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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.

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.

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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).”

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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“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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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