The first time I heard of the increase of HIV cases in the Philippines, it was from my friend Manuel. He worked as a researcher for various international organizations as well as the Department of Health. We were in a coffee shop, just hanging out, talking about unimportant things, when he brought it up.
"I don't think I should be telling you this," he said. "It's all still confidential. Well sort of. Actually I don't know. Anyway, I want to tell this to you as a friend because I want to warn you."
"Well, there is substantial data coming in that shows an alarming increase in HIV cases this past year."
"Very. Before, HIV cases were limited substantially to female sex workers and to heterosexual men who had sex with them. The new cases are coming from men who sleep with men. The most vulnerable people, well, according to the limited information that I know, are those who work in call centers."
"We don't know yet."
I was having dinner with my friend Ron when I learned that the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran an article about the increase in HIV cases, where they underscored the fact that most of the new cases came from gay men who worked in call centers. I asked him how he felt, as a gay man who actually worked in the same industry.
"I don't really know how I feel about it," he said. "Well, first, because it's not like I'm having a lot of sex right now. Second, I've always been careful. STDs scare me."
"Does it make you more wary of having sex with people from the same industry?" I asked.
"Not really. Well, maybe. I don't know, I've always been careful," he insisted.
We were in photographer Niccolo Cosme's exhibit commemorating World AIDS Day when Wanggo Gallaga came out as a gay man afflicted with HIV. The room was expectedly tense. His voice was clear, though there were moments that I thought it would break. His speech was short, and purposeful. When it ended, there was a moment of silence. The type that seemed so deafening.
Then applause. I looked at my friend Ioanis, who asked me to come with him. There were tears in his eyes. I realized there were some in mine too.
I made it a point to walk up to Wanggo right after to commend him for his bravery.
"I think this epidemic, if you can call it that, is almost inevitable really," a friend said to me one day.
"What do you mean?"
"It's like this, we all know that HIV is real, but at the same time, we also felt that HIV wasn't really a problem within the Philippine gay community. At least until now. The number of people who actually practiced safe sex is woefully low. Barebacking is a given. We should have expected this."
"I agree. I think we looked at World AIDS Day as one big party. The literature was there, and the warning signs. We didn't listen I think."
“Here's my theory. I think that before, we've always thought of HIV as a problem foreigners have. Some disease that people in America or Africa get, but never for us here. We were isolated. We felt safe in our cocoon. So we got lazy, and we forgot the danger. Now we're paying the price for our failure and our apathy."
"Well, let's hope the price doesn't get too high."
"Well, yes , but even one case is one case too high."
"My roommate's ex just got diagnosed with HIV."
“How did you know?”
“He told me. Besides, word gets around. We’re not exactly a large community.”
“I must admit, this is really starting to scare me.”
“What can we do?”
“I’m not really sure. All of this just seems so new. It shouldn’t be, but that is how it feels to me. It’s scary.”
Photo taken here.