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#KaraniwangLGBT: Photos from the fringes of the rainbow

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On June 13, 2015, fashion designer Veejay Floresca – who happens to be a transgender woman – alleged that she was almost refused entry by high-end bar Valkyrie in Taguig City.

“Because: 1. that venue was frequented by the so-called ‘high and mighty’ and the social climbing crowd; 2. one of the owners of the venue is a local celebrity in the person of Vice Ganda; and 3. Floresca, herself, was a mini-celebrity, the ‘Valkyrie issue’ made a big splash in the news,” recalled Michael David C. Tan, editor of Outrage Magazine and executive director of Bahaghari Center.

TV personality Boy Abunda – an openly gay man himself – interviewed Floresca in ABS-CBN; and national dailies like Inquirer and The Philippine Star tackled Floresca’s “almost non-entry” into an exclusive bar.

But also around that time – on June 22, 2015 – Michael David interviewed another transgender woman: Claire Balabbo. Claire was one of the 96 contractual employees of Tanduay Distillers Inc. in Cabuyao, Laguna who decided to launch a sudden strike after they were told on May 16, 2015 to stop reporting to work by May 18.

“While a handful of alternative media picked the picketers’ story (for instance, Altermidya), this story remained largely ignored,” Michael David said.

And for Tan, this highlighted a “sad reality”, an “imbalance that should embarrass us all” because of the “seemingly too apparent preference to provide coverage to the issues of the rich and famous; but not of those at the fringes of society.”

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Aside from her issues as a contractual worker, Claire also encountered work-related discrimination as a trans woman – e.g. when she just started working for Tanduay Distillers Inc., the HR office allegedly forced her to cut her hair, else risk getting fired from work; and she was physically harassed at work, though the HR office allegedly just dismissed her claim since “all workers were ‘male’ anyway” and that the co-workers may have just been joking around (as boys do).

Particularly looking at the Valkyrie versus Tanduay issues superficially, one is about accessing a space to party; while the other is about being able to work decently to make a living.

This helped drive the development of #KaraniwangLGBT, with Michael David starting to photo-document “LGBTQIA Filipinos at the fringes of the rainbow,” he said.

Michael David said that “in no way is this effort belittling the issues raised in occurrences like the Valkyrie debacle – e.g. access to space. Instead, this is an attempt to ‘give face’ to those who do not usually have the same access to, say, media and representation.”

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#KaraniwangLGBT became a section in Outrage Magazine, the partner LGBTQI publication of Bahaghari Center, with the effort to tell the stories of “common LGBTQIA people” bringing Michael David (and the staff of Outrage Magazine) all over the Philippines. And what – initially – started as a photo campaign evolved, with this section now also telling the stories of the subjects via write-ups and mini-documentaries.

To date, Michael David has already photographed/documented – among others – members of the LGBTQIA community who are also Moros, sex workers, church workers, HIV advocates, differently-abled/PWDs, PLHIVs, members of Lumad communities, contractual workers, homeless, victims of domestic abuse, et cetera.

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“To really engage, we have to allow others to shine,” Michael David said. “Hopefully, in a small way, #KaraniwangLGBT does that.”

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Following Floresca’s media tour, Valkyrie eventually amended its policy to allow trans women to party in its premises. But the “Valkyrie effect” was minimal – e.g. only Valkyrie made changes; and was Taguig City, where Valkyrie is located, still does not have an anti-discrimination ordinance, so venues there can still opt to implement discriminatory policies similar to what got Valkyrie in hot water.

Balabbo was not able to return to work. She now helps other contractual workers in other factories/plants in Laguna to organize to also fight for their rights.

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‘Remember. And continue acting.’ – BC marks IACM 2020

Because many lives continue to be lost to HIV and/or AIDS, the world marks the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) every 17th of May, as a time to remember these lives lost. Started in 1983, IACM has since evolved to also honor those who dedicate their lives to helping people living with and affected by HIV.

