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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.
Gem A. Cabreros – 54 years old from Makati City – was diagnosed as HIV positive on March 26, 2010. “I got myself tested after I was convinced by a friend, who, unfortunately, already passed away. I contracted pneumonia. So I was hospitalized. I posted this on social media, and he read it. He was also an HIV awareness advocate. He messaged me. He told me, ‘Gem, I suggest for you to get tested for HIV.’ He knew that pneumonia is one of the opportunistic infections if you’re HIV positive,” he recalled.
Looking back, Gem said that upon knowing he’s HIV positive, “I kinda expected it. So I didn’t have violent reactions. In fact, I was kinda emotionless at that time. Perhaps I was a bit shocked because I still hoped that the result won’t turn out reactive.”
Gem’s partner – who’s still HIV negative even now – was with him when he received his result.
“He was the first to be called; he received his HIV test result first. They called me after several minutes; after they gave him his result. The female counselor told me, ‘Your HIV test result is reactive.’ After she said this, I was emotionless. And then I asked her if we can call my partner; she said, ‘Sure.’ So she told him I’m HIV positive,” Gem recalled.
They stayed together, now in a serodifferent relationship (one is HIV positive, the other is HIV negative).
IMPACTS OF KNOWING
“After I tested HIV positive, the impact on me was more on the physical,” Gem said.
After he started his antiretroviral treatment, the side effects were rashes all over his body, extreme weight loss, shingles, and boils every now and then. “It really was more of physical impacts since HIV really affected me physically.”
On March 27 (the day after he knew his result), “I told my elder sister that I was tested for HIV, and it came out reactive. After I told her I’m HIV positive, her exact words were: ‘I am heartbroken,” Gem recalled.
Crying, while he was at work, he went to the admin department of his workplace to continue speaking with his sister.
“She told me, ‘We will get through this. Things will be okay; things will be alright sooner or later as long as we’ll be together in this. You can count on us. Since the family’s now only composed of us siblings, you can count on us for support.’”
Even then, “I wanted to come out as HIV positive at that time, but they told me, ‘Not now. The time is not right.’”
But, Gem said, that was back in 2010, when stigma and discrimination related to HIV were more prevalent and more rampant. “Unlike now, especially with the law on HIV.”
This decision to be public about his status had to do with being able to face shame. “I realized that there’s no shame in being HIV positive. What I did was I posted a picture of my antiretrovirals, and captioned it with: ‘Yes, I’m HIV positive.’”
KINDNESS FOR PLHIVs
For Gem, an issue that’s not focused on in the HIV community is the sensitivity to PLHIVs of healthcare workers.
One PLHIV, for instance, messaged him via a social networking site to inform him that “his treatment hub won’t let him start antiretroviral treatment supposedly because he needs a treatment partner. This is not a requirement, not a pre-requisite to starting antiretroviral treatment. He was also told he needed to disclose to his family. It’s not that easy to disclose your HIV status to your family, most especially.”
Gem noted that “although we already have the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act of 2018, or Republic Act 11166, not many people know about it, or are – sorry to be blunt about it – ignorant of the law.”
And since “there are still several people who do not know about the law, who do not know how to handle PLHIVs, and they still discriminate PLHIVs in terms of work, in terms of health services. And that’s sad; that’s really sad.”
USE THE LAW
For Gem, so there’s a connection between the law and what’s happening in society, PLHIVs should not be afraid anymore to stand up for their rights.
“If they feel that they have been discriminated against, or they feel that their rights have been violated, I believe that they really should stand up and fight for their rights,” he said, adding that “that’s what I see as a stumbling block, a hindrance. That fear leading to inaction. This enabled the perpetrators.”
Gem added: “So my message to fellow PLHIVs is not to be afraid; we have a law. Let’s use the law; let’s put the law into practice. Let’s not turn this into a dead law.”
DIFFERENT KINDS OF LOVE
Gem knows it can be difficult to find someone who will really accept you regardless of your HIV status. “But it doesn’t mean that just because you’re a person living with HIV, you are not entitled to be loved and fall in love.”
Besides, he added, the coupling isn’t the only form of love there is.
“Love can also (be given, or come from) not just one person. You could also express your love to other members of the HIV community by caring for them.”
GROWING OLD WITH HIV
“For someone like who who’s middle-aged and living with HIV, there’s this fear that in spite of taking antiretrovirals, I’m still prone to ailments that usually come for people my age, like diabetes, and hypertension,” he said. “But since I’ve been living with HIV for 11 years now, I know how to deal with various situations. Particularly mental challenge because – I tell you – it’s not easy, especially for one who is newly-diagnosed. To be faced, or to have this condition and not have a support system. To not even have a support system within your family. It’s very challenging.”
This is also why Gem is willingly extending his hands to others who may be able to learn from him.
“So if someone who’s younger than I am would approach me for advice or help, because of what life and experience taught me, I know how to deal with it, and I would share my experiences to them.”
BASIC: GET TESTED
Gem’s message to LGBTQIA people from older generations, especially if they engage in risky behaviors, is to get tested. “The longer you delay testing, especially at your age – let’s say late 30s, early 40s, late 40s, the chances of progression to AIDS (though it’s regardless of your age, actually) is faster if your HIV infection still hasn’t been detected,” he said. “I believe that early detection would result in early treatment.”
Looking back, “Did I ever think I’d reach my 50s?” Gem said that he was in his 40s when he tested HIV positive, and “at that time – especially with the stigma and discrimination, and I still didn’t know of the side effects of the ARVs on me – this never occurred to me.” But now 54, and “still here”, “it only proves that antiretrovirals work.”
“Do I have regrets after learning I’m HIV positive? None; I have no regrets. Because I’ve accepted what I am now, the experiences I had until now,” he said
Besides, “we all make mistakes. Life is one long learning experience. Somewhere along the road you’d commit mistakes. It can be a mistake of a lifetime, or in my case, it’s a mistake that would be with me forever. But whatever happened to me is part of who I am right now. It molded me into the person that I am now.”
And his message to people who continue to look badly at PLHIVs?
“At the end of the day, a PLHIV is still a person; is still a human being. We have feelings. We are entitled to rights and privileges that any ordinary citizen of the country enjoys. Be kinder to us. You don’t just get infected by dealing with us. Having HIV right now, especially with antiretroviral treatment, is more of a manageable condition. It’s like diabetes. It’s like hypertension, wherein we take maintenance medicine. As I said, at the end of the day, we are still human beings; we are persons,” Gem ended.