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Loving a Military Man

Nico first met military man Ricky in 2011. And as the two became an item, their relationship is highlighting not only the ups and downs that all other relationships face, but – more importantly – some of the challenges faced by the gender non-conforming in the military and their loved ones.

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Nico, 24, first met Ricky*, 29, in the latter part of 2011. “My (also gay younger) brother was with three people when he went to our grandmother’s funeral – this really good-looking guy, a girl, and this other guy. He was that other guy,” Nico said, laughing.

What Nico did not know then was that Ricky was actually wooing Nico’s younger brother, who he met from hook-up site Grindr, and “nabasted ako (I was rejected) because he said he had a boyfriend,” he recalled, smiling. “I wanted to take my revenge via his older brother, Nico.”

But then, what Ricky didn’t expect was falling in love with Nico, so that by September of that year, the two were already an item.

And so started Nico’s relationship with a military man, since Ricky is with the Hukbóng Himpapawid ng Pilipinas (Philippine Air Force or PAF).

LIVING MILITARILY

Ricky grew up in military household. “My Dad was also a soldier, so he readied me (to join the military) when I was still young,” he said. “Lahat ng ginagawa, de-oras (Everything we did was according to a specific schedule).”

But Ricky knew “perhaps when I was 18 that I like other men.”

When Ricky joined PAF, “lahat ng temptations nalusutan ko (I beat all the temptations),” he said, adding – with a laugh – “being only with men and all that.” However, “nahalata (it was noticed) after three months that I’m not like the others. But I was not discriminated against – mas magaling naman ako sa karamihan (I was better than most).”

Worth highlighting is the expectation for LGBT Filipinos to act in “acceptable” manners, which is usually limited to acting according to socially-defined masculine versus feminine behaviors. This expectation is all too apparent in the military. For instance, in 2009, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) stated that the Philippines has zero tolerance for discrimination within the military ranks. Nonetheless, the AFP Code of Ethics has provisions that can be used to discriminate against lesbian and gay members of the military. An example is Article 5 (Military Professionalism) Section 4.3 (Unethical Acts) of the AFP Code of Ethics, which states:

Military personnel shall likewise be recommended for discharge/separation for reason of unsuitability due to all acts or omissions which deviate from established and accepted ethical and moral standards of behavior and performance as set forth in the AFP Code of Ethics. The following are examples: Fornication, Adultery, Concubinage, Homosexuality, Lesbianism, and Pedophilia.

“The policy affecting us (almost always) has to do with immorality,” Ricky said, adding that the identification of something immoral happening is reliant on it being seen/known, so that “madalas, ang ginagawa, tinatago (often, for it not to be known, everything is just done discreetly).”

Not surprisingly, there are other men who have sex with men (MSM) in the military, according to Ricky, and “the common practice is pasahan ng numbers (we give out others’ numbers). If someone looks for a partner, somebody is bound to know someone who can be recommended.” But this practice is “not limited to homosexual contacts; with heterosexuals, it’s the same way,” he added.

For Ricky, things are tolerated for as long as “hindi naman ako nagkakalat (I don’t act in a manner that is disrespectable/frowned upon).” The concept of “pagkakalat” is often associated with being transgender – more specifically, the male to female transgender.

That the military still has a long way to go as far as understanding transgenderism goes without saying. “I went AWOL for two months because I had issues with our team leader,” Ricky recalled. “Ang mga tsismis na naglabasan, grabe – sumama na raw ako sa British na manliligaw ko, naging dancer na ako ni Lady Gaga, at nagpa-opera na raw ako para maging babae (You should have heard the stories that surfaced – that I run away with a British suitor, that I became one of Lady gaga’s backup dancers, and that I underwent gender confirmation surgery for me to become a transwoman).”

After his mother persuaded him to return to PAF, “I did; I was demoted and confined in the barracks for a while as punishment.”

Ricky is cautious when dealing with the unwritten rules of the military, so that for him, yet another one of the “disrespectable” acts is publicly showing his affection for the person he loves. “Walang PDAs – baka may makakita sa amin, pang-gulo lang (No public displays of affection – somebody might see us, and it could lead to trouble).”

CLOSE SCRUTINY

Ricky and Nico have been living together since November 2011. In hindsight, “wala nang ligawan (no wooing happened),” Ricky said. “Ganyan naman sa mga (This is what happens with) men who have sex with men, right? Kung kayo na, kayo na (If you decided to be with each other, that’s that).”

But deciding to live together was not easy.

Nico’s younger brother was not at all pleased with the relationship, telling his kuya (elder brother) why Ricky’s a bad choice. “He said maitim ‘yan, pangit ‘yan (He’s way too dark skinned, he’s ugly),” Nico recalled. “Bitter yata (He must have been bitter).”

When they met, Nico was kicked out of his house, so that he stayed for three days with Ricky at the barracks. “I was confronted by a superior who told me not to let Nico sleep there,” Ricky recalled. This superior was not comfortable with Ricky’s relationship with Nico, even if – interestingly – this same superior has a live-in partner even if his marriage to his legal wife has yet to be annulled.

