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Bagong Bayani: Finding New Heroes on the Filipino Margins

December 1, 2012

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Garcia warns that people of the transgender experience "are accepted, to a certain extent, only if [they] fit a particular archetype, whether you're a hairdresser, or entertainer, or a comedian. You can make us look good and laugh, but that's about all you'll be allowed to do." Limited societal roles due to high stigma and discrimination, coupled with lack of self-esteem and marginalized status, make the risk of HIV infection a reality for Filipinos of the transgender experience. Unfortunately, there is little to no hard data on the HIV epidemic among the trans population of the Philipppines.

Bric Bernard Bernas

Bric Bernard Bernas

While both OFWs and the trans population have a few fierce advocates, IDUs, a population at extremely high risk for transmission, have fewer people voicing concern on their behalf. Though substance use is taboo almost everywhere in the world and drug users are often considered persona non grata, these attitudes are somewhat magnified in the Philippines due to its hyper-conservative Catholic culture. Few are advocating for the IDU population, which is highly concentrated in metropolitan areas such as Cebu, a province that is home to more than four million people. "Especially in Cebu right now, there is also a growing number of people who are infected through injecting drugs," says Bric Bernas, a Filipino HIV advocate. "And the fact that there are laws in this country that prohibit distributing clean needles, that is somewhat of a challenge for the Philippines in terms of HIV prevention."

Garcia added, "[The IDU] epidemic has been running for much longer than people realize, and experiencing peaks and troughs. But I think that because drugs are so taboo and it is such a public enemy, that very few people are willing to speak up for it. The level of community mobilization around drug use is decades behind." Just as condom distribution is spearheaded by activists who face jail time for doing so, needle exchange is extremely rare in the Philippines and is done under the threat of punitive measures. With harm reduction and prevention efforts for drug users at a standstill, advocates on their behalf are more important than ever.

Making New Heroes


Activists in the Philippines are in a unique position in regards to correcting the inequalities and reducing the stigma felt by OFWs, transgender people, IDUs and other marginalized groups. Unlike in America, Dulfo pointed out that activists usually have national attention and are revered by the media. The Philippines' "national unions, people who are part of alliances that try to advocate on behalf of different sectors, issues -- they are actually national figures in the Philippines," she explains. "They are shown in TV, news. Because politics in the Philippines is, like, 'We've made it big.' So you have all of these organizations that work in different sectors, and they have managed to create a system where they are heard."

In fact, whereas in the U.S., movie stars and athletes such as Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson became the face of HIV/AIDS, in the Philippines' media, it was the general citizenry who was put up as the face of HIV. Dolzura Cortez, a woman, was the first person living with HIV to gain national attention, and Sarah Jane Salazar, the second, was a sex worker.

A thriving activist community, backed by a national media that supports its efforts, is an indispensable weapon in the Philippines' arsenal in the fight against HIV. As the demographics of those infected with HIV continue to shift from heterosexual women to other groups, Filipino activists try to make sure that all voices are heard and represented, and no one is left behind. Though there exists a palpable feeling of solidarity among activists regarding the need for the Philippines to reduce its HIV rate, there are several different views as to which path will get them there.

Niccolo Cosme

Niccolo Cosme

Niccolo Cosme, Filipino artist and activist, advocates sex education as the best way to get to zero. "We can only attain zero if we start with sex education. We lack sex education here in this country. If you know the demographics of the high-risk sectors, its' actually the young ones, from 15 to 21 years old. That's very young. When they get some bit of information and sex education, they're already exploring. So that's already too late. I really think that sex education should start at a very young age."

Garcia and Dulfo both emphasized empowerment as the key to getting to zero: Women, youth, MSM and other communities must be taught how to take control of their own sexual health if there is to be a difference, they said. Bernas stressed the importance of government resources, and of getting international and national support -- including from the Philippines' own private sector. Whether it be through education, advocacy or empowerment, one thing is clear: There is no dearth of activist power in the Philippines to move the mission forward.

In the 1970s, President Ferdinand Marcos spread an important message: Everyone had the potential to be bagong bayani -- "new heroes" -- by engaging in international labor for the Philippines. And, though he was a corrupt dictator looking to make money off the labor of his people, these activists' message is similar to Marcos' message: all citizens have the potential to be "new heroes." As resources and efforts to curb the rising tide of HIV in the Philippines go forward, Filipino activists know that it is not enough to advocate only for the gay population, and have begun to empower those even further marginalized -- including the trans, OFW and IDU populations in order to get to zero. The lesson is clear: whether at home or abroad, Filipinos empowered to advocate for sexual health -- their own or others'-- are working for the betterment of the Philippines' as a whole.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.

Copyright © 2012 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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