report for endorsement to medical exam.

Ang sabi sa amin ng agency was, if all goes well, mabilis papasok ‘yung result ng medical exam. After 24 hours, kapag walang sabit, aawardan ka na ng clean bill of health and contract in two weeks’ time. Kaso we were also warned that maraming sumasabit sa (Our agency said that if all goes well, the medical results would be quickly retrieved. After 24 hours if there are no problems, a clean bill of health is given, and a contract is awarded in two weeks. But we were also warned that many encounter problems in their) medical exam based on their past experiences. I didn’t actually know what that meant, pero it just came to me as something passé,” said Janfred.

Janfred had to apply because he was getting a little desperate from his regular high-paying call center day job in the Philippines. His job grade hasn’t increased from his current employer that time for the last three consecutive years, and the wonderful success stories he heard of people making it to the “great metropolis SG or Dubai were all so good to be true they seemed so enticing enough I couldn’t bear (working here) any longer.”

“I had to apply, I wanted to go out of my comfort zone and take the risk. The heck, anyway, as I was already able to save a certain amount that could serve as buffer for my expenses while and if I get there (in Singapore). And so I went through the medical process after I successfully passed the initial screening and client interview the second time around,” said Janfred.

As soon as Janfred and other applicants went to the clinic a few blocks away from the agency along P.Faura St., they were briefed for a few minutes how the process and what the 5ml blood extraction was all about. It just all came to him as SOP. However, after my medical exam, he was informed by the agency to report to the clinic ASAP as there was a “minor problem”. This made him shrug in fear.

But at that time, he thought that “baka may kulang lang silang di nagawa sa akin since ang bilis lang namin i-process na parang mass laborers going to war (Maybe they wanted to do more tests to me since everything felt rushed, and it seemed like we were being processed as mass laborers going to war).”

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As soon as he reached the clinic, it took around 10-20 minutes before he was approached by a skinny lady who then asked him to follow her to a small isolated room. The room looked like a small storage area for excess office supplies, but there was an office table and three vacant chairs where she gestured for him to seat. Janfred sat across her as she sat behind the table. She then started probing him questions about his lifestyle and behavior that made him feel a bit uncomfortable.

“Why are we having this conversation?” asked Janfred.

And then she told him that his blood had reacted to HIV antibodies through the ELISA screening method they normally use, and that it was foolproof.

“Sir, if you have antibodies for HIV, then you’re HIV positive,” said the skinny lady.

He was asked to submit again another extraction of the same amount of blood, so they can ascertain after two weeks his HIV status. This time the test was for free. The skinny lady told him that they will send his blood to San Lazaro’s STD/AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory (SACCL) clinic, which is where blood samples that test positive are sent for confirmatory testing.

Janfred willingly complied. The skinny lady was nice enough to say that if there was anything that she can do to comfort him, he can just call her.

FACING THE STATUS

“I really couldn’t wait that long, so I went to San Lazaro and after less than two weeks. And I was confirmed HIV+. I remember that day – February 11, 2008 – was the day I tested positive, the eve of my birthday (February 12). On February 21, I received my confirmation letter at SACCL,” remembered Janfred.

Janfred had to collect himself after the news. He remembered his knees were literally shaking the moment he walked and left the partner clinic until the confirmation. In the weeks after that, he went to St. Luke’s in E. Rodriguez for another opinion, but the physician couldn’t do anything.

“The more than one week of waiting for confirmation was the most gruesome thing anyone could experience. It’s like a death sentence one couldn’t bear. In that more than a week of waiting, I became bedridden,” said Janfred.

He had to file for emergency sick leaves, and he also remembered his sudden depression became obvious during dinner on his birthday. All the food he ate was tasteless. During family times, he barely smiled and just went to bed for days. His parents knew something was incredibly wrong.

Janfred’s mind was racing all the time, as his thought seemed to jumble. “This is it….finally. I had a explanations why I was having sores in my mouth, some even as many as four at the same time, and the sores just wouldn’t disappear (my excuse back then was it was viral/airborne). Finally, that explained why I would get so skinny easily without skipping any meal or while even staying focused in gym for even three to four times a week. Finally, that explained why I would get migraines so bad and uncommon for young people such as me. Finally, that explained why I would get tired easily, never realizing that my normal routine would just require I travel short distances from work, to gym, to home daily. Finally, that explained why my libido and urges drastically dropped from the usual because my body was mustering all the energy left for me to walk, work out, and work… Finally, my double life caught up with me. It was payback time. I knew something was wrong, but I was in denial that it’s AIDS,” he remembered thinking.

Janfred eventually disclosed his status to close friends.

“Only to those who are civilized, educated, matured and knowledgeable people. I will still not confess publicly as the stigma is prevalent socially and societally,” said Janfred.

RISK FACTORS

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Janfred first heard of HIV when he was in high school, and the thought of that touching his own life never crossed his mind.

“I was living a devout rightful, so-so Christian life,” said Janfred.

This was, at least, the reputation he had.

Reality was farther from that, though.

Janfred can identify some of the factors that may have got him infected with the virus.