After that confrontation with the superior, the two moved to a hotel, and then eventually decided to find a room, then a house to share.

For a year, when Nico lost his job, Ricky looked after him. “Hindi ako madamot sa mahal ko (I am not greedy when with people I love),” he said.

Ricky’s family knows of Nico, though. “There’s no formal introduction of him as my boyfriend; but I think it’s already ‘considered’,” he said.

Upon closer scrutiny, the lack of formal – and legal – recognition is actually somewhat problematic. When Ricky was hospitalized in a military hospital, Nico couldn’t even visit because he is not a member of Ricky’s immediate family. “Nakakalungkot isipin kasi (This is sad because) he is not considered as my next of kin,” Ricky said.

Ricky added that “what other people think about us end up as key definers of our relationship. Baka kasi may magreklamo, kaya iwas-gulo na lang (I’m trying to avoid having people who are not comfortable with what I have make an issue about us).”

TWO-GETHER IN FOCUS

Ricky is Nico’s 10th boyfriend; while Nico is only Ricky’s second – his first was with a reservist, who is now married.

Ricky and Nico are both tops, so they decided to open their relationship. “But a rule is for us to be there at the same time – hindi puwede isa-isa (meeting others separately is a no-no),” Ricky said.

Getting invited to do it alone is somewhat common for Ricky. “For many, doing it with a man in uniform is a fetish of many,” he said, adding with a laugh: “There are those who even ask me to put on my uniform when we’re doing it.”

They have shared accounts in hook-up sites, “but often, we just meet people to become friends,” Nico said.

There are challenges that they are facing – particularly, for Nico, Ricky’s irregular schedule “because he is always on call,” he said; and the occasional rearing of the head of the green-eyed monster, with the “at times unwanted attention that Ricky gets.”

For Ricky, this may have to do with their lifestyle differences. As a military man, he is active – something that Nico is not, with “malling as his favorite thing to do,” he said. He then added, teasing Nico: “He used to be hot; now he’s… chubby.” Then turning serious: “I worry not only because of how he looks, but also because of his health.”

They now have a “baby” – Annika, an 11-month old Siberian Husky that Ricky walks “whenever I can,” he said.

The two already have plans to travel, “maybe overseas, starting with Asia,” Ricky said.

“And Brazil,” Nico interjected.

Looking at Nico, Ricky said: “He thinks all Brazilians look like models.”

For now, though, the focus is on establishing a life together. Despite the challenges posed particularly by Nico’s loving of a military man.

*NAME CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEES

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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Proposed ‘comprehensive anti-discrimination bill’ called oxymoronic, removes need to protect LGBTQIA Filipinos

A proposed “Comprehensive (sic) Anti-Discrimination Act” is being considered in the House of Representatives (HOR), though the bill eliminates LGBTQIA people among those in need of protection. According to Rep. Geraldine Roman, by eliminating SOGIE in the CADB, it contradicts the very claim that it’s CADB. “By eliminating us, you are discriminating against us.”

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A not-so-comprehensive anti-discrimination bill after all.

A proposed “Comprehensive (sic) Anti-Discrimination Act” is being considered in the House of Representatives (HOR), though the bill eliminates LGBTQIA people among those in need of protection.

In a virtual meeting of the technical working group of the Committee on Human Rights of HOR, Rep. Jesus Suntay presented “An act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion or belief, sex, gender, language, disability, HIV status, educational attainment and other forms of discrimination”.

“If you eliminate SOGIE, you can’t call it ‘Comprehensive ADB’. It’s an oxymoron.”

Rep. Geraldine Roman

Another proposed bill, the SOGIE Equality Bill, is getting criticized because it is supposed to be limited to a specific class of people – i.e. LGBTQIA people. And so there is a proposal for it to be included, instead, in the more and supposedly comprehensive anti-discrimination bill (CADB).

According to Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr., himself a pastor cum politician: “We are trying to avoid approving any bill that would be classified as class legislation… This is why it is CADB.”

Abante – nonetheless – believes in the inclusion of sexual orientation in the CADB, just not gender identity and expression.

However, the move to exclude “discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression” from the CADB is a win for anti-LGBTQIA people by eliminating SOGIE Equality Bill and then excluding LGBTQIA people from the CADB.

According to Rep. Geraldine Roman, the first transgender congressperson in the Philippines: “If you eliminate SOGIE, you can’t call it ‘Comprehensive ADB’. It’s an oxymoron.”

The proposed bill also removes SOGIE in Sec. 2: Declaration of Policy, and in the definition of terms.

Defending the erasure of SOGIE in the bill he presented, Suntay said that there are already 15 SOGIE-related bills filed with the Committee on Women. For him, if SOGIE is also included in the CADB, it “may be deemed also as SOGIE Equality Bill.”

But Roman does not agree with this.

