How do you make people listen? You tell stories.
For children, these stories usually featured mythical creatures. For Filipino children, these mythical stories always had a touch of darkness. Abduction, drowning, attacks, soul-stealing. For some reason, stories told to us by our elders about the dwendes, aswangs, tikbalangs, and the urban ghosts never ran out. And they usually ended chillingly.
A ghost in our attic or the empty room of our house. A kapre up the avocado tree across the street. An invisible nuno on the anthill by the tree’s foot. A deranged Maria Makiling fooling children into jumping off a cliff. An aswang lurking in the old sari-sari store we now use as a bodega.
Sometimes, though, the scary characters in the stories told by my elders were human. And in those stories, the humans and the mythical creatures were indistinguishable.
“Sige ka, kukunin ka ng _______.” Go on, so you’ll be abducted by a(n) _______.
You could fill the underline with any person from this list: a military man, our grumpy neighbor, priests, the garbage collector in our area, parlor gays. A couple of times, it was Bonjing, with his walis tambo on his back and his shorts worn high above his waistline.
“Why is he like that, Nanay?” I asked Nanay Mely once when I saw Bonjing playing with the cat in front of our house.
“Namaligno siguro, anak. Kaya ikaw, ‘wag kang labas nang labas. Kita mo siya, ganyan siya kasi lagi siyang nasa labas.” By ‘ganyan,’ she actually means that something is wrong with Bonjing, who always tends to pick random fights with people walking the streets where he’s sweeping it with a flimsy walis tambo.
Sometimes, Bonjing would catch me looking at him peeking from our gate, and I would run inside with a primal panic pounding in my chest. Once, my friends from the other callejons called me to play outside. But I said no because Bonjing was sweeping the leaves under the avocado tree across our house.
It’s only more than a decade or so later that I would find out Bonjing actually has Down syndrome, and that sweeping the leaves was his way of helping the community. He said it is “good work,” especially when he gets bored just sitting in his house with his grandmother. His grandmother told me he grew a temper because kids, and sometimes adults, would come up to him and scatter the leaves he just swept from the streets.
Hearing that from his primary caretaker, I felt bad for having him on the list of people that scare me. And for letting myself be scared of him because of what my grandmother said.
But that’s what stories do. They make you listen. And they make you scared.
In December 2020, I felt that same fear of everything.
I was in my old apartment, just behind the Christian school inside UPLB. Auna and Jonel, my housemates at that time, decided that we should spend the night with two of our org mates from UPLB Babaylan to watch some films on Netflix.
One of the films we watched was Jun Robles Lana’s Kalel, 15.
“I heard this one’s good,” said Abby, one of our org mates.
“That’s the movie about HIV, isn’t it?” said Jonel.
Auna, the closest housemate I had in that apartment, gave me a quick glance. “What else can we watch?”
“It’s fine!” Abby said. “It’s World AIDS Day anyway. We can consider this as, like, an educational discussion thing or something.”
“Wouldn’t it be too heavy?” Auna asked. “We’re hanging out to have fun, Abby.” She and Abby laughed.
“No, no,” I said. “It actually seems interesting. Let’s watch it!”
So we did.
I understood Auna’s hesitations about watching the film since she knew about my condition. But there were a couple of reasons why I wanted to watch the film, too. First, I didn’t want to be suspicious. If Auna insisted further, it would’ve been too easy for our org mates to deduce what was making her act weird. Second, I’ve never consumed any media that tackled HIV. For the longest time, I pushed it to the sides, refusing to see its face. Maybe it was time to be aware of it, even if I see my own face in it.
But as the film progressed in its black-and-white color grading, its frame slowly getting smaller and smaller, almost claustrophobic, I felt more and more scared of the story unfolding in front of me.
As the film reached its climax, I felt small. I saw how Kalel’s mother left him and his sister, how his friends refused to even touch the water jug he drank from, how his girlfriend blamed him for his sickness, and how his classmates threw a rock at his window after he lost his entire family and their home, and how his father, who was a priest, refused to take him in.