“I was engaging in risky sexual anonymous activities/encounters with people I didn’t know – ni pangalan di ko alam (even the names evaded me). My sexcapades included those in Manila’s old slum theatres along Sta.Cruz; though I only engaged in fellatio. I had sex in male bath houses, and I remember I had two exclusive memberships back then; though I remember never getting bottomed. I have been active in Guys4men.com (now PlanetRomeo.com), and I even posted my mobile number publicly in static channels in Cable TVs during the wee hours in the morning. I would bravely cruise on my own in the U-belt area at 12:00 midnight untuil 4:00 AM. I was always successful sneaking out quietly while they were all asleep (at home). I remember attending from one to three orgies, with more than three participants; as well as asking sexual favors along our street from passers-by,” said Janfred.

FUTURE PLANS

Janfred had to re-examine his options in the short, medium and long term goal. His graveyard shift at work didn’t help his condition.

“I knew I had to go (leave work) ASAP, but I still stayed with my employer for more than a year. The materialistic goals had to go. No more dream house. No more dream car. No more abroad plans (for now). I had to lessen expensive impulsive buying,” he said.

Upon diagnosis, “I had a CD4 count of 404, but when I left my employer, it was down to 234 only. My plan was go back to school and get a masters degree because I got stagnant in the BPO for seven years,” said Janfred.

HIV humbled Janfred at a time when he thought he felt invincible. At a time when he should be concerned of wealth accumulation rather than compromised health.

“There are always two sides of a coin. I can never plot the same objective I originally conceived before my HIV diagnosis. When you are HIV+, you need to look at what options you have and I was able to reposition myself. Even now I continue to do so. I didn’t lose any friends. But I had to scale down on irrelevant activities I deem as tiresome and strenuous. Hence, I had to let go of activities with colleagues. I lost prospective partners but it’s because it was my choice not to engage in the same activities again. I fear they might get stigmatized if I tell them. I am single as the task of looking after myself now is more important. With family, I became closer to mom and sisters,” said Janfred.

MEDICAL & SOCIAL SUPPORT

Janfred always got his support from siblings and his mother who helped him even until now, particularly when he had to undergo his ARV trial period.

“What I would do to give my mom a comfortable life,” he sighed. “Right now she continues to be our breadwinner until I dont know when. She’s quite exhausted and reaching retirement. We neither have a house, a car, or a (place our own in some) province,” said Janfred.

Janfred is already taking the ARV medicines. He underwent his trial period on April 20, 2010 because his CD4 went down. Now it still fluctuates depending on his exposure to stress from his current employment.

With his medicines, the problems he had been encountering are – for him – touch on his appearance. “Good thing I didn’t develop any severe side effects, particularly on my skin. The only problem I observe is an abnormal bulge on my belly, which I am currently burning through workouts and cardio exercises. I also noticed my thighs got thinner so I made some research and found out (the medicines I am taking) could make one’s extremities smaller and belly bigger. Even my family noticed it too,” said Janfred.

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VULNERABILITIES FROM THE CHURCH

Janfred believes that what drove him to be vulnerable to HIV is how society as a whole looks at homosexuals as people who are condemned, sinful and unnatural.

“My culture – including my family, which is very patriarchal (Oh yes, I have a father but he always looks down on gays and fags and makes fun of them on TV, makes slur comments even now!) – gave me reasons to believe while I grew up that I wasn’t appreciated for what I am. My father imposes a tyranical hold on the household while maintaining a sense of proximal abandonment (he’s near yet so far); we didn’t connect at all,” said Janfred.

This is something that Janfred said he noticed with fellow PLHIVs: the absence of a father; the lack of a much more loving father figure.

Not having a loving father is supposed to be “remedied” by a loving church.

“I read a passage somewhere in the bible that says (I forgot the verse though) ‘If you have an earthly father who forsakes you, you have a Father in heaven.’ And of course where does one learn their doctrines and mores? From the church,” said Janfred.

However, Janfred said that the various church denominations maligns and uses passages in the Bible to intently condemn homosexuals and lesbians as immoral perverts, and abomination.

“So here we are, at one side we have an absence of love and respect from our earthly biological father; and on the other, a church that has taught us that our Father in heaven is not inclusive (of us). To whom should we go then? If this kind of mentality has been planted in our minds and way of thinking, then we have been pushed to do activities underground including sex. In the words of Dr. Erlinda Senturias, (we go) ‘KKK’, which means, kataas-taasan, kadilim-diliman, kasulok-sulukan (on high areas, in dark places, and in narrow paths),” said Janfred.

Janfred believes that is the reason why there is now a spike in HIV cases reported in the Philippines alone. The source of the problem is moral in nature, and mores affect how people behave as a society. People have been led to believe that being gay is a bad thing, which is not.

And while priests and pastors continue to verbally condemn gays as people receiving zero-redemption, “this is in contrast to how I see myself. I see myself as someone who is full of love ,and that I just want to share my love to someone I fancy – though I haven’t found him yet. Now I’m looking for someone like me, an HIV+ too, so that we can look at each other’s back with support,” said Janfred.

Janfred adds that the Bible talks about love as the most important element that sums up everything in the Bible in one word. He is guided by this question he so loves that he adopted from the Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, Executive Director of INERELA, who said: “About your gender, are you sure it’s the real voice of God you are hearing and not from what the church has taught you about Him?”

“I would like to challenge the ministers of God. To take a second, third, fourth look again at the Holy Scriptures and make a paradigm shift on what they have been lecturing from the start of their ministries,” said Janfred.

Janfred added that knowledge of the Bible has brought this country in a pandemic stage on HIV, and that people should embrace the sexual orientation and gender identity of LGBT people since acceptance could help remedy the issue at hand.

“‘Let it go’ is what I would like to say to the aggressors. Stop the stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction, and misaction!” Janfred ended.