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In September 2015, Stephen Christian Quilacio asked Michael David dela Cruz Tan, editor in chief of Outrage Magazine and concurrent executive director of Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center) if he wanted to join a hospital visit to a person “suspected” to have HIV. At that time, Tan was visiting Cagayan de Oro City in Northern Mindanao, documenting HIV-related efforts of faith-based organizations (FBOs) for the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP).

Lor’s case was “suspected” because, while he kept saying he already had himself tested and that he’s HIV-negative, the attending physicians may have known otherwise but were still waiting for the patient’s confirmatory test result (from Metro Manila).

“Lor (not his real name) was having a hard time doing just about everything,” recalled Quilacio, who is also Bahaghari Center’s northern Mindanao coordinator. But “through it all, he was adamant in denying the probability that he may have HIV.”

Two weeks after that hospital visit, Lor passed away; this time, from confirmed AIDS-related complications.

Lor’s case is actually still not rare.

From October to December 2019 in the Philippines, for instance, 116 people died from AIDS-related complications. From January 1984 to end-December 2019, 3,730 Filipinos with HIV already died. And – this is worth stressing – this is only the reported cases, which may be lower than the real figures because of under- or non-reporting.

For Tan, the saddest part of this is that “we’re at a time when we’re often told that HIV is no longer a death sentence.” He added that “for many, it still is.”

And exactly because many lives continue to be lost to HIV and/or AIDS that the world marks the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) every 17th of May, as a time for everyone to remember these lives lost. Started in 1983, IACM has since evolved to also honor those who dedicate their lives to helping people living with and affected by HIV.

Themed “We remember – We take action – We live beyond HIV“, this year’s IACM is said to be “much more than just a memorial” as “it serves as a community mobilization campaign to raise social consciousness about HIV and AIDS. With almost 38 million people living with HIV today, (it) serves as an important intervention for global solidarity, breaking down barriers of stigma and discrimination, and giving hope to new generations.”

“This is apt,” said Quilacio, “because even now, we still need to act to really make an impact on HIV.”

STILL AN ONGOING STRUGGLE

There are issues that continue to make the lives of PLHIVs, particularly in resource-limited location like the Philippines, difficult/challenging.

In the Philippines, at least, the HIV situation continues to worsen.

To start, the rate of infection keeps getting higher – i.e. 35 Filipinos now get infected with HIV every day. And from October to December 2019, there were 3,029 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals reported to the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP). Sixteen percent (474) had clinical manifestations of advanced HIV infection at the time of testing.

Younger people also continue to be infected with HIV. In HARP’s report, almost half of the October-December 2019 cases (49%, 1,475) were 25-34 years old, and 31% (926) were 15-24 years old at the time of diagnosis.

Then there’s the stigma that leads to discrimination, said Quilacio. “It remains common to hear stories about PLHIVs kicked out of their homes, or from work because of their HIV status.”

Close to Quilacio’s heart is the “disconnect” in the services offered in metropolitan areas versus those in provinces/rural areas. “As a Mindanawon activist, we know that there are supposedly ‘must-have’ services that are not provided to us – e.g. viral load, and even regular/steady supply of anti-retroviral medicines.”

And then there, too, is the profiteering that happens in the HIV community – e.g. organizations supposed to render life-saving services not doing so unless they profit from PLHIVs.

According to Ico Rodulfo Johnson, who helms The Red Ribbon Project, other issues have been emerging, seeming to steal attention away from HIV – e.g. Covid-19.

However, “despite (these), we continue to fight for our rights to improved health care, for awareness and education and against stigma and discrimination related to HIV,” he said. “The challenge is greater but our passion for the HIV advocacy is stronger.”

And this – the stronger passion that pushes people and/or organizations to act – is what’s needed.

CONTINUING EFFORTS

Tan urges more action.

“From HIV testing to linking those who test positive to treatment/care/support services to holding non-performing treatment facilities responsible for their failure to do their mandates… a lot still needs to be done,” he said.