And it all felt so real.
By that, I didn’t mean they happened to me. I meant each scene was a visual manifestation of all the things I feared would happen to me, making them true. It was as if by seeing those dark thoughts in my head be enacted onscreen, the film made the thoughts probable, close, like a dark creature stalking you over your shoulder. Kalel’s story felt close, so close. It only had to extend its claws and it would reach me without barely an effort.
By the end of the film, Kalel looked a lot better, entering an eatery on his new waveboard to meet some guy he had a certain arrangement with. He told the guy he was going to wait outside, and the guy agreed. Then the frame focused on Kalel’s face as he rode his waveboard out of the eatery, his face defeated as if life was sucked out of him by the very thing inside of him. Cut to black.
Only ominous music remained. The words faded in:
The Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region.
Since 2010, the number of new infections among young people in the country has risen to 170 percent.
This figure only reflects the number of Filipinos who were diagnosed.
There are countless more who refuse to be tested for fear of stigma and discrimination.
And then the words faded away, replaced by the title of the film.
“What the fuck?” Abby said.
I would agree with her. But a cold, dark hand was clamped on my mouth, making it hard to breathe.
When I was thirteen, Mama’s best friend barged into my room and found me jerking off in front of my laptop. As I fumbled with the zipper of my shorts, Tita Lisa took one step inside the room and peeked at the screen, only for a fraction of a second, before leaving my room without a word.
My limbs felt leaden. The breath was sucked out of me. I took one last look at the naked man on my screen, who stopped stroking himself as well and closed my browser window, revealing my Spongebob Squarepants desktop wallpaper.
My heart was pounding, but I did my best to keep my breathing slow and steady. It was my way of preparing for battle, and an effective way to handle the fear I felt, which five years later, I would find out was a manifestation of a deeply rooted general anxiety disorder. But that time, I just knew I had to brace myself for the worst.
And surely enough, a few seconds later, my mother’s voice reverberated throughout our rented house in Tagaytay. She called out my name, not like the other angry parents who spat out the names of their children when they were in trouble. Her voice was honey, thick and sweet, lingering on the last vowel of my full first name. Despite knowing what answering her would entail, it was a siren call I couldn’t refuse.
So, with a deep breath, I stood up from my green Monobloc chair and let my feet cross from the blue linoleum of my bedroom to the cold white tile of the kitchen floor. My bedroom was near the dirty kitchen, and I had to pass through that, then our living room, before reaching the master bedroom where Mama, her best friend, and five-year-old Faith slept together.
When I got there, Mama’s best friend took a quick look at me before going back inside their room. Mama pulled the door shut after her, leaving us alone in the living room.
“Your Tita Lisa told me something,” Mama said in a low voice as if I did a heinous crime that cannot be heard by anyone else but the two of us.
As the tears pooled in my eyes, she said, “No, no. None of that. You know what you did. Don’t you dare use your tears to get out of this one, Shom.”
“Sorry po,” I whispered, spit bubbling in my mouth.
“Do not apologize. You’re only apologizing because you got caught.” She then let go of my hand. “Did you even wash your hands before coming to me?”
I didn’t move. I felt small, my muscles contracting as close as they could against the bone. To move any joint in my body would feel like opening a door with hinges eaten by decades of rust. So I remained still.
In response, Mama grabbed the bottle of alcohol in the drawer outside their bedroom, grabbed both my hands with one of hers, and poured alcohol on them. Somehow, it all felt aggressive– the overflow of the alcohol, the streams running between my fingers, the drops splashing the floor, wetting my toes and making them colder than they already were.
“Rub them together,” she instructed. With shaking hands, I did my best to rub my hands together. At first, hesitantly, then with more vigor, desperate to erase the musk and shame from my palms. I kept rubbing, the friction making my hands red, but they remained wet. Probably because there was too much on my hands, or maybe because the alcohol was now mixed with tears.