Connect with Janfred at janfred_palikpikan@yahoo.com.

Red Trese is a Certified Associate Acupuncturist of the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care who is obsessed with discovering alternative and complementary therapies to boost his CD4 count. As a servant-friend at The Well, an LGBT wellness center based in Metro Manila, he sits among other people living with HIV (PLHIV) to laugh, cry, and just talk about anything about living with the virus. Here he writes his journey on the challenges and on how to do everything right as a PLHIV in the Philippines. Email Red Trese at thelgbtwell@gmail.com.

People You Should Know

What it’s like to be a lesbian artist in this generation

Meet Pixie Labrador, an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, who laments the under-representation of lesbians in the music industry, which is unfortunate because she believes that music can help mainstream discussion of LGBTQIA issues. “Lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that… some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art,” she says.

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Photo courtesy of Pixie Labrador

“Lesbian artists in the Philippines are not being represented enough. In fact, if I’m being honest, it would’ve taken me a while to name a few at the top of my head, which is alarming and something I’m not proud of. It’s a shame because we are part of such a talented, inspiring community, and very few people recognize it.”

That, according to Pixie Labrador, is the current state of representation of lesbian artists in the Philippines.

And for her, this is bad because “lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that the close-mindedness of some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art.”

Pixie is an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, with over 9,095 monthly listeners on Spotify. Her most popular song on Spotify – “What’s it Like” – is about unrequited love, but uses just the right amount of pronouns for fans to openly identify her pride on her gender identity. The same song – which has a stanza that goes: “And I know from a distance| That I can’t compare | To the burn in her eyes | Or the love that she bears | It’s too much to hand over | But you never cared | For as long as your heart was with her” – is also included on her first album, “Does It Hurt””.

“Sometimes people would assume that in my music, I’m talking about being in love with a man (even) when the pronouns I use are very clear in the lyrics of the song,” Pixie quipped. “It’s another case of heteronormativity and invalidation, and It needs to be stopped.”

Being a lesbian “kind of” affects her craft/music, Pixie said, “in the sense that my music is heavily targeted towards the queer community, and it’s mostly based off of my personal experiences on loving other women.” However – and Pixie stressed this – “although I feel that rather than saying ‘being a lesbian’ is affecting my music, it’s really more of just me being my genuine self, if that makes sense. Like, I don’t write because I’m a lesbian. I’ll write what I feel and think regardless of what I identify as, simply because it’s something I love to do.”

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But by and large, for Pixie, sexuality does not really matter when creating music.

“That’s the great thing about art: anyone can make it, and it’s so expressive and limitless. I don’t think it would make sense to have sexuality matter in making music. I feel like it disregards people who are questioning or unsure of their own sexuality, as well as people who just don’t give a damn about labels, which is also entirely valid. It just so happens that I have a specific style of writing that touches on my sexuality, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to do it that way. Basically, you don’t have to question yourself to make music. Just do it.”

TOUCHING LIVES

Pixie is actually fortunate that “my audience, my family, and my friends have all been so accepting and supportive of me… When I started writing more frequently, and was trying to find my own unique style, writing in regards to loving as a lesbian just came so naturally to me. I published ‘Maybe’ and the response was so overwhelming. I didn’t realize how many people I’ve helped with just one song. So after that, there was a click in my head that made me think: ‘This is what people need: LGBT representation by LGBT creators.’ So I wanted to give exactly that. Eventually, my fans started giving me nicknames like ‘Lesbian Queen’, ‘WLW Icon’, ‘Queen of The Gays’, and things like that. It’s because of them that it kind of became my branding. My family seems to recognize this too, and they’re all for it as well. My parents show their support by coming to whatever gigs they possibly can, even though they’re heard me live dozens of times. I feel really blessed.”

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Pixie is also “lucky enough to not have experienced discrimination during gigs, and hopefully I never will. Most of the gigs I’ve been to were at safe spaces, and I’m glad I can feel comfortable working with trustworthy organizations, and in certain venues.”

MUSIC FOR THE STRUGGLE

Pixie recognizes, however, that the struggle of the LGBTQIA community particularly locally is far from over.

“There is still so, so much we need to fight for before we can even get close to the kind of acceptance we hope to achieve. Every time I think we’re getting closer to our goal, I would see something on social media, like a news headline, about something terrible that’s happened to someone in the community. It’s truly devastating,” she said.

But for Pixie, “the LGBT community is really the strongest bunch of individuals that I know. Despite the challenges that come with being our true selves, we push through every day, 365 days a year. We might not be where we want to be right now, but I know our struggles will all be worth it someday.”

And how does Pixie use her platform as an artist to help the LGBTQIA community?

“I’d like to think that as an I artist, I touch on topics that are very real and relatable, especially to people who are still figuring themselves out. It’s actually quite cliché when you think about it. ‘Maybe’ is about falling in love with your best friend. ‘For You’ is about being in love. ‘What’s It Like’ and ‘Use Me’ are about unrequited love. It’s not all that different from mainstream media. When it comes to my writing, I don’t talk about the LGBT community in such an ‘in your face’ kind of way; but it’s more of using real, firsthand experiences to make unaccepting people realize we’re not as alien as they think we are. We are capable of feeling what they do, and we deserve to be loved just as much as them. I think this whole thing also applies to the community itself. By writing about these things so casually, I’m putting out a message that basically says ‘Hey, I’m gay, and it’s okay to talk about it.’”

