June 29, 2011
The Philippines is one of the seven countries worldwide that is experiencing an alarming rise in HIV. The situation is made worse by the fact that the government is nowhere to be seen when it comes to investing in prevention, care, treatment and support services for the people who need it the most. To this day HIV services in the Philippines are heavily reliant on foreign aid.
Rising HIV infection rates among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people is mirrored in other countries across Asia and worldwide. Similarly, lack of political will to address the growing problem also spans across national borders. Regardless of a country's economic status, gay, bisexual men, other MSM and transgender people are persistently denied of proper health, dignity and livelihood.
The main objective of this speech was to inspire action from within the community -- not just in the Philippines but everywhere -- and to seek support from others who believe that everyone has a right to health, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
I am here today to bring greetings from the regional response to HIV. I am the coordinator for ISEAN (the Insular Southeast Asian Network for MSM, TG and HIV).
ISEAN is a regional network of community-based HIV organizations that provide services for men-who-have-sex-with-men (fondly known as MSM by some) and transgender people, covering the archipelago nations in our region.
I come with an update on the regional HIV epidemic and I unfortunately I am not the bearer of good news.
According to UNAIDS -- the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS -- when you look at the Asia Pacific HIV epidemic among the general population the trend is actually leveling off.
But there are variations in every country.
What we're seeing however is that HIV prevalence among MSM and transgender people is on the increase in a majority of Asian countries.
I've been traveling around the region recently, trying to build support for a multi-country initiative for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria to provide capacity-building for community systems. I won't go into that now, but do speak to me later if you'd like to find out about it.
In every capital city I've visited over the last month news has broken that infection rates among MSM have increased exponentially. I believe Manila is heading on the same direction.
So while we must acknowledge that the HIV virus itself does not discriminate and that there are other key affected populations at risk of HIV, the reality is that burden of HIV infection is felt heaviest among gay and bisexual men, other MSM and transgender people.
In 2008, the Commission on Aids in Asia warned that a new wave of infections was imminent, and that by 2020, fifty-percent of new infections will come from MSM and transgender populations.
But despite this grim news, the gay community, region wide, is suffering from what a friend of mine described as a "complicated relationship with omission."
Policy-makers know that HIV infection rates among gay and bisexual men are skyrocketing, and yet, countries in our region are omitting any mention of men-who-have-sex-with-men from their national strategies.
National governments in our region are failing to heed evidence and allocate budget lines for prevention, care, treatment and support services that target men-who-have-sex-with-men in annual spending -- and the Philippines is no exception.
It's as if the regional HIV response has stepped into a scene of Harry Potter movie and our policy makers are going around the halls of the ministry quietly referring to "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."
How can we address the problem if we don't identify it in the first place?
I believe the situation is worse for the transgender community no recognition any in national statistics, let alone specialized services.
And yet, I've been told that HIV infection rates among transgender women are on track to be an explosive, yet hidden, epidemic.
Are we prepared for this?
Do our health systems have the capacity to deal with this situation?
Have we sufficient support structures to help the growing number of gay, bisexual and transgender people living with HIV to lead productive and happy lives?
How are we going to address the challenges faced by young gay and transgender people who face the prospect of living with HIV as they start their adult life?
International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, Manila, Philippines, May 27, 2011. Photo credit: Laurindo Garcia.
Now, I have to admit, it's easy for me to stand here and point my finger at the problem.
It's easy for us all to blame the government for our woes.
It's easy for us to condemn society for the social norms that stigmatize and discriminate against people whose sexual orientation and gender identity do not fit the heterosexual status quo.
But in doing so we are absolving ourselves of responsibility. By continually diverting attention to external factors out of our control, we deny ourselves a role in making change happen.
It's time for this style thinking to end. It's obsolete, and it's nothing but a disservice to our region, our country, our communities, families, friends and loved ones.
It's time for us to see ourselves as part of the solution.
It's time for the community to come together, and demand sustainable health, livelihood and acceptance in society
If we don't do this for ourselves -- if we don't take the lead in this fight -- then no one will do it for us.
The policies of our land will not change unless, our community groups and leaders set aside their differences, come together in a unified voice and demand equal rights and protection under the constitution.
The government will not put their money whether their mouth is, unless we the people hold them accountable to delivering their promises with clear, measurable, time-bound, and well-resourced implementation plans.
Law enforcement practices will not change until, we actively seek Police participation at the discussion table when it comes time to talk about HIV prevention strategies.
Our family and friends will not see the light if we continue to hide our true selves from the people we love.
So on an important day of remembrance like today, we must also remember that the HIV epidemic will not shift, while people living with HIV refrain from having the loudest voice in the room, and remind decision makers that effective prevention strategies start with 100% treatment coverage for people living with the virus.
I mentioned earlier that burden of HIV infections is carried by gay, bisexual men and transgender people, and yet there are so few openly gay, bisexual men and transgender people living with HIV who are willing to share their story and dispel the myth that people like me are akin to lepers, and clearly, we are NOT.
Nothing will change unless more people living with HIV, especially gay men living with HIV, are ready to stand beside me and lead by example.
The choice lies with all of us to take this first step towards social change, and I am confident that once we do, many others will follow.
One of my favorite quotes of all time, is one from Gandhi where he challenged us to "BE the change we want to see in the world."
We should be actively making ourselves part of the solution.
We should be harnessing this frustration and anger that we collectively feel, and transform this into action that benefits all our communities.
We should recognize our own ability to change people's hearts and minds and proactively challenge them to think differently.
We should stand up for our brothers, cousins, uncles, friends and co-workers who would otherwise think that their sexual orientation or gender identity is a source of shame.
We should be brave enough to be comfortable in our own skin, no matter what which way you were born, or whatever your HIV status may be.
If we can take this action into our own hands, THEN we may finally be on the right path to fight HIV in our country, and in our region.
Laurindo is the current coordinator for two regional MSM and transgender community networks in Asia, and led the community team behind the successful multi-country MSM and transgender initiative in Round 10. He has had a diverse background in media, public service, private sector and activism and is now in the process of starting up a new regional social enterprise seeking social change through communication and technology. He can be reached at email@example.com.