That argument, she said, “is totally irrelevant… By eliminating SOGIE (in the CADB), it contradicts the very claim that it’s CADB. By eliminating us, you are discriminating against us.”

Roman added: “We have to be brave enough and recognize that there is discrimination happening against people like me who has a gender identity that is considered as different from what’s considered as conventional.”

Suntay noted that an anti-discrimination bill has been passed since the 13th Congress; and he hopes to eventually “steer this to success”, apparently even with LGBTQIA exclusion.

WRITE TO, OR CONTACT THE OFFICE OF REP. JESUS SUNTAY. INFORM HIM OF THE NEED TO KEEP SOGIE IN THE COMPREHENSIVE ANTI-DISCRIMINATION BILL.
FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/congsuntay/
Email provided in FB: congressmansuntay@gmail.com
Mobile no.: 09190847873

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Those opposing SOGIE Equality Bill claim to be ‘pro-human rights’… but not for LGBTQIA people

Parties opposing the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill frame themselves – and their arguments – as “for equality” and “for human rights for all”, but stress all the same that they do not support granting LGBTQIA people human rights.

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Different parties opposing the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill frame themselves – and their arguments – as “for equality” and “for human rights for all”, but stress all the same that they do not support granting LGBTQIA people human rights because any anti-discrimination law will grant LGBTQIA people “special rights”.

This – along with the imposition of religious beliefs – was repeatedly stressed during the August 28 virtual hearing on the SOGIE Equality Bill of the Committee on Women & Gender Equality of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Benny Abante of Manila’s 6th district, for one, stated that “the LGBTI are human beings like all of us… I might not agree with their lifestyle (sic), but I will defend their rights to express themselves.”

But while he stated that “nobody in this country is a second-class citizen,” he reiterated his “refusal to be included as a co-author (of the SOGIE Equality Bill) does not speak of opposition” to it. Instead, it is to uphold what’s in the bible.

Abante also misgendered Rep. Geraldine Roman of Bataan’s First District, referring to the first transgender woman to win a seat in Congress as “congressman” and using the male pronoun “him”. Roman is a co-chair of the Committee on Women & Gender Equality.

Abante’s position was similar to many others who spoke at the virtual hearing.

Stanley Clyde Flores of Jesus is Lord (JIL) religious group stated: “Hindi kami bulag sa katotohanan na maraming miyembro (ng LGBTQIA community) ang nakakaranas ng diskriminasyon.” But JIL does not support the SOGIE Equality Bill because “it rids others of their rights.”

In fact, JIL believes that “God gave gender”, and the fringe religious group believes that members of the LGBTQIA community who want to “welcome God and change their gender” should do so.

JIL’s anti-LGBTQIA position was established by its founder turned politician, Rep. Eddie Villanueva, his position itself a slight on the concept of the separation of Church and State.

Presbyterian Sec. Gen. Nelson Dangan similarly stated the church’s supposed support for non-discrimination. But Dangan stressed that the anti-discrimination bill “supports approval of homosexual behavior”, assaults the truth of Biblical sexuality, does not focus on procreation as human’s key reason for existence, and is “anti-God because God opposes homosexuality.”

Dangan also refuted the existence of intersex people because the word does not exist in his bible.

“Philippines will be like Sodom and Gomorrah if we pass (this bill),” he said, also insinuating that Covid-19 is a wrath of God and that passing a law for the human rights of LGBTQIA people will further anger this God. “We respect all people created by God… but we oppose this bill… because we violate the will of God and invite the wrath of God.”

GOD’S NAME IN VAIN?

Bishop Leo Alconga, the national president of the Philippines For Jesus Movement, similarly stated that they stand “against any form of discrimination”, but that God does not agree with this, quoting an antiquated Catholic perspective that homosexuality is “an act of great depravity”.

Alconga similarly linked the SOGIE Equality Bill with marriage equality, which is not at all part of the bill.

For Bro. Ramon Orosa of Philippines For Jesus Movement, one of the most notorious sins in the scripture is homosexuality and lesbianism. And for him, “the question is not whether they exist, but not giving in to them.” Using the punitive Old Testament God, he said that “God is not tolerant of any sin.”

Orosa also said that “this is being imposed on everybody else” and that “we will be discriminated upon if we disagree.”

For Iglesia ni Cristo’s Edwil Zabala, everyone is entitled to all human rights. But for him, SOGIE is “not a fundamental right” and does not even exist. Like the others, he said that laws should not be made to favor select/special beneficiaries.

HATE FROM GOV’T BODIES?

But church people were not the only parties opposing the SOGIE Equality Bill.

From the side of the government, for instance, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Usec. RJ Echiverri echoed the right-wing religious perspective. After claiming he, too, is against discrimination and the provision of equal opportunity for everybody, he questioned if the proposed law will give special rights to others.

Echiverri also had issues with trans women joining competitions for those assigned female at birth; as well as the “blurring of identities”.

Meanwhile, an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) resource person stated that while AFP – as a government institution – does not discriminate, it also “does not support protection of special groups at the expense of others.”