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And so, as an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, “to me, it feels really empowering to be fighting for equally every single day, and with every song that I write and put out into the world. It’s so heartwarming to see milestones of the LGBT community being recognized – like the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, or the Metro Manila Pride March reaching over 70,000 attendees, for example. In a more personal case, I’ve gotten messages from listeners saying that my music has given them the courage to come out, or has just helped them through difficult times in general. There may be pitfalls every now and then, but I do strongly believe that we are progressing towards a more love-filled world; and it’s a nice feeling to think that I am and always will be a part of what made that happen.”

BETTER REPRESENTATION

But it wouldn’t hurt if – as she earlier mentioned – lesbian artists in the Philippines start getting being represented enough.

“It would be nice if the media (shone) light on a more diverse range of lesbian artists. Like people of different skin tones, different body types, different ethnicities, et cetera. Because there’s no right or wrong way to ‘look like’ or ‘be’ a lesbian. It doesn’t have to feel so limiting,” she said. “Plus, there may be a number of under-appreciated but extremely talented lesbian role models whom the world needs to know about.”

But at least for now, her music is helping fill a void as Pixie Labrador continues to be a lesbian artist particularly in this generation.

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NEWSMAKERS

Pinoy wins Mr. Gay World 2019

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

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Screencap from John Jeffrey Carlos' video for Mr. Gay World 2019

Pinoy rainbow pride.

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

The 41-year-old local of General Trias, Cavite is not new to pageantry, first trying his luck to represent the country in the same pageant in 2016. He placed fourth runner-up then, losing to John Raspado, who ended up winning the first Mr. Gay World title for the country.

Carlos is actually also already relatively known in various circles – e.g. in Facebook and Instagram, where his repeatedly “liked” photos range from showcasing living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

Carlos – who obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team – also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe],” he said to Outrage Magazine in an earlier interview.

Perhaps typical of many beauty titlists who are new to their advocacies, Carlos only recently partnered wth Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media, a few days after winning the Mr. Fahrenheit 2019 title.

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All the same, he said that “I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

As Carlos wears the second Mr. Gay World title for the Philippines, he stressed: “We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness.”

Carlos – who competed with 21 other contestants in Cape Town, South Africa – has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

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People You Should Know

Overcome doubts to be happier version of yourself, says gay Ateneo grad who topped 2018 bar exams

Openly gay, Atty. Sean James Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

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Photo credit: Facebook/Atty. Sean James Borja

“Definitely there were a lot of times I doubted myself but I’m happy to say that I did overcome those doubts and insecurities and I’m just happy to be me right now.”

These are the words of now Atty. Sean James Borja, an Ateneo de Manila University alumnus, who topped the 2018 bar exams.

Openly gay, Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

Interviewed by ABS-CBN News Channel following the Supreme Court’s announcement of the results of the 2018 bar exam, Borja was asked if he had ever felt that “being gay did not make you worthy to follow your aspirations.”

Borja was quoted as saying that “definitely… I guess especially during grade school — you know how grade school is like when you’re being bullied for being different and it was during that time… where you think you’re not good enough to be at the top; to be a lawyer to fulfill your dreams just because of who you are.”

When Borja delivered his valedictory address for class 2018 of the Ateneo Law School, Borja actually talked about his being part of the LGBTQIA community.

The rest of the top 10 are:

  • Marcley Augustus Natu-el, University of San Carlos, 87.53%
  • Mark Lawrence Badayos, University of San Carlos, 85.842%
  • Daniel John Fordan, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.443%
  • Katrina Monica Gaw, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.421%
  • Nadaine Tongco, University of the Philippines, 85.032%
  • Patricia Sevilla, University of the Philippines, 84.859%
  • Kathrine Ting, De La Salle University-Manila, 84.857%
  • Jebb Lynus Cane, University of San Carlos, 84.805%
  • Alan Joel Pita, University of San Carlos, 84.693%
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The 2018 bar exam posted a passing rate of 22.07%, which is lower than the previous year’s passing rate of 25.5%.

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People You Should Know

John Jeffrey Carlos eyes Mr. Gay World 2019 title in South Africa

A closer look at John Jeffrey Carlos, a 41-year-old realtor and online entrepreneur from Cavite, who will compete with 24 other gay men in the 11th installment of Mr. Gay World contest in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Images courtesy of Mr. Gay World Philippines Organization

It may be difficult to fill the void left by John Raspado, who won the country’s first Mr. Gay World title in Maspalomas, Spain two years ago because the original always seems better; and to keep pace with him, the next Filipino Mr. Gay World aspirant needs to be worth twice as much.

When John Jeffrey Carlos first tried his luck in Mr. Gay World Philippines pageant back in October 2016, he was deemed by the pageants fans and pundits as “the one who would make the others compete harder.” Prior to the competition, he was already known to some circles via Facebook and Instagram, with repeatedly “liked” photos ranging from living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

But the judges that time didn’t give this flawless-skinned gay hunk from General Trias, Cavite high enough scores to enter the final round of the competition. “Janjep” (his nickname) finished in fourth place. It was Raspado, a native of Baguio City, who walked away with the top plum. He would later on become the Philippines’ first Mr. Gay World victor, in Maspalomas, Spain.

Fast forward to the present and Carlos was teary eyed while thanking everyone who attended his send-off press conference arranged by Mr. Gay World Philippines national director Wilbert Tolentino, at The One 690 Entertainment Bar in Quezon City. Winning the Mr. Fahrenheit search three weeks ago gave him the golden-ticket opportunity to wear the Philippine sash in Mr. Gay World 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa between April 28 and May 5.