For its part, and among its HIV-related efforts, Bahaghari Center – with Outrage Magazine, The Project Red Ribbon, Pinoy Deaf Rainbow and TransDeaf Philippines – trained Deaf Filipinos on community-based HIV screening. This was because of the lack of readily available HIV counselors who know of Filipino Sign Language (FSL). This way, “we empower Deaf Filipinos to start testing among themselves, instead of relying on Hearing people who may not always be there for them.”

And then backed by Youth LEAD and Y-PEER (Asia Pacific Center) – which eyed to address Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) needs of Young Key Populations (YKPs) in Asia and the Pacific – Bahaghari Center released PSAs on HIV for Deaf Filipinos.

For Fritzie Caybot Estoque, past president of MOCAN – an organization providing support to HIV-infected and -affected Filipinos in Mindanao: “We can’t afford to be complacent. We need to do more.”

Estoque – like Johnson – noted how the Covid-19 pandemic “has taught us one good lesson – that stigma and discrimination can do harm more than the disease itself.” And so she calls for people to “end it.”

“To make us more compassionate, extensive and effective, education is still a must both for HIV… and (in this case, also) Covid-19. We can’t afford to be complacent. Still. All the more,” Estoque said.

And so for Tan, “yes, let’s remember – the people whose lives were cut short by HIV, the advocates who paved the way and those who continue working to curb HIV, etc. But let this also be a call for us not to stop now.”

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NEWSMAKERS

Inclusive responses to HIV needed – Bahaghari Center

For Disney Aguila, board member of Bahaghari Center, “it needs to be emphasized – particularly today as #WAD2019 – that HIV can only truly be dealt with if everyone is on board.”

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In early 2019, Jay (not his real name), a Deaf gay man who lives outside Metro Manila, was encouraged by his friends who knew community-based HIV screening (CBS) to get himself tested. It was, he recalled, “the first time someone offered me this service; so I caved in.”

Jay was reactive; and “my world crumbled,” he said.

Though his friends tried to comfort him, telling him that knowing his status is good, “since at least now I can take steps to get treatment and live a normal, healthy life,” Jay wasn’t assuaged. His friends had to eventually go back to Metro Manila, and he worried that he would be left on his own to “find ways to access treatment.” And the same issue that did not make testing accessible for him – i.e. him being Deaf – is now the same issue he believed would hinder him from getting treatment, care and support (TCS).

Jay’s case, said Ms Disney Aguila, board member of the Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy Inc. (Bahaghari Center), highlights how “numerous sectors continue to be ignored in HIV-related responses.”

Aguila, the concurrent head of the Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, the pioneering organization for Deaf LGBTQIA Filipinos, added that “it needs to be emphasized – particularly today as #WAD2019 – that HIV can only truly be dealt with if everyone is on board.”

WORSENING HIV SITUATION

As reported by the HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) of the Department of Health (DOH), the Philippines has 35 new HIV cases every day. The figure has been consistently growing – from only one case every day in 2008, seven cases per day in 2011, 16 cases per day in 2014, and 32 cases per day in 2018.

In July, when HARP released its (delayed) latest figures, there were 1,111 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals; this was 29% higher compared with the diagnosed cases (859) in the same period last year.

Perhaps what is worth noting, said Aguila, is the “absence in current responses of minority sectors” – e.g. when even data does not segregate people from minority sectors, thus the forced invisibility that used to also affect transgender people who were once lumped under the MSM (men who have sex with men) umbrella term.

For Aguila, this is “detrimental to the overall response re HIV because specific needs are not answered.”

DEAF IN FOCUS

In 2012, Michael David C. Tan – publishing editor of Outrage Magazine, the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines, and head of Bahaghari Center – conducted “Talk to the Hand”, the first-of-its-kind study that looked at the knowledge, attitudes and related practices (KAP) of Deaf LGBT Filipinos on HIV and AIDS. The study had numerous disturbing findings.

To start, majority of the respondents (33 or 54.1%) were within the 19-24 age range at the time of the study, followed by those who are over 25 (21 or 34.3%). Most of them (53 of 61 Deaf respondents) had sex before they reached 18. Many (36.1%) of them also had numerous sexual partners, with some respondents having as many as 20 sex partners in a month.
Only 21 (34.4%) use condoms, and – worryingly – even among those who used condoms, 12 (19.7%) had condom breakage during sex because of improper use.