I did my best not to let Mama see my face. I bowed my head as low as I could as my palms started to sting. I thought maybe the stinging sensation was an indication that it was working. My hands were now clean. There was no more teenage odor in them, and Tita Lisa never saw me do anything.
The friction got slower and slower until they stopped. I lifted my hands to my chest. “Mama. Sorry po,” I told Mama’s painted toes.
Mama grabbed my head and pressed it against her chest.
“Anak, are you gay?”
Yes, I thought. “No,” I said.
“Good. Because you wouldn’t want the life they have. Do you want to be hated by everyone you meet?” she asked.
I shook my head against her ample chest, where I felt momentarily safe.
“Those people… they never become truly happy. They never find real love. There’ll be all kinds of curses thrown at you. You’ll get sick, as is the curse of their kind. I would never want that for you.” As she said those words, I felt a few warm drops on my scalp. Her body trembled ever so slightly as she exhaled. Then she pulled my head away from her chest.
With tear-stricken eyes, she told me, “Keep yourself pure, anak. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”
How was the film?
Kris asked after we watched Ang Timeline ng Buhay ni B. It was a film shown in a virtual event organized in September 2021 by Cavite State University. It was packaged as an advocacy film about Benji, a teenage boy who found out he was HIV-positive and must face the stigma attached to his status.
It was a virtual movie date Kris invited me to. Since we both haven’t been vaccinated yet, we decided to just video call each other through Messenger while we watched the film on our laptops.
I was pretty sure his question was urged by the constant frown I wore throughout the film. So I decided to be honest:
why is it the same as the other hiv film i watched??? Snfksjdf
What do you mean?
i mean they were both very triggering. they both painted this picture that having hiv is a death sentence.
well it’s not.
Yeah I agree. It’s too sad.
idc about it being too sad. pero bakit lagi na lang sobrang hopeless ng picture ng stories about hiv.
as if when you get the virus, you can’t go very far with your life anymore. lalo lang di mae-encourage yung mga tao to get tested.
and the way it painted this idea that someone who loves a PLHIV should be considered “brave”
loving someone with hiv is not charity work kjdnksdf
I get your frustrations naman.
How is it ba for other people with HIV? Is it not the same as that?
You still there?
i’m not so sure tbh
i haven’t met other people like me
Hmmm maybe when you meet other people with the same condition, you can write a better story than the film we watched.
Something more hopeful.
Kris was right. I couldn’t keep on blabbering about these films without knowing the stories of other people like me.
But there was something inside me that was bent on proving my point, that people like me were not charity cases and that loving us wasn’t an act of bravery worthy of a badge of honor.
So three months later, I found myself at the function hall of the Cocoon Boutique Hotel in Quezon City for a four-day training on HIV screening. It was in preparation for a project by our batch in UPLB Babaylan which would promote HIV awareness and sex positivity. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to be the first representative.
On the first day of the training, we were asked to introduce ourselves. The format was to say your nickname, your pronouns, the organization you’re affiliated with, the reason you joined the training, and what fruit you would like to be and why. It was very tacky. But I rode with it. I mean, the organization which organized the training prided itself on being a “support house,” so of course the tackiness was part of the charm.
We introduced ourselves one by one, all nineteen of us in that batch of volunteers. Some were registered nurses, some were members of other non-government organizations, one was a gym instructor with an ex-boyfriend who was a PLHIV, and one was a trans woman.
I sat in the back row at the farthest corner. Looking at how the sequence was moving, I would be speaking last. I thought, great, I’d have enough time to think of something to say. Using the complimentary pen and pad we were given for the training, I wrote down bullets of what I wanted to say:
- UPLB Babaylan
- Community project
I wasn’t very sure about that last one. It’s fine, I thought. Maybe I could think of something more clever before my turn, more me. In my head, I started rehearsing what I was going to say. ‘Hello po–’ No, that sounds too pa-cute. ‘Hi, everyone’? Or maybe I could play the shy kid persona again. ‘Uhm, hi! I’m Shom.’ Eck, NO.