Mr. Gay World, a “four-day challenge” founded by Australia-based philanthropist Eric Butter, is now on its 11th year of determining which cisgender gay man supposedly best represents his national spirit while serving as an ambassador for LGBTQI rights worldwide.

Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay men to be the successor of Jordan Bruno, a 26-year-old Australian reality TV chef, cookbook author and owner of an LGBTQI cooking school. 

Though Carlos wants to replicate Raspado’s historic feat, he said to Outrage Magazine that he’s uncomfortable being likened to the titlist.

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe]. Perhaps I’ll just take my inspiration from her. It’s like from day one, she’s [already] a fighter… I will surprise them with my ideas, like what she did, from what she wore, from the way she spoke, everything… well-planned. That’s how I prepared, with the help of my mentor and our national director, boss Wilbert, and Sir Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores camp. They really groomed me for Mr. Gay World 2019.”

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Janjep Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay.

Without revealing what he would be wearing during the preliminaries and coronation night, he – nonetheless – named those who helped him: Albert Andrada, the designer behind the iconic royal blue evening gown of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, provided his formal wear; Razen Montero, for his national costume; and Domz Ramos, the official swimwear designer of Binibining Pilipinas pageant, for his swimwear.

And if Gray has “lava walk” and “slow-motion twirl,” Carlos has the “baklava walk”.  

GETTING PERSONAL

Carlos obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team.

Striking the ball before it touches the ground gave him everything—his education was paid for, along with his food and board. It also gave him a support group—teammates and coaching staff who all wanted him to succeed and strive for excellence, in and out of the court.

After he got out of school, started working, paying for his own expenses and providing for his family, he realized how incredible it is to graduate not owing any money.

He also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years. And even if he’s openly gay, there are still women who get attracted to him. “There were cases wherein some of them were very vocal about their feelings toward me. But I never concealed ‘the real me’ ever since. They tell me they know that I’m gay, so I don’t have to explain myself,” he said with a wide smile.

Janjep Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATE

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If his Mr. Gay World Philippines predecessors focused their respective reigns on HIV prevention, de-stigmatization and care, Carlos is taking a different route.

“My advocacy focuses on fighting depression, through my #IllnessToWellnessCampaign,” he said.

A few days after he won as Mr. Fahrenheit 2019, he partnered with Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media.

“I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

“I had a chance to visit Cape Mental Health and I saw the situation there. We have to be informed. We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness. I’m happy to come back in Cape Town, as I am now more familiar with the port city as well as with the people’s way of living.”

THREE-PEAT

Tolentino was the first Filipino to compete in the inaugural edition of Mr. Gay World, in Whistler, Canada in 2009. He topped the sports challenge and harvested the Best in National Costume, Best in Formal Wear and Mr. Gay Popularity special awards. He received the local franchise for the Mr. Gay World pageant in 2016, after it was held by Noemi Alberto since its inception a decade ago.

Under his management, the Filipino representatives’ standings in Mr. Gay World improved: Christian Lacsamana, a 30-year-old public high school teacher from San Fernando City, Pampanga, topped the online voting, named Mister Social Media, won the Best in National Costume award, and placed second runner-up to Roger Gosalbez Pitaluga of Spain in April 2016. Raspado, a 36-year-old online entrepreneur of health supplements from Baguio City, made history by becoming the first Filipino and 100% Asian to win the title in May 2017.

But Tolentino shocked Mr. Gay World Philippines devotees when he announced his resignation as national director two months after Raspado won. Coming from a very conservative Filipino-Chinese upbringing, he wanted to spend time with his parents, especially with his aging father, as well as to focus on his then newly born son.

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But “a few months back this year, I dreamt that the Philippines will have three consecutive wins in Mr. Gay World. That prompted me to once again assume the national directorship [for Mr. Gay World]. And this year, we are very proud to say that we have the best delegate. I promised that as national director, I would do my very best in preparing Janjep for his international competition.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Janjep Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

Mr. Gay World 2019’s roster also includes Australia’s Rad Mitic, 36, business development manager; Nick Van Vooren, a 22-year-old polyvalent caregiver from Belgium; Botswana’s Oratile Victor Phofhedi, 26, chef and book author; Raphael dos Anjos, a 31-year-old Brazilian teacher and sign language interpreter; Canada’s Josh Rimer, 41, travel vlogger, show host and producer for national LGBT TV station OUTv; Carlos Navarro, a 30-year-old sexual diversity and gender equity activist from Chile; Costa Rica’s Marko Soto, a 25-year-old Greek immigrant, veterinary student and gay rights activist; Ismo Poutiainen, 35, hairdresser from Finland; Germany’s Marcel Danner, 30, marketing officer for an art house cinema group and crowd funding campaigner; Oliver Pusztai, gay rights activist and lifestyle blogger from Hungary; India’s Suresh Ramdas, a 37-year-old information technology executive; and Guilherme Souza, 25, writer for Gay Community News national monthly free gay magazine in Ireland.

