For years, an HIV diagnosis marked a death sentence. But science has come a long way towards making HIV manageable; people living with HIV (PLHIV) who are under therapy are now presumed to have the same life expectancy as any other healthy person.
I think about my younger self who had this long-held belief that having multiple sexual partners was the sole cause of being HIV+, and how local pop culture led me to wrongfully think of it as a disease of the LGBTQ+ community. It was only later that a feature on a local TV show, supported by information campaigns, dispelled these myths. I learned that HIV can affect anyone, even those in monogamous relationships. And while it is transmissible, we have existing measures to prevent it and make it undetectable.
These misconceptions have persisted for generations and have become barriers for many to get themselves tested. They fear receiving contempt within their own homes and shame within their circles. While efforts to redefine the experiences of PLHIV have dramatically improved over the years, there’s still so much to unlearn.
According to the Department of Health (DOH), the Philippines still has one of the fastest-rising rates of HIV cases, with 46 daily cases recorded in January 2023. In that same month, the HIV/AIDS registry reported 86 Filipinos aged 19 and below tested positive, 98% of whom had contracted it through unprotected sex. “They have access to everything. They can have sex anytime they want, through dating apps and social media,” explains Natalie, a trans woman on PrEP, on why more and more young people are reported to have HIV. This further calls for the need to meet and engage them in platforms and avenues where they are.
In a conservative country like ours where we tread lightly on addressing HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, it’s only through openly discussing it and allowing it to surface in everyday conversations that destigmatization can take place.
The Festival of Luv, in support of the Free 2 Be U campaign, is an example of how it’s supposed to be done: inclusive and spoken without any bars held. Set against the backdrop of the vibrant nightlife at The Pop Up in Katipunan, Quezon City, the Festival of Luv is the right place to drive calls for HIV testing and awareness among the youth. Performances from well-respected drag queens like Jiggly Caliente, Minty Fresh, and Viñas Deluxe may have served as the highlight for many, but I see these as catalysts to keep this important conversation going.
To get tested is to give yourself and the people around you a choice to lead a healthy life—an action that, when normalized, can shift the narrative around HIV.
One striking fact highlighted during the Festival of Luv is how inaccessibility keeps HIV care an unknown concept. Inaccessibility to information, coupled with the idea that antiretroviral medicines are expensive, is what may as well be the true culprit of HIV cases progressing into a life-threatening disease among Filipino PLHIV.
“Mahalagang pinag-uusapan ito sa lahat ng antas at sa lahat ng lugar na posible. Kaya kailangan ‘yung mga tao sa likod ng adbokasiya, ‘yung mga taong nagtatrabaho sa HIV at AIDS, ay may sapat na kaalaman tungkol dito para kahit anong edad, kahit nasaan, ay maaari itong pag-usapan,” says Kael Mata, a PLHIV, in a panel discussion during the Festival of Luv.
Mata shares how he felt the need to end his life when he first learned about his status—unaware that there was a viable alternative for him. He recalls how terrified he felt when his family later found out. One morning, as his father's back was turned to him preparing breakfast, his father began crying followed by an admission that he knew of Mata’s status all along: “Alam ko na anak. Bakit mo pinabayaan ‘yung sarili mo?”
Now in his ninth year as a PLHIV, Mata stresses, “Ang aking panawagan ay simple. Lahat ng tao ay darating sa punto na makikipagtalik at kapag naisipan nila makipagtalik, available ang safe ways para maprotektahan sila at ito ay dapat pinagkakaloob ng gobyerno.”
Antiretroviral therapy (ARV) is available to help PLHIV get back on their feet. A blue pill that can make HIV U=U (Undetectable = Untransmissible); a once-a-day medication that is a lifeline to a normal life. But prevention still takes front and center to stop its spread. Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a highly effective HIV preventive method, is available in community-based and evidence-led organizations like EPIC, LoveYourself.ph, and even healthcare clinics like Hi-Precision.
Our government must continue to intensify its efforts to raise awareness and make these medications accessible to everyone. In our own way, we can reach out to our circles: If anyone I know contracts HIV, would they know there’s a pill on the market that can help them?
The Free 2 Be U campaign supported by DOH reiterates that having HIV is not the end. Breaking down economic barriers that make therapy inaccessible is a life extension to PLHIV, and a critical step towards a world without HIV/AIDS.
The Festival of Luv ends with a resounding call: knowing your status, in all its vulnerability, is an act of strength that fosters a culture of care. To get tested is to give yourself and the people around you a choice to lead a healthy life—an action that, when normalized, can shift the narrative around HIV.