“Okay, next!” said the facilitator. “What’s your name? You, in the beige coat. Yes, your turn, beb.”
“Hello, everyone! I’m Terrie. I go by any pronouns,” said the person at the other corner of the row where I was in. Terrie had platinum-dyed hair, a beige ensemble complete with chains, shin-high boots, and nails painted black. “I don’t have an organization. But I’ve been living with HIV for three years now. And I want to be involved here so I could do something with my advocacy. Thank you.”
The facilitator followed up about Terrie’s fantasy fruit. But I wasn’t able to pick it up anymore. The only thing I remembered was thinking I wanted them to be my friend. I wanted to ask them a lot of questions. What was it like for them to live three years diagnosed? Did he have boyfriends? Did they have friends? How were they so confident in proclaiming their status?
And what if I did it, too?
So when it was my turn to speak, I did my best to put on the mental costume I usually wore whenever I had to present something in my speech communication classes.
“Hi, everybody! I’m Shom. That is S-H-O-M. My pronouns are he/they and, like Terrie, I am also a PLHIV.” By that point, everyone’s heads were turned in my direction. I took a mental step back and let this character of confidence take the wheel, the one I usually wore when I stood as a worship director in the church. I told them I was there on behalf of UPLB Babaylan, but more than that, I wanted to know more about the community of PLHIV, since that would be the first time since I got diagnosed that I’d let myself discover the world beyond myself.
That moment, proclaiming my status plain and simple through a grounded microphone, felt like a rite of passage. The first time I took flight.
I was successful in meeting more of my tribe. Terrie and I became friends and, after a few months, went from being volunteers to being employees of the organization. They introduced me to the “poz community” on Twitter and Telegram, which I admit was still something I was trying to figure out till now. That world was immensely different, shrouded with vulnerability brought upon by perceived anonymity. It was teeming with people who shared their own experiences with each other, down to the gritty details. Some offered love advice, some became lovers.
There you would find people who reminded each other of schedules for our medications with a “Happy Monday, 9PM babies!” In case someone missed a dose or ran out of ARVs, others would go out of their way to lend a few pills to our fellow “blood brothers.” And those who were confident enough to reveal their faces to others would be hyped up by everyone.
In one movie night organized by our Telegram group, we watched iWantTV’s Mga Batang Poz. Being a six-episode series, we watched the whole thing in three nights. After the last episode, everyone went back to the group chat to discuss their thoughts about the series.
Hayyy so sad talaga no?
Truk kyah! Hirap talaga humanap ng happy ending sa atin.
Grabe yung ending mga accla! Wishful thinking lang pala kaloka.
Sa mga may bebe dyan, swerte niyo. Ingatan niyo na yan. Rare para sa atin maging masaya.
Korikavolity! Hirap na humanap ng true love bilang bading. Lalo na bilang poz.
The conversation went on, turning into a friendly debate about whether the series was a reflection of our collective experience as PLHIV. Some agreed, and some didn’t. Some said they were fine with the first person who would treat them decently because it wasn’t always that we’d get seen as actual people.
I didn’t engage in the conversation. I just read everyone’s replies, their jokes, their rants, and their acceptance of their status as cautionary tales used in advocacy films.
Part of me wanted to comfort them, to tell them we shouldn’t settle for what we were receiving now. But another part of me thought, how could I, when I wasn’t that lucky with my relationships as well?
Maybe they were right. This was as far as we could go with our status. Maybe the stigma would remain and it would be the only thing defining us.
But I chose not to believe that. There must be something to our tribe more than being plot devices for advocacy films. We existed beyond that. We loved beyond that. We have stories beyond that.
So I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing.
Gershom Mabaquiao earned his degree in Communication Arts from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, majoring in writing. A writer of fiction and nonfiction, he uses elements of Philippine folklore in writing, where he often explores the themes of sexuality, queer spirituality, and living with HIV. His works have been published in Inquirer.net’s Young Blood section, and internationally in The Unconventional Courier and Tint Journal.