Japan’s Tiger Shigetake, 21, multilingual gay rights activist, motivational speaker and international business student; Kaleb Omar, a 30-year-old international business graduate, professional model and sports coordinator from Mexico; Namibia’s Rivelino Reinecke, 21, gay rights activist and law student; Nick Francis, a 27-year-old Samoan immigrant who is an ambassador for New Zealand’s Aids Foundation; Panama’s Iann Carlos Jean, 25, entrepreneur; Jorge Seminario, 28, management officer for an international tourism company in Peru; South Africa’s Chris Emmanuel, a 42-year-old fitness buff and gym owner who champions the need for wider acceptance of the LGBT community; Francisco Alvarado, 29, physician from Spain; Taiwan’s Colin Lu, a 27-year-old health and fitness professional; Chayodhom Samibat, 35, personal trainer, chef and mixologist from Thailand; and Walter Moreno, a 24-year-old model and surfer for Venezuela’s national team.  

Filipinos can help Carlos win the Mister Gay World Internet Popularity special award to advance in the semifinal round, by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvgcps7X34Y and clicking the thumbs up button below the video; they can also register and cast their votes 10 times every 24 hours via https://mrgayworld.com/vote/ until 5:59 a.m. of May 4, Saturday (Manila time).

Mr. Gay World 2019 finals will be held at the Cape Town City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa, and will be streamed live via the organization’s official Facebook page and YouTube channel on May 5, Sunday, 1 a.m. (Manila time).

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Gay in the highlands

What is it like to be gay and belong to an ethnic tribe in the Philippines? For Romnick Ampi, he only knew of acceptance and being encouraged to live a better life, showing that LGBTQIA people can achieve more. And he hopes for this to be the general concept – i.e. that looking down on LGBTQIA people stop to focus on what they can achieve in life.

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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.”

Romnick Ampi, 27, from Barangay Meohao in Sitio Palusok at the foot of Mount Apo in Mindanao, was in elementary school (“Around 12 years old”) when he knew he’s gay/a member of the LGBTQIA community.

“At that time,” he said, “hindi ko maiwasan magkagusto sa kapuwa ko gender (I couldn’t help myself from getting attracted to other men).”

At first, Romnick thought that what he was feeling wasn’t real. “But I observed that what I really feel for men is different. Yung puso ko ay parang puso pa rin ng babae (Like heterosexual women, I was attracted to men).”

But – belonging to the Manobo ethnic tribe (his mother is Visayan, while my father is Diangan) – Romnick said he only knew of acceptance.

“And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

“Yes, I told my family about me being gay. They did not have bad reactions. I am happy that they even support what I do. They particularly support my means of living that is aligned with my being part of the LGBTQIA community,” he said.

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Romnick noted – and stressed – that “nirerespeto po nila gaya ng pagrerespeto nila sa kaloikasan atsaka ng mga ninuno. So sa tao po, nirerespeto nila kung ano po ang LGBT (members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people),” he said. “We are not discouraged to live as LGBTQIA people,” even if part of this acceptance is anchored in the stereotypical expectation that LGBTQIA people (gay men and trans women, in particular) “bring… happiness particularly during local celebrations.”

This acceptance makes Meohao an ideal place for Romnick. In fact, he said, if one goes even higher in mountainous areas, it’s common to see members of the LGBTQIA community. “And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

Not surprisingly, “ang feeling ko ay happy, sa tingin ko ay walang kalungkutan na mangyayari ditto sa Meohao dahil nakita ko naman na ang lugar na ito ay peaceful at mapagmahal yung mga tao (I feel happy here; I feel that there’s no sadness here. The place is peaceful. And people here are loving/accepting),” he said.

“Members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people.”

Romnick’s family was originally from Davao, but because of his father’s belonging to the Manobo tribe, they moved to Meohao.

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Romnick has four siblings; he is the only one who goes to school. “All the others stopped going to school because of financial issues,” he said. “This is why I am studying hard so I can graduate and then be able to help them. I particularly want to help my siblings make a living.”

Romnick currently takes up Bachelor of Science in Food Technology at the University of Southern Mindanao, a course that is in line with his field of interest – i.e. events organizing.

“Perhaps this is also God’s gift to me – to take a course that is in line with the skills I now have,” he said.

Now moonlighting as an events organizer, Romnick had an early start working. “I discovered I have skills in organizing events when I was still in elementary school. While watching my teachers do the decorating in school events, such as the closing ceremonies, they told me to give decorating a try,” he said.

And nowadays, “per event, I earn from P5,000 – at least for the smaller events.”

Now single, Romnick said that not having a boyfriend is, for now, ideal. “Mas mabuti yung wala pa akong jowa para makapag-focus ako sa family ko at sa sarili ko (This way I can focus on my family and myself).”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick said “don’t look down on us.”

For him, LGBTQIA people thrive – and this is even if they are not supported by their parents/families. “Because LGBTQIA people are skillful. They will find ways to make a living,” he said. “I’m seeing it now in the world, and for myself, that LGBTQIA people can do good things even if they’re (just) LGBTQIA people.”

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This is also what he eyes to do in life: Do acts so that others to see that not all gay men are weak, that gay people are also skilled. “What heterosexual people can do, LGBTQIA people can do, too.”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick Ampi said “don’t look down on us.”

Particularly for younger LGBTQIA people, Romnick advised: “Huwag kayong huminto o huwag kayong ma-discourage kahit sa ano man yung sasabihin ng ibang tao. Dahil hindi nila alam ano ang feelings ninyo as… LGBT. At ipagpapatuloy ninyo dahil alam ko sa bandang huli… and Panginoon nga may plano sa ating lahat (Not to stop being who they are; or be discouraged because of what other people say. These people do not know what you feel as LGBTQIA people. So just continue being who you are because I know that in the end, God has plans for all of us).”

