OPINION: The Taguig drug bust shows why the Philippine HIV epidemic is accelerating

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In a drug bust operation reminiscent of the ‘80s, PDEA operatives, accompanied by media, raided an alleged gay “chemsex” (or sex while under the influence of drugs) orgy, and arrested 11 men. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Jonas Bagas is a Filipino LGBT and HIV activist who's currently living in Bangkok. He was in the leadership of several HIV and LGBT networks and organizations in the Philippines prior to moving to Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For many HIV advocates worldwide, World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 presents an opportunity to highlight the life-changing gains achieved by AIDS activism. We have reached a point where having HIV can be a manageable condition, not a dead-end one. An HIV positive person who is on antiretroviral treatment and has undetectable viral load can no longer transmit the virus, and a person who has no HIV, can take a once-a-day or on-demand HIV pill that can effectively prevent HIV infection.

AIDS activism has even influenced the way countries make decisions on health programs beyond HIV, to insist that the plight of people living with HIV or other diseases, and communities affected by epidemics — from sex workers and people who use drugs to gay men and transgender people — should be on the table, as it helps in shaping research agenda or acquiring funding priorities. The AIDS movement still faces many challenges, but the victories of AIDS activism has created waves of optimism in different corners of the world.

Except, of course, in the Philippines, which has the most explosive HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region, driven mainly by the unabated and alarming rise in new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men, other men who have sex with men, transgender people, and in some parts of the country, people who inject drugs. The youth, among these subpopulations, are particularly most vulnerable.

Why the Philippines is in this situation is perhaps best explained, unfortunately, by the sickening raid conducted by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) at a hotel room in Bonifacio Global City a few nights ago. In a drug bust operation reminiscent of the ‘80s, PDEA operatives, accompanied by media, raided an alleged gay “chemsex” (or sex while under the influence of drugs) orgy, and arrested 11 men. The personal details — their complete names and professions — of those arrested were divulged to the media, and the PDEA and the media even disclosed that one of them is HIV positive.

The incident is extremely wrong in so many levels, and what happened and how it is still unfolding capture why the Philippine HIV epidemic is accelerating. HIV advocates and supportive politicians were quick to point out that the HIV law prohibiting disclosure of HIV status without consent was violated by the PDEA and the media. The sanctimonious shaming of gay sexual behavior in media reports also display the extreme homophobia and hypocrisy of Philippine society. The public hysteria accompanying the war on drugs has led to the stoning of these 11 men in the courts of social media. As the Network to Stop AIDS Philippines pointed out, nothing in that incident could ever justify the violation of human rights, privacy, and dignity that took place.

When gay men who use drugs encounter physical abuse and torture while in detention, it’s their entire humanity, not just their drug taking behavior, that’s violated.

It is also worth noting that the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC), the main governing body on HIV in the Philippines, and the Department of Health (DOH), which co-chairs the council, are conspicuously silent on the issue. This lack of political leadership from DOH or PNAC is not new, but even in emergency situations where the law is clear, these institutions are still deficient.

The punitive legal environment and stigmatising attitudes against populations affected by HIV — especially men who have sex with men, trans people, and people who use drugs — along with the absence of political leadership, are undermining the country’s chance to gain from the victories of AIDS activism. Thus, government investment on HIV is still insufficient, and HIV programs, from HIV testing to HIV treatment, do not reach those who need them. In a time when having HIV has supposedly ceased to be a death sentence, factors like the war on drugs, moralistic attitudes on gay sex, and mediocre political leadership account for the reality that hundreds of Filipinos are dying because of HIV, and thousands are now getting infected every year.

Activism within the LGBT and HIV communities, however, presents a silver lining. I applaud those in the community and our allies who have spoken against the raid and how it was conducted, pointing out that the law against disclosure of HIV status was violated and the portrayal of gay sex was hypocritical and stigmatising.

However, in light of the HIV epidemic and the overall deterioration of human rights in the Philippines, we also need to reexamine our own activism and our own biases. It is very important to point out that the law against disclosure of HIV status was violated and that stigmatising gay sex is wrong, but it is also necessary to say the current Nazi-like hysteria on drugs is not helping. The raid may have legal basis, but that doesn’t make the law upon which it is based fair or just. The punitive legalistic approach on drugs has become more harmful than the drugs themselves, as shown by the disproportionate damage that the BGC raid has inflicted on the lives of those who were arrested.

LGBT communities should be the first to say that not everything legal is fair or just. We still live in a world where it is legal for some countries to stone gay people, or put LGBTs in jail. HIV and LGBT advocates must point out that even if the HIV status was not disclosed, or if gay sex was not stigmatised, the war on drugs will contribute to the worsening of the HIV epidemic.

This is because stigma and HIV vulnerabilities cannot be compartmentalized. The stigma that we face is layered: it is because of our sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV status, drug-taking behaviors, and the poverty that most of us experience. The oppression we face doesn’t cherry-pick. When gay men who use drugs encounter physical abuse and torture while in detention, it’s their entire humanity, not just their drug-taking behavior, that’s violated. When an accused transgender drug user is killed in a tokhang operation, it is not just her alleged criminal identity that is eliminated, it’s her entire life, her sexual orientation and gender identity.

We experience stigma and oppression, and we are rendered powerless because of multiple vulnerabilities, and that is why it was with impunity that the PDEA was able to raid that reported orgy in a hotel, while the government is still unable to act on that huge Bureau of Custom drug smuggling scandal.

The global AIDS movement gained so much by not losing sight of fairness and social justice. It’s high time that we make our AIDS activism more inclusive.