In the fight against AIDS, a troubling trend for Filipinos
SAN FRANCISCO—This year’s World AIDS Day was understandably upbeat. New treatments have helped keep the disease under control. Infection rates in many countries are falling.
“We think the end of AIDS is coming about,” Dr. Richard Marlink, executive director of the AIDS Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times.
Sadly, that’s not the case in the Philippines. For Filipinos, the trend is headed in the wrong direction. As the UN program on AIDS reported, the Philippines is only one of seven countries where infection rates rose in 2010.
After all, AIDS has killed more than 30 million people over the past 30 years. And it’s proven to be devastating for many countries and communities. The devastation can extend beyond a specific group or community.
Ignore the problem and you risk having an epidemic that can have major human, social and even economic consequences.
That’s what happened in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I moved here 20 years ago, the region was still reeling from the impact of an epidemic that killed thousands of Americans.
While it initially became known—and dismissed—as a gay disease, it clearly was a bigger threat by the 1990s. I still remember how stunned people were when basketball star Magic Johnson disclosed that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The good news is that, thanks to new treatments, people like Magic Johnson have survived, even thrived, as they lived with HIV.
Still, the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area and the U.S. should serve as reminder for the Philippines. This is especially true given the hurdles the fight against AIDS faces in the Philippines.
There’s the Catholic hierarchy’s Medieval views on contraception and safe sex. Then there’s homophobia.
The recent brouhaha over Piolo Pascual underscores this. (Who cares if he’s gay or not? That’s his business.)
While the controversy over the actor’s relationship with KC Concepcion is just another silly, senseless showbiz sideshow, it highlights the corrosive prejudice against gays and lesbians that’s bound to make any effort to reach out to a community known to be vulnerable to AIDS.
Fortunately, the Philippines can build on strengths in the fights against AIDS.
The country has a fairly vibrant community of advocates for AIDS education and for gay and women’s rights. And the Philippines can even draw lessons and support from Filipinos in the Bay Area who played a critical role in the U.S. fight against AIDS.
Many Filipinos spearheaded the campaign in the Bay Area through such organizations as the Asian AIDS Project, the Filipino Task Force on AIDS, the GAPA Community HIV Project, and the Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center.
My wife Mara, one of the founding directors of the API Wellness Center, began her career as a public health professional distributing educational materials (and condoms) to and reaching out to gays and transgenders in bars in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. (Friends used to joke, “Pare, nag ba-bar hopping na naman si misis.”
The campaign in the Filipino and Asian communities in the U.S. hasn’t been easy. Advocates and public health workers must deal with a predominantly immigrant community where homophobia is strong, and where AIDS was widely viewed as a problem just of gay Whites.
But in some ways, the mainstream U.S. campaign even learned from Filipinos. For instance, mainstream advocates typically try to avoid using the term “victim,” preferring to say “people living with AIDS,” which is seen as being more empowering.
But as my friend and former AIDS activist Jane Po explained to me back in the 1990s, that doesn’t really work in the Filipino community where the word “victim” and the concept of “awa” can be effective in rallying support.
In fact, I realized this when I interviewed an elderly Filipino who became a volunteer in AIDS outreach. The stigma of dealing with gays was still strong, however—when I interviewed him for a short documentary, he asked that his face not be shown. But the old man said he volunteered because he felt sorry for the Filipinos battling the illness, many of whom were young people.
In fact, that’s an important reason why the AIDS threat should be taken seriously.
AIDS has been known to devastate communities by striking young people in their prime of their lives — when they are most innovative, creative and productive, when they are blazing trails for the nation in different arenas.
For instance, imagine the epidemic spreading in a huge and rapidly growing group in the Philippines. Hundreds of thousands of young Filipinos have turned the Philippines into the new capital of the call center and business process outsourcing industry — an industry in which the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases has been identified as a problem.
Yes, there are now treatments that can help those with HIV survive even as they live with the virus. But some treatments are expensive. Teaching people how not to get infected is still the best approach.
The human faces and stories behind the deaths are most important, of course.
World AIDS Day inevitably reminds me of one person: my late teacher, Marlon Riggs.
He was one of the most accomplished documentary filmmakers of his generation, a courageous activist for the rights of gays and African Americans, and, to me and many of my classmates, one the most inspiring professors at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
But his promising career was cut short by AIDS. Marlon was only 37 when he died in 1994.
Those of us who knew him lost a mentor and a friend. The world lost a brilliant artist and thinker. Marlon could have accomplished so much more.
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