HATE HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR THE LAW

But other parties also expressed their support for the passage of a law that has been pending in Congress for 20 years now.

Philippine National Police (PNP) head of PNP Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC), Colonel Alessandro Abella, for instance said that they support upholding the rights of all people irrespective of SOGIESC. However, the PNP position that Abella read at the hearing, which is contrary to AFP’s, has yet to be officially vetted by his higher ups.

Still, he said, PNP is lobbying to rename WCPC to “Women, Children and Gender Rights Protection” as it’s more generic and will cover all forms of gender-based violence.

PNP’s recruitment process at present is already SOGIESC-sensitive, focusing on “merit and fitness”, he said, so “PNP supports this.”

Other government officials who also expressed support were Esmeralda Amora-Ladra from Commission on Elections; Sandy Montano of the Philippine Commission on Women; Elizabeth Angsioco of the Department of Social Welfare and Development; and Paul Moreno of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

For Prof. Evelyn “Leo” Batad of UP GLLP, this is a long overdue law that “recognizes the long-standing struggle of people due to their SOGIESC.”

The 1987 Philippine Constitution, in fact, stipulates the value the dignity of all human persons. But the country does not have executory laws for this; and so “a legislation providing for the protection of people with diverse SOGIESC is overdue.”

Batad added that “religion is not meant to support specific beliefs”, and that “morality referred to in law is public and secular, not religious.” The Supreme Court already stated that if the government relies on religious beliefs in the making of laws, then this will require conformity in particular religious programs and the concept of morality of those managing them. This – by itself – becomes an imposition, which violates the very concept of freedom of religious affiliation by making some more dominant than others.

“We cannot impose religious beliefs on others,” Batad said. “Religious belief is distinct from what is spiritual.”

LGBTQIA PEOPLE EXIST

Rep. Roman, for her part, said that “you cannot treat the Bible like a science book.” For instance, the intersex condition is a biological fact; so citing the bible to question the existence of intersex bible is erroneous.

“As St. Agustine said: If you want to convince other people, you cannot ignore empirical data,” she said.

Roman helped push the SOGIE Equality Bill’s passage in 2017, when the bill got the nod of 198 congresspeople, with none opposing it.

“Despite the promise of equality, vulnerable groups are still discriminated,” said Rainbow Rights Project Inc.’s Atty. Jazz Tamayo. “Must we undergo discrimination before we (are able to) access the law? The State needs to (deal with) this.”

For her part, Lagablab Network’s Atty. Claire de Leon said that “discrimination still persists”, with LGBTQIA students refused entry to schools, LGBTQIA people excluded from social support, and the prevalence of workplace discrimination due to people’s SOGIESC, among others. “LGBTQIA people remain vulnerable,” and this ought to push for the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill that has been wallowing “for over 20 years now.”

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73% of Filipinos think ‘homosexuality should be accepted by society’

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

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Constant rainbow support?

While people in the Asia-Pacific region continue to show little consensus on the subject, at least 73% of Filipinos surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted. This is the same figure as the one reported by a similar survey conducted in 2013, making the Philippines the only participant country that did not change its perception from 2013 to 2019.

This is according to a new Pew Research Center report conducted in 2019 involving 38,426 people in 34 countries. This is a follow-up study to the one made in 2013.

To ask them how they perceived homosexuality, the participants were asked: “Which one of these comes closer to your opinion? ‘Homosexuality should be accepted by society,’ or ‘Homosexuality should not be accepted by society.'”

People who said they don’t accept homosexuality was pegged at 24% (versus 26% in 2013).

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

But countries in Asia-Pacific (and Oceania) showed extreme results – e.g. aside from the Philippines’ 73%, more than three-quarters of those surveyed in Australia (81%) say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 9% of Indonesians agree.

According to Pew Research Center, the survey shows that “while majorities in 16 of the 34 countries surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted by society, global divides remain.”

Mimicking the figures from APAC (and Oceania), other parts of the world also highlighted this global divide re homosexuality – e.g. 94% of those surveyed in Sweden say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 7% of people in Nigeria say the same.

Now, if it’s any consolation, across the 34 countries surveyed, a median of 52% agree that homosexuality should be accepted (versus 38% opposing it).