Perhaps the unsafe sexual practice should not be surprising, considering that not even half (29, 47.5%) of the respondents heard of HIV and AIDS, with even less that number (23, 37.7%) knowing someone who died of HIV or AIDS-related complications. And with not even half of the total respondents (29) familiar with HIV and AIDS, not surprisingly, only 19 (31.1%) considered HIV and AIDS as serious, with more of them considering HIV and AIDS as not serious (20, 32.8%) or maybe serious (22, 36.1%).

The study also noted that the level of general knowledge about HIV and AIDS is low, with 40 (65.6%) of them falling in this category. Only about 1/5 of them (12, 19.7%) had high level of knowledge about HIV and AIDS. Even fewer (9, 14.8%) may be classified as having moderate knowledge level.

For the Deaf community, at least, accessing testing and – if one tested HIV positive – the TCS is challenging because “we’d need Filipino Sign Language (FSL) interpreters who can help make sure we’re getting the right information/treatment/et cetera, Aguila said. And in the Philippines, the numbers of service providers who know FSL remain very limited.

Already there are Deaf Filipinos trained to conduct CBS particularly for other Deaf Filipinos – here in “Stop HIV Together“, a photo campaign stressing the need for inclusion.

INCLUDING OTHER MINORITIES

Aguila stressed that forced invisibility, obviously, does not only affect the minority Deaf community as far as HIV-related responses are concerned – e.g. “other persons with disability continue not to have HIV-related interventions,” she said.

For Aguila: “To truly stop HIV and AIDS, we need to be inclusive.”

Back in the city south of Metro Manila, Jay was forwarded to a counselor who knows FSL so that he can be supported in accessing TCS. Even that was “problematic,” said Jay, because “I was ‘forced’ to come out to someone I didn’t necessarily want to disclose my status only because I had no choice.”

For him, this highlights “how we just have to make do with what’s there; and there really isn’t much that’s there to begin with.”

He feels “lighter” now, however, having started his antiretroviral treatment (ART). But he knows he’s one of the “lucky people with contacts”; and that “not every one has access to the same support I had… and that’s something we need to deal with.”

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#PinkInk: Making the pen give LGBT might

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Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center) has launched #PinkInk photo campaign that is part of the bigger Pink Ink project launched by Outrage Magazine in 2015.

Pink Ink is in line with #HateWatchPH, which aims to: 1) document LGBT-related hate crimes happening in the Philippines, and 2) empower LGBT people to report, and/or do something when such crimes happen; and 3) form partnerships with like-minded organizations to eradicate – not just curb – LGBT-related hate crimes. It has numerous components as it attempts to help develop would-be journalists while they are still in campuses, and provide support to already professional media practitioners.

“We are aware of the continuing challenge faced by the LGBT community in engaging the media – whether to give us coverage, to begin with; or to provide us respectful coverage, if they choose to cover our issues at all,” said Michael David dela Cruz Tan, publishing editor of Outrage Magazine and concurrent executive director of Bahaghari Center. However, “instead of only lamenting, we are opting to be more proactive in our attempt to engage the media. We believe that if we can help them see where we’re coming from, (and) if we can provide them with tools they can use to better engage with us, then we will be able to form good partnerships.”

One of the components of Pink Ink is the provision of trainings in educational institutions (including student journalists, student leaders and journalism students) for them to start reporting on LGBT-related issues.

Here is where #PinkInk, the photo campaign, is attached, as it gives face to these young leaders who “openly pledge their support for the promotion of LGBTQI human rights.”

Students from the Pangasinan State University (PSU) in Lingayen, Pangasinan – who underwent the Pink Ink workshop, with the support of PSU VP for finance, Atty. Jellie Molino – join the #PinkInk photo campaign.Pink Ink1

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TO BRING ‘PINK INK’ TO YOUR CAMPUS, CONTACT (+63) 9157972229 OR (+63) 9287854244; OR EMAIL info@BahaghariCenter.org.

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