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All the world’s a salon

With many people belittling LGBTQIA people, trans hairdresser Maureen Mejia Chan says “we should consider making something of ourselves”, such as by opening a business. And in her case, by being an entrepreneur, she ended up becoming her family’s breadwinner, while proving to the world that LGBTQIA people can go the distance.

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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.”

Siyempre kung magbukas ka ng business, dapat tutukan mo, dapat alam mo. Hindi lang pag gusto mo magbukas (magbubukas ka). Kasi pag ganun ang nangyari… wala din. Siguro mag-la-last lang siya ng one year kasi ikaw mismo may-ari hindi mo alam eh ang trabahong pinapasukan mo (Of course, if you open a business, you have to give it your complete attention.  You need to know about the business you’re going into. You don’t open one just because you feel like it. Because if you open one without intending to pay close attention to it, it won’t succeed. Perhaps it will just last for a year. It won’t last because even you, as the owner, do not know what you’re getting yourself into).”

That, in a gist, is the advice that can be given by Maureen Mejia Chan, 28 years old, a trans entrepreneur from San Antonio Village, Makati City.

Maureen, in fact, recommends for others to also open a business in a field they’re familiar with. “Particularly for LGBTQIA people, this is a good step to better your position in life. When you have a business, people can’t just belittle you. I want you to open business so people won’t look down on you. Having a business means having something to be proud of.”

BECOMING MAUREEN

Maureen knew she’s trans when she was still in elementary school.

Sinusuot ko yung mga bra ng mama ko, tapos yung panty niya… yung kumot naming, nilalagay ko sa ulo ko para (kunwari meron akong) mahabang buhok (I used to wear my mother’s bra, her underwear. And I used to put a blanket on my head, pretending it was my long hair),” she recalled.

In high school, Maureen fell in love with a man, which – she said – made her realize “that what I was feeling was what people said those belonging to the ‘third sex’ experienced.” This continued in college, when she continued to engage with other men; leading to where she is now.

Also in high school, Maureen had a friend whose name was… Maureen. “I said to her: I want that to be my name.” And so the name stayed.

Sa pamilya namin, walang bading or transgender na sinasabi (kaya) hindi ako matanggap (There are no gay men or transgender people in my family. So they couldn’t accept me),” Maureen said.

In fact, they tried to turn her “straight” by making Maureen work in the farm, tilling land and doing what were deemed stereotypically masculine jobs (and as if there are no gay farmers).

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But seeing Maureen not changing, “unti-unti, natatanggap nila ako (they slowly accepted me).” Perhaps, she added, because “napapakita ko sa kanila na hindi lang ako basta-basta bading katulad ng ibang bading na naglulustay ng (pera nila). Tumutulong ako sa kanila. Pinapaaral ko yung mga pamangkin ko, ang mga kapatid ko. Tapos nakakatulong din sa kanila (I was able to show them I am not just a faggot… like some who just waste their money doing undesirable things. I help them. I send my nieces and nephews to school, as well as my siblings. I also financially support other family members).”

Maureen admits that “mahirap ang maging isang trans dahil hindi pa open-minded ang mga tao. Pero kahit mahirap, eto na ako eh; masaya ako ditto. So kahit na dinidiscriminate nila ako, okay lang. Basta alam ko sa sarili ko na wala naman akong ginagawang masama at hindi ako nakaka-apak ng tao (It’s hard to be a trans person because many people are still not open-minded. But even if it’s hard, this is me. I’m happy being like this. So even if I encounter discrimination, it’s okay, as long as I know I’m not doing anything bad and I don’t hurt others).”

Maureen, in fact, recommends for others to also open a business in a field they’re familiar with. “Particularly for LGBTQIA people, this is a good step to better your position in life. When you have a business, people can’t just belittle you. I want you to open business so people won’t look down on you. Having a business means having something to be proud of.”

Maureen encountered actual LGBTQIA discrimination before.

While in Tarlac, after work, they decided to party, drinking with some boys in a bar. These boy started picking on them, eventually bashing us. “That was the most painful experience I had: to be bashed. We never thought something like that could happen to us.”

Note that when this happened, Maureen – and her friends – never considered filing official complaints so as not to complicate matters. Instead, “we just move to another place and party there,” she said. That is, experiencing discrimination in one place just makes them avoid the same and look for another place; no rectifications done, only moving on.

In the end, “I’m happy like this, so I choose to be like this.”

ENTER THE TRANS ENTREPRENEUR

Maureen was able to finish Practical Nursing in the Dominican College of Tarlac in (school year) 2007-2008. “But I took that course just to be able to say I didn’t only finish high school;

that I also have a college degree.”

Though she already did the hair and make-up of school-mates and teachers in school, “nagsimula ako sa trabaho (sa salon) doon sa dati kong amo; kinuha niya ako sa Tarlac tapos dinala niya ako dito. Pinasa-pasa ako [I started working (in a salon in Metro Manila) when my former boss hired me all the way from Tarlac. He brought me here (to Metro Manila); and I got passed around (from one salon to another).”

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After seven years, Maureen decided to open her own salon. The total capital she spent reached approximately P200,00.

Actually, she said, it’s hard to open a salon, particularly if you don’t have equipment. “Kailangan mo bumili ng materyales na medyo mahal; at mga gamot (You have to buy equipment that can be expensive; you have to buy your stocks of beauty products).”