Other findings include:

  • In 17 years, Pew Research Center found that many of the countries surveyed showed a double-digit increase in acceptance of homosexuality, such as in the cases of South Africa and South Korea.
  • Those in Western Europe and the Americas were found to be more accepting than those in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • At least for a number of countries, more women than men support homosexuality.
  • Younger generations were found to be more accepting. In 22 of 34 countries surveyed, younger adults are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to say homosexuality should be accepted by society.
  • In most countries surveyed, those who have greater levels of education are more likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted in society than those who have less education.
  • Religion plays a role in the response of those surveyed (e.g. in some countries, those who are affiliated with a religious group tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than those who are unaffiliated). As per the research, in most cases, the affiliated comparison group is made up of Christians; and yet “even among Christians, Catholics are more likely to accept homosexuality than Protestants and evangelicals in many countries with enough adherents for analysis.”
  • Political ideology plays a role in acceptance of homosexuality (i.e. those on the political right are less accepting of homosexuality than those on the left).
  • Attitudes on this issue are strongly correlated with a country’s wealth (i.e. people in wealthier and more developed economies are more accepting of homosexuality than are those in less wealthy and developed economies) – e.g. in Israel, 52% of higher income earners say homosexuality is acceptable in society versus only three-in-ten of lower income earners.
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At what cost? HIV service disruptions at the time of Covid-19

One of the biggest casualties of Covid-19 may be the delivery of other services, such as HIV testing. In the Philippines, HIV prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%, and HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%. And sans clear B&W guidelines, community-based service providers continue to be at a loss.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Unsplash.com

Ashley Galvinez, board member of the Sta. Catalina Active LGBT Organization in Zamboanga in Mindanao, used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). “I’ve been doing this since I became sexually active,” she said to Outrage Magazine via video interview.

But then the world was struck by Covid-19, and the country was placed under lockdown. And this already-regular part of her health monitoring was stopped.

Kaya sa bahay na lang muna; tiis-ganda,” she said, adding that she was still scared she could get infected with HIV or get sexually-transmitted infections.

The fear of Galvinez isn’t unfounded.

This May, UNAIDS noted with the World Health Organization (WHO) “the need for urgent efforts to ensure the continuity of HIV prevention and treatment services in order to avert excess HIV-related deaths and to prevent increases in HIV incidence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be important for countries to prioritize shoring up supply chains and ensuring that people already on treatment are able to stay on treatment, including by adopting or reinforcing policies such as multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral therapy in order to reduce requirements to access health-care facilities for routine maintenance, reducing the burden on overwhelmed health-care systems.”

“Every death is a tragedy,” said Winifred Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS. “We cannot sit by and allow hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, to die needless deaths.”

This is in no way limited to the Philippines, too.

UNAIDS similarly noted that “if efforts are not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021.”

In 2018, approximately 470,000 people died of AIDS-related deaths in that region.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General was quoted as saying. “We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services.”

To be specific, disrupted HIV-related services could include:

  • Difficulty in accessing antiretroviral medicines
  • Reduced quality clinical care owing to health facilities becoming overstretched
  • Suspension of viral load testing
  • Reduced adherence counseling and drug regimen switches
  • Interruption of condom availability
  • Suspension of HIV testing
Ashley Galvinez used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). Covid-19 stopped this.

ALSO IN NEED OF FOCUS

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

Jaud added that there is a need to face reality that HIV cases are increasing in the Philippines.

From October to December 2019, there were 3,029 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals reported to the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP). Sixteen percent (474) had clinical manifestations of advanced HIV infection at the time of testing.

By end-2019, the country was registering 35 new HIV infections per day, up from only one case per day in 2008, seven in 2011, and 16 in 2014.

EMPHASIS ON COVID-19

In Antipolo at the outskirts of Metro Manila, Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

“It doesn’t mean that our (HIV-related) services stopped,” he said, but these services were instead only modified. For instance, the actual HIV testing is the same (e.g. blood extraction, et cetera); but the pre- and post-test counseling were amended (via installation of dividers, practice of social distancing, as well as use of face shields and/or masks) so that the counselor and the client are protected.

But at least, Tenoria said, “we have some foot traffic.”

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

HALTED COMMUNITY-BASED SCREENING

Tenoria, at least, works in a health facility.

But – as far as HIV testing and/or screening is concerned – it is the community-based screening (CBS) that has been greatly affected, many actually stalled.

CBS is the HIV screening process done by the likes of Jaud, wherein a volunteer/screener goes to communities to offer HIV testing and screening. This is particularly beneficial to those who live far from a testing facility or those who may not have the time to visit a testing facility.

In idea, this seems like a good idea particularly at the time of Covid-19 because the lockdowns meant people have no means to access health facilities.

But according to Gregory Rugay from the CBS team of Northern Sanctuary MCC in Baguio City, “screening itself has totally stopped at the moment.”

Instead, the focus has been to link to treatment, care and support those who have tested reactive or positive before Covid-19 lockdowns.

“It is kind of tricky,” Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing. With the pandemic going on, you are at a loss on how to treat this kind of issue because their symptoms can also point to (having) Covid-19.”

Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

WANTED: COMMUNITY-BASED SERVICE PROVIDERS

Rugay’s fear has merit… even if, obviously, the services he used to be able to freely offer is still needed.

On May 18, UNAIDS stated that “the role of community-led organizations must be appropriately recognized and supported in the context of COVID-19. They must be factored into all aspects of planning, design and implementation of interventions to combat both COVID-19 and the efforts required to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on other health areas, including HIV and tuberculosis.”

