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I Never Imagined Seeing an AIDS-Free Generation

November 30, 2012

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I did. Teacher, businesswoman, lawyer, environmentalist (one semester in the 7th grade) -- all careers I tried on in my head. My uncle was the only one who knew my secret dreams of traveling the world, helping people when I could, but mostly learning about people different from me. He wasn't a casual tourist. He lived with indigenous groups for months at a time, learned countless languages and histories of oppressed minorities, all the while instilling in me a sense of global citizenship.

When I saw him for the last time in December 1997, the Santos family had reunited in my lola's Quezon City house for the holidays. Tito Danny's head was shaved and as small-statured as I remembered him from pictures, he seemed so much "less" of himself in person. Same big smile was there. One time I caught a drop of sadness in the corner of his eyes, but he hid it away as best he could. I was so happy to spend time with him, since I fancied myself an adult and wanted to brag about what little I knew of the world. We talked about the people displaced by Mount Pinatubo's volcanic eruption. I told him about my school clubs. As usual, I planned to visit him in Rotterdam because I figured it was about time for my parents to give me permission as a teenager to travel alone. I was still dreaming back then, you see.

It all changed the night my mom took me aside for a midnight talk. My mother was and still is tight-lipped about most things. She rarely talked to me about feelings or things that weren't grounded in practical matters like school or health. This time, she told me how she noticed all the medication bottles my uncle had, the same meds as her patients in the hospital intensive care unit. All I knew about my mother's job was that she was a nurse who worked nights; I found out that some of her patients had AIDS. She basically outed my uncle as possibly suffering from AIDS. Oh, and she also outed him as a gay man.

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We never talked about it with my father. Impossible. Filipino society may tolerate cross-dressing ladyboys at the clubs and wealthy gay men in the barrios as Hermano sponsors of the Flores de Mayo religious processions; in your own family, homosexuality was a different matter. If you couldn't talk about being gay, how could you talk to family about being HIV positive?

It was about four months later that my father received the call to get on a plane to the Netherlands. My uncle was in the hospital and scans indicated that he was brain-dead. I wasn't allowed to go. How could I? In my dad's eyes, I was just some naive girl who didn't really know his younger brother.

Flash-forward to Tito Danny's funeral in the Philippines. The Santos clan, all except for my father's sister, had no idea AIDS was even in the picture. My father confided to me how Tito Danny contracted HIV and how his Dutch-born lover of 10 years was the very reason he left the Philippines. He told me this in a single car-ride and never spoke about his brother's cause of death again unless I brought it up.

Fast forward again, this time to December 2002. I was crowned Miss Philippines USA and traveled on a goodwill tour of the Philippines right before Christmas. The bare minimum of my duties was to give a check of $200 to a charity of my choice, in the great tradition of 20 past beauty queens before me. Boy, were the pageant organizers surprised when I turned my trip into a full-fledged multi-city speaking tour as an ambassador for AIDS activism. I did many memorable things but the most memorable was sneaking in the words condom and safe sex into my public speeches to the Junior Chamber of Commerce chapters. My liaison warned gently that those words were taboo even when talking about health.

From that point on, I thought of AIDS as my enemy, one that I had to fight against using my words. I never thought of AIDS as something that could be eradicated by me because that was too abstract and far-fetched. I could fight against the stigma that kept people from getting tested. I could donate money to scientists developing ever more advanced drug cocktails to prolong life after a positive diagnosis. I could teach my son about tolerance and the philosophy that AIDS and HIV didn't define a person so he couldn't judge a person by that label. Hey, maybe with some hard work and a few decades, I could finally start that foundation in my uncle's name to sponsor tolerance and scholarships for young dreamers like him. Those were things that I grasped, things I could do.

One of my favorite Sandman stories by Neil Gaiman is issue #18, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats." A cat wanders the globe telling her story of meeting another cat who is presumably Dream/Morpheus, King of the Dreaming. Dream tells her once upon a time giant cats ruled over human slaves but a single man completely changed that reality. He called to his fellow humans to dream of a new world in which they were the masters. The man said, "Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night. Do not dream the world the way it is now ... I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen." The message spread until one night enough humans dreamed and the next morning the world was transformed into what it is now. The prophet cat concludes her story by saying, "If a bare thousand of us dream ... we can change the world."

Who knew that only 10 years after my trip to the Philippine National AIDS Council discussing the lack of government funding for prevention and treatment programs that I would be sitting in front of a computer screen reading about the steps toward an AIDS-free generation and "getting to zero"?

Happy birthday to me. One of my wishes came true.

Pamela K. Santos is a dreamer, a fighter, a do-gooder and a proud comics geek. Send birthday wishes and World AIDS Day news to her on Twitter @pamelaksantos and read more on her site.

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