Luckily for her, “at least my (regular) clients still avail of my services even if my salon is quite far from where I used to work.”

Maureen: “It’s hard to be a trans person because many people are still not open-minded. But even if it’s hard, this is me. I’m happy being like this. So even if I encounter discrimination, it’s okay, as long as I know I’m not doing anything bad and I don’t hurt others.”

Despite the challenges, “ito ang gusto ko (this is what I wanted to do),” Maureen said. “Although nakatapos naman ako ng (course sa college) pero dito ako dinala eh. Ito siguro yung talent ko… Ito talaga ang hilig ko (I may have finished a course in college, but life brought me here. Perhaps this is where my talent lies… but this is what I really liked to do).”

Looking at where she is now, “hindi ko ma-imagine na ito na ang kahihinatnan ng buhay ko ngayon. Kasi dati, basta makapagtrabaho lang ako, makakain, makapaglalaki syempre, makapagbigay ng sustento doon sa family ko, yun na. Hindi ko naisip na magtatayo ako ng parlor (Never in my mind did I imagine I’d reach this level in my life. In the past, I was already fine just having a job, food to eat, be able to give money to my boys, send money to my family… I thought that was that. It never really occurred to me I’d open my own beauty parlor).”

But then, she said, “I thought: Do I get old without attaining anything? Of course, people should have dreams. So, slowly, I worked to attain mine; I saved money; my old employer (Mommy Doods) taught me how to run a salon… And when I already knew the ins and outs of running a salon, I opened my own. I still can’t believe I already have my own salon.”

A salon isn’t always profitable, Maureen admitted, and “you don’t earn a lot every day.”

Particularly, from September to December, a salon can earn a lot; but outside this period, “we don’t earn a lot. So what you earned in December, you use to cover the expenses for the lean months.”

Pag sinabing business, akala nila ang yaman-yaman mon a. So nakakautang ka rin lalo na kung medyo mahina. Pero kahit papaano naman nakakaraos, nakakabayad ng upa, yung pagkain naming, naayos naman… okay na (When you have a business, people immediately think you’re rich. This isn’t so; you still need to borrow money, particularly if you’re not earning a lot. But you get by somehow. You can pay the rent, buy your food… so it’s all okay),” she said.

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Maureen is dreaming bigger, wanting to open more salons in the future. So she’s not training her staff who may man these future salons.

Sa lahat ng gustong magka-parlor, dapat siguro mag-aral muna lalo na yung may-ari. Pag ang may-ari kasi marunong, hindi ka pagmamalakihan ng mga trabahante mo. Pag ang may-ari di marunong… siyempre magsasara ka talaga (To people who want to own a business, it’s good if you study about your kind of business first. If you know about your business, your employees will respect you. When running a salon for instance, if the owner doesn’t even know how to cut hair, that salon will eventually close),” she said.

CHOOSING IT ALL

Maureen has a boyfriend now, and they’ve been together for almost three years now. The good thing is that he has a job, she said, just as Maureen also has her job.

Ang iniisip kasi ng ibang tao, lalo na yung hindi pa open-minded, ang akala nila kung makikipagrelasyon ka sa ibang lalaki, akala nila pera ang habol nila. Hindi nila alam na hindi lahat (Close-minded people think that when an LGBTQIA person has a relationship with a  straight man, the latter is just after the former’s money. They don’t know that this isn’t true for everyone),” she said. “Siguro naka-tiyempo lang ako ng ganung klaseng lalaki na nagtatrabaho hindi lang para sa sarili niya kundi para sa family niya. Nagtutulungan naman kami; kung sino ang meron, siya nagbibigay (Maybe I was just fortunate to meet a guy who works not just for himself but for his family. We help each other. The person who has the resources helps the other who does not).”

One time, Maureen recalled being made to choose between love and her work/business. But Maureen’s a realist, saying that her business is her “bread and butter”, and that if she gives this up, they’ll both suffer. “So we talked about this, and I explained to him that this isn’t just good for myself but also for our family.”

Maureen: “When you have a business, people immediately think you’re rich. This isn’t so; you still need to borrow money, particularly if you’re not earning a lot. But you get by somehow. You can pay the rent, buy your food… so it’s all okay.”

LIFE LESSONS

Para sa mga LGBTQIA na party lang nang party, sige, mag-party lang sila; lustayin nila pera nila kasi doon sila masaya eh (For LGBTQIA people who love partying, continue doing so as long as you have money. Spend your money on partying if it makes you happy),” Maureen said. “Saka lang nila ma-re-realize pag naubos na ang pera nila, pag medyo nagkaka-edad na (But these party people will only realize they’re wasteful when they’re broke, or are already getting older).”

For Maureen, “it will be difficult if you wait until you’re already old before you start thinking about your future. That’s already too late. You won’t achieve anything anymore by then.”

And so she wants particularly younger LGBTQIA people to “enjoy your youth. But when an opportunity (to open a business) arises, grab it.  Don’t dilly-dally. An opportunity like this is rare.” In the end, Maureen said that “many people think LGBTQIA people won’t amount to anything. They don’t think we can achieve something even if they don’t know what we can actually do.”

Because for her, “tayong mga LGBT… andaming gusting mangyari para makatulong. So hangga’t anong meron, sige lang tayo nang sige (LGBTQIA people are never contented; we want to achieve a lot. We want to do more so we can help our parents, help our families. So we don’t stop trying to do more. For as long as we can, LGBTQIA people persevere).”

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