By Maia Fortich-Poblete
The movies And the Band Played On and It’s My Party introduced me to HIV and AIDS. Both movies were shown in the 90s, long after Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were first discovered. I was still in high school when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognized AIDS and its cause (HIV) in 1981.
Like many others, I did not understand what HIV and AIDS were all about. All I knew was that one could get infected by having sex with different partners, particularly with partners of the same sex. I was afraid of people with HIV and AIDS, but I was sure I was safe because I wasn’t like them. My young mind could not go beyond that understanding. But after watching the movie, everything changed. My whole perception of HIV and AIDS changed. I began to respect and admire persons living with HIV (PLHIV).
Society treats people infected with HIV as outcasts. They’re treated with disgust and looked down on. Our society crucifies PLHIV. This is the stigma that every person living with HIV has to face every single day. As a result, many of them hide, run away, and never leave the house. Many of them decide to simply fade away. Many feel useless, unloved, and unimportant.
But persons living with HIV are humans like us. They have emotions like us. They deserve to laugh and enjoy life like us. They deserve respect, especially because what they are going through is not easy. Because we do not understand their suffering and their pain.
All the stigma tied to HIV and AIDS is a result of ignorance. A lot of people believe that by merely hugging or shaking the hands of a person with HIV, he will already be infected. Many stubbornly choose to believe that persons living with HIV are dirty and should, therefore, be shunned by society. All these because of ignorance.
Once people become aware of what HIV and AIDS are really about, the stigma will die down. It won’t dissipate easily like raindrops, but people will begin to understand. And, slowly but surely, PLHIV will no longer need to hide behind their shadows.
This is the reason why the group Pagbantog-Kagayan came up with Pagbantog HIV, a World AIDS Day celebration. The group, which was formed right after the bombing that rocked CDO last August, decided it was high time that Kagay-anons were encouraged to open their minds to the issue of HIV and AIDS. Several activities were drawn up and partnerships were formed.
So, together with ABS-CBN and Limketkai Center, Pagbantog HIV was unveiled. The celebration actually started a day earlier- on November 30 – as an HIV Forum, with students as participants, was held at the 2nd floor of Limketkai Mall. Speakers Michael Ray and Atty. Sam Tan shared their knowledge about HIV and AIDS and the Philippine AIDS Law to the eager-to-learn and extra participative audience.
Early the next morning, on December 1st, participants from different sectors of society (including members of the LGBT community) trooped to the Capitol Grounds for the HIV March. The march ended at Limketkai Center, where awards and certificates of participation were given out to the participants.
Later in the day, around 11:00 AM, the Hulagway Photo Exhibit was unveiled. Hulagway is a gathering of some of Cagayan de Oro’s best photographers, artists, and professionals. Ed Abella, Jessie Villegas, Glenn Palacio, and Bo Ju; along with the hair-and-make up team of Dandy Roa, shot portraits of Kagay-anons who share the group’s passion for HIV/AIDS awareness. Each photo was designed to highlight the importance of HIV and AIDS awareness. You’d know once you look in the eyes or the minute you notice all the red ribbons. The photos captured the attention of the crowd, which was exactly what the group wanted: to make some noise – any kind of noise.
The photo exhibit was followed by a yoga session facilitated by Yoga Kagayan, The Art of Living, and Body Basics. This was for the launching of The Project Oxygen, a support group for persons living with HIV. Headed by Stephen Christian Quilacio, the group gathers together not only PLHIV, but also activists and supporters of HIV and AIDS awareness. The Project Oxygen is affiliated with The Art of Living and Pagbantog-Kagayan.
Around 2pm, the Pagbantog HIV concert started – and lasted throughout the afternoon until the early evening. CDO’s finest artists rendered their services for free as they sang, danced, and shared stories that paint real pictures of HIV/AIDS. The singers sang about hope, something that every PLHIV needs. There were also messages of friendship, acceptance, and love.
Five artists delivered monologues that pictured different situations PLHIV goes through. One monologue showed an unsuspecting pregnant wife whose husband was recently diagnosed with HIV. The husband does not know how to tell the wife and his mother. A gay beautician spoke about how a friend – a PLHIV – felt when he lost friends after finding out he was infected with HIV. A good looking model talks about his HIV-infected partner; how he fears his partner might give up and let him go. Finally, there’s the health worker who has nine years of rich experiences filled with many colorful and painful stories of HIV and AIDS.
All these stories wove the music, songs, and dances into one big advocacy: that HIV is not just anything. It is something we should all know about. It is something we should all be aware of – so that there will be no more fear and no more stigma.
“Unta, nine years from now, wala na’y HIV (Nine years from now, I hope there’ll be no more HIV).” This is the health worker’s last line in her monologue. Her wish and hope. It is Pagbantog-Kagayan and The Project Oxygen’s hope, too. This is why there will be more Pagbantog HIVs and World AIDS Day celebrations in Cagayan de Oro.
Next year will be a bigger one; with more activities, more participants, and definitely more noise. For this is the only way to awaken the people to the reality of HIV and AIDS.