And so UNAIDS recommended, among others:

  • Including community-led health care service providers into lists of essential service providers
  • Policies allowing community-led services to continue operating safely
  • Ensure that community-led organizations are provided with personal protective equipment and training to protect them and their clients in service delivery

LACK OF CLARITY?

In terms of CBS, “they do not have specific guidelines,” Tenoria said. “There’s no clear guideline on how to mobilize CBS.”

This is even if three months have passed since the Covid-19 lockdown has started.

Jaud agrees, saying that “there’s no protocol – e.g. in using personal protective equipment (PPE).” What happens now is – at least in her case – they rely on the practices of the city health office, as well as the practices of NGOs.

Still waxing positive, Jaud said that the Department of Health (DOH) may have not focused on this because – obviously – Covid-19 was the focus for a while, and because there may have been this assumption that because there are a lot of NGOs/CBOs in this field already, they may already know what to do.

In Baguio, Rugay himself was told by someone offering CBS that CBS is actually stalled.

He admitted, though, that he can’t imagine himself offering CBS now particularly if doing so would mean he would be exposing himself to Covid-19, and thereby exposing his loved ones to the same when he returns home.

Tenoria said that “perhaps we need (something written in black and white), on what will be the direction (under) the ‘new normal’.”

He admitted that there were shortcomings particularly when the country – and the world – was initially responding to Covid-19. “Medyo napag-iwanan talaga yung HIV program.”

But now, there ought to be guidelines (beyond the initial one developed by DOH, though that one only focused on accessing antiretroviral medicines). For Tenoria, clearer guidelines will also provide clarity to both service providers and those accessing the services particularly as these may align protocols.

HIV BOOM ABOUT TO HAPPEN?

As it is, all lung-related cases in Antipolo are now considered as suspected Covid-19 cases, said Tenoria.

This is worth noting because tuberculosis (TB), for instance, is an opportunistic infection (OI); and it occurs more often/more severe in people with weakened immune systems (like someone with HIV).

So even if a person with HIV who may not have Covid-19 may have lung-related issues, he/she is required to be isolated. This, then, leads to another (and related) issue: The limited capacity of health facilities in the Philippines.

Tenoria admitted as much, saying that looking for facilities for PLHIVs is harder because isolation rooms are being dedicated to Covid-19 patients.

Of course: Those who test reactive but who have no OIs are luckier, as they are automatically enrolled into the system so they can immediately access ARVs.

For Rugay, “at this moment, there’s nothing we can do for (PLHIVs whose detection is late).” But for him, what the HIV arm of DOH should do is “step up in preparing itself for (a possibility of a) barrage of late detections once they figure out how we do screenings again. Are they prepared/equipped to have all those patients come in?”

FROM THE D.O.H.

A June 10 letter signed by Usec. Dr. Myrna Cabotaje from Department of Health (DOH) to Outrage Magazine noted the impact of Covid-19 on HIV program implementation. Specifically: Prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%; HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%; viral load testing reduced by 42%; and ARV refill services reduced by 5%.

These impacts were due to: geographic concerns, transportation issues and strict checkpoints.

As Tenoria already noted, a guideline was actually developed by DOH. But its main focus was on PLHIVs (particularly, access to ARVs by those already diagnosed to have HIV), and not on those who have yet to be tested.

But Cabotaje’s letter stated that data from HARP for January-March 2020 shows 552 new HIV cases. Meaning, according to HARP, “HIV testing, mostly facility-based, were still provided.”

For January-March 2020, 682 PLHIVs were also initiated on ART.

Asked about protocols re HIV testing, DOH stated that “at this point, HIV testing protocol based on current capacity of both the government and CBOs is centered on ether facility-based testing or community-based HIV screening. Our current HIV projects, e.g. Global Fund HIV grant, thru Save the Children, provided essential PPE to our field workers for them to continue performing their prevention and testing work.”

The likes of Jaud in Zamboanga and Rugay in Baguio are, obviously, not recipients of the aforementioned PPEs.

Moving forward, DOH is also looking at self-screening as an approach to HIV testing, although “the country is still currently testing this approach in a limited manner.”

No timelines were mentioned in the letter.

GOOD PRACTICES

Exactly because HIV-related efforts seemed to have relied on localized practices, some good practices have emerged.

In Naga City, for instance, Tenoria noted that HIV testing is offered with Covid-19 testing.

Still in Zamboanga, when goods are distributed, safer sex kits are included.

And still in Zamboanga, Jaud started tapping clients online; and this is even if this effort remains limiting because not everyone is active online.

“It’s difficult because gatherings of a big number of people are not allowed,” said Jaud. Her target population – i.e. transgender women in Zamboanga – frequently avail of HIV screening when they have gatherings. But now, “tapping social media has been helpful.”

Worth noting is how this immediately limits Jaud’s service delivery – i.e. because she know of the risks related to Covid-19, the clients she now serves are limited to people she knows/are friends with.

“It is kind of tricky,” Gregory Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing.”

