Giggles bellow tale-telling of HIV infection by OFW MSMs




PASIG CITY—Rectangular tables cramped a small hotel room with some 35 people participants, including males who clasp their hands effeminately. Some of them wore polo shirts whose sleeves are barely longer than the hairy portions of their armpits.

IMG_6056Not surprisingly, when an executive director of a non-government organization, Mara Quesada-Bondat, was relating findings of a study on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection by males who have sex with fellow males (MSMs), the mood was serious but casual and chill. After some 35 minutes of talking, and on Bondat’s 36th Powerpoint slide subtitled “Sexual practices of MSM OFWs,” laughter instead of scandalized responses burst out.

Like on one line saying MSMs find out about these sexual opportunities through social networking sites like Grindr and Planet Romeo: Gentlemen at the back of that hotel room laughed heartily for some six-to-eight seconds. Or when Bondat said these overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) were being approached (“Sila nilalapitan,” says Bondat).

There was amusement over such a serious issue. Like the three gentlemen who sat on the last table at the middle aisle. One, in his 40s and sporting a white, fitting, short-sleeved polo, covered his mouth laughing with girlish hand movement. His two seatmates never hid their laughter —in the disposition of being gays, be they open or closet. Even when Bondat mentioned a statement in her NGO’s study, “Palagi kaming magkasama hanggang na-in love (We’re always together until we fell in love),” she retorted with typical Filipino humoristic intonation: “Uy, may love factor siyempre (Of course, there’s love in it)”.

The three gentlemen at that table did not contain their chuckle, as in almost everyone else in that hotel room.

Giggles howled a room that discussed findings of a study, beefed up by focus group discussions (FGDs), by the Action for Health Initiatives (Achieve) on how the HIV infection phenomenon by Filipino MSMs is traversing national boundaries. There is not much information on this type of HIV transmission, Bondat said, in a country where localized MSM sexual contact makes up 70 percent of the total reported HIV cases in the Philippine National HIV/AIDS Registry since 1984.

So the MSM sexual contact overseas is the surprising, new twist to the evolving story of not just the Philippines’ local and transnational battle against HIV, but to the dramatics and emotionality of the country’s overseas migration phenomenon.

But Bondat’s presentation punched the tone that this reality is not a surprise. The very first reported case in the Philippines in 1984, says this advocate, is an overseas Filipino from the United States who got HIV through MSM sexual contact. From 1984 to July this year, some 13,966 cases were through MSM sexual contact: homosexual (8,561) and bisexual (5,405), data from the national registry showed.

Overseas workers with HIV total to 3,017 and those who got infected through homosexual and bisexual contact (total: 1,464) are slowly catching up with those OFWs who contracted HIV via heterosexual contact (1,487). These former and current migrant workers make up some 10.5 percent of the homosexuals and bisexuals with HIV. During the forum, some gentlemen declared with pride they belong to advocacy and support organizations doing lectures, care support and counseling.

Achieve interviewed 43 respondents in four FGDs, including 21 of them who are HIV positive via MSM sexual contact —including some of the gentlemen in that room who chuckled heartily. About 18 of them were open about their MSM behavior, while 16 interviewees were deported (luckily, one interviewee, a seaman, is in a ship, Bondat said). Those interviewed include eight who previously worked in the United Arab Emirates, six in Saudi Arabia, and one apiece in China and Singapore.

The laughter continued when contraception was discussed: The Filipino MSMs in Middle East countries had a big problem with the size of the condom when buying those in retail outlets there, Bondat said. If the condom was bought from the Philippines, it is “too small” for the Arabs; if bought in the Middle East destination country, the condom is “too big.”

A tale of an infected former OFW from the UAE can make the price rightfully big for him. “Ako naranasan ko pang makipagtawaran.In-offer niya ako ng AED500. Eh hindi ko siya type. ‘Bigyan mo ako ng AED1,500 (I had experienced negotiating the price of the deal. One offered me AED500 [PhP6,107], but I don’t like him. So I told him ‘Give me AED1,500 [PhP18,321]).”

But even while HIV infection by OFWs through MSM contact is yet to become a visibly big problem numerically, participants of that research presentation knew the seriousness of the problem. Still, there’re giggles comforting the people affected.

On Bondat’s Powerpoint slide with the subtitle “Show me the money,” One anecdote said the HIV-positive migrant worker had contact with fellow Filipinos, declaring “Sige, pila lang kayo… Kung sino iyung may pinakamalaking offer (Line up! I will take the highest bidder).”

Bondat then joked, “Bubuking ko na ba kung sino nagsabi nito (Should I reveal who said this)?” From the back, a voice shouted “Ibuking na yan (Reveal who said it)!” —with a cheery chortle.



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