PROGRAMS STILL NEED TO CONTINUE

In the end, Tenoria said that people in power hopefully realize that there are still programs that need to be run. “Just as we say in HIV (advocacy), ‘No one should be left behind’.”

This is because sans the needed support, Rugay said people involved in CBS are limited. And so he urges those who want to get tested to, instead, go to health facilities, particularly if they may also have symptoms linked with Covid-19.

Konting pasensya lang sana,” he said, until “we have clear protocols and figure it out how to make it safe for everyone concerned.”

“We (still) encourage everyone to get tested for HIV,” Tenoria said. But those who want to get tested will have to coordinate first with health facilities to schedule testing. Still, this “should not be a hindrance for you to access services (even during this pandemic).”

For Jaud, “we have to capacitate outreach workers (like myself)”. This may be via supplying with gears (e.g. PPE), training, and – yet again – laying down of protocols to use.

Back in Zamboanga, Galvinez said that government offices should give attention to community-based health workers like Jaud, who’s also “a frontliner. They’re ready to help, and serve the community.”

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Outrage Mag’s MDCTan recognized for ‘Art that Matters for Literature’ by Amnesty Int’l Phl

Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

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Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” – is joined by co-awardees Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Bro. Armin Luistro, FSC, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Individual; and Lorenzo Miguel Relente, Young Outstanding Human Rights Defender.

These awards are part of “Ignite Awards for Human Rights”, given to human rights defenders (HRDs) in recognition of the impact their work bring in changing peoples’ lives through mobilization, activism, rights-based policy advocacy and art. First of its kind, it is Amnesty International Philippines’ top honor given to human rights defenders in the country.

According to Tan, getting the recognition is an honor, particularly as “it recognizes our work in highlighting the minority LGBTQIA community in the Philippines. But this also highlights that for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

In a statement, Butch Olano, Amnesty International Philippines section director said that “this season’s recipients come from varying human rights backgrounds, from press freedom and right to education to gender equality and SOGIESC rights, but they share one dedication, that is to fight for basic rights of Filipinos. They truly ignite the human rights cause, speaking up against injustices and exposing inequalities on behalf of those who, otherwise, will not be heard.”

Olano added: “Amnesty International Philippines strongly believes that our individual and collective power as a people working towards transforming and uplifting each other should be given due recognition and appreciation despite the political turmoil the country has been experiencing for a few years now. It is necessary to shine a spotlight on those individuals who continue to pave the way for collective action.”

Michael David C. Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” from Amnesty International Philippines – at work while providing media coverage to members of the LGBTQIA community in Caloocan City.

The nominations for Ignite Awards 2020 was opened exactly a year ago (May 28), and it took the organization a year to finalize the nominations and vetting process together with its Selection Committee and Board of Judges chaired by Atty. Chel Diokno.

May 28 also marks Amnesty International’s 59th anniversary.

“When people lead in taking a stand for human rights especially in difficult situations, it emboldens many others in their struggles against injustice. Our Ignite Awardees’ commitment is all the more remarkable because of the alarming levels of repression and inequality that ordinary people are experiencing amid this pandemic. Throughout and certainly beyond the immediate crisis, these human rights defenders will continue to stand up on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society. Together, we will call on the government to ensure access to universal healthcare, housing and social security needed to survive the health and economic impacts of Covid-19, while ensuring that extraordinary restrictions on basic freedoms do not become the new normal,” Olano said.

Michael David C. Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”.

Tan – who originated from Kidapawan City in Mindanao, southern Philippines – finished Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. In 2007, he established Outrage Magazine, which – even now – remains as the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Among others: In 2015, he wrote “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippine Country Report” for UNDP and USAID to provide an overview on the situation of the LGBTQIA movement in the country, and where the movement is headed; and in 2018, he wrote a journalistic stylebook on LGBTQIA terminology to help media practitioners when providing coverage to the local LGBTQIA community.

Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”. For instance, speaking at a 2019 conference on human rights and the Internet organized by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), he said that “there is a disconnect between what’s online and what’s happening on the ground. And this stresses one thing: The need to not solely rely on making it big digitally, but also go beyond the so-called ‘keyboard activism’.”

Michael David C. Tan – seen here giving SOGIESC and HIV 101 lecture to over a thousand students in Quezon Province – said that “for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

Along with Tan, this year’s awardees join 2018’s recipients: Sen. Leila De Lima, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender-Individual; DAKILA Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Floyd Scott Tiogangco, Outstanding Young Human Rights Defender; and Cha Roque, Art that Matters for Film.

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Covid-19 and the freelancer’s dilemma

The Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. But Covid-19 responses actually do not include them, so what happens to them now?

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Kate is a visual artist. She resigned from her day job to pursue her passion two years ago. Painting and creating origami, her income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students.  

Nicole is a freelance makeup artist. Her clients varied from celebrities to socialites to brides and debutantes… and everything in between. Nicole used to earn a minimum of P3,000 per client, with the amount increasing depending on the type of service being offered.

Lumina is a drag artist, a common face in dance clubs and in events. Aside from her “talent fee”, she also used to get “tips” from customers.

But when the Covid-19 related Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Luzon starting last March 17, their capacity to earn a living was also put on hold. And people like them – a.k.a. “freelancers” – are many.

In May 2019, PayPal (the payment system company) reported that the Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. In fact, this is a segment that is fast becoming an influential part of the Filipino workforce and a key engine driving the growth of the country’s economy.

The terms used to refer to them may vary – e.g. In October 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that of the 73,528,000 population in the Philippines, ages 15 years and over, 95.5% are employed. And 25% of them are “self-employed workers”. Freelancers also fall under PSA’s categorization.

And ECQ has been devastating to these Filipinos.

“The current lockdown left us, freelance workers, in a complete halt — events and shows were cancelled. It technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home,” Lumina said.

Like Lumina, Kate said freelancer workers are “so tied to the situation.”

“Even if I want to sell my work or earn a living, I cannot do anything right now,” Kate added.

Painting and creating origami, Kate’s income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students. Everything was affected by Covid-19.
Photo by Fallon Michael from Unsplash.com

What gov’t support?

There are supposed to be government support for workers affected by the ECQ.

In a statement released last March 17, for instance, the Department of Labor and Employment stated that they “may be able to address the pressing needs of the rest of the affected workers in the quarantined areas.” 

DOLE developed the following mitigating measures: “Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program” (CAMP), “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers” (TUPAD), and “DOLE-AKAP for OFWs”.  

CAMP will serve “affected workers regardless of status (i.e. permanent, probationary, or contractual), those employed in private establishments whose operations are affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” TUPAD “aims to contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive growth.” The program is “a community based (municipality/barangay) package of assistance that provides temporary wage employment.” And the DOLE-AKAP specifically caters to overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced due to the imposition of lockdown or community quarantine, or have been infected with the disease.   

DOLE reiterated that the only qualified beneficiaries are the underemployed, self-employed and displaced marginalized workers. To help these people, “employment” is offered – i.e. the nature of work shall be the disinfection or sanitation of their houses and its immediate vicinity, and the duration will be limited to 10 days. The person will be receiving 100% of the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region.

Pre-Covid-19, Nicole could earn from P3,000 per client; nowadays, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda.

Another government body eyeing to supposedly help is the Social Security System (SSS), where employees of small businesses may apply to be considered for the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) Program. 

To add, the government agency is also geared up to pay some 30,000 to 60,000 workers projected to be unemployed due to possible layoffs or closures of Covid-19 affected private companies.

Some arts-focused institutions like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) also developed their own “disaster-triggered funding mechanism” to help address the “lack of support from the government.” In FDCP’s case, the program aims to help displaced freelance audio-visual workers—from talents, to production staff and technical crew members.

But note how all efforts are mum on freelance workers.

For drag performer Lumina, Covid-19 “technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home.”

Making ends meet

And so many are left to do something they never did – i.e. rely on others just to survice.

In the case of Nicole, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda

Sobrang hirap ng sitwasyon ngayon. Hindi ko alam kung saan ako kukuha ng panggastos. ‘Yung ipon ko paubos na, tapos kailangan ko pa magbayad ng renta sa bahay at ibang bills (The situation now is very hard. I don’t know where to get money to spend. My savings are almost gone, and yet I still have to pay for my rent and the bills),” she said.

Lumina, for her part, is “lucky” because she still lives with her family, and “they have been providing for my basic needs since the lockdown started.”

Her luck isn’t necessarily shared by many – e.g. Human Rights Watch earlier reported that “added family stresses related to the Covid-19 crisis – including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – heighten the risk of violence in the home… The United Nations secretary-general has reported a ‘horrifying‘ global surge in domestic-based violence linked to Covid-19, and calls to helplines in some countries have reportedly doubled.”

To add: “In a household of six members, I think the goods that we are receiving from the government is not enough,” Lumina said, hoping that “every freelance worker also receive benefits from the government that would in a way cover the earnings that we lost.”

Bleak future?

In 2017, when PayPal conducted a survey of over 500 freelancers in the Philippines, the results showed that the country had a “very optimistic freelancer market”, with 86% of freelancers claiming they anticipate future growth in their businesses. In fact, at that time, 23% of the respondents said their business is growing steadily, while 46% said their business is stable.

But Covid-19 turned everything upside-down for many.

There are rays of hope.

Toptal survey, for instance, pointed out that 90% of companies depend on freelancers to augment their professional workforce, and – get this – 76% of surveyed executives intend to increase use of independent professionals to provide expertise either to supplement full-time talent or to access skills and experiences they lack in their workforce. 

This may be particularly true to those whose works do not involve face-to-face engagement (e.g. graphics design, BPOs).

And so for the likes of Kate, Nicole and Lumina — and many other freelance workers for that matter, whose works rely on being with people — the way to get through now is to just to make do with what they can grasp on… while trapped inside and hoping for a better future, where reliance (including in a non-responsive government) is not in the picture… 

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