Gerome, age 51 / Abbotsford, Australia

Pandemic_Gerome

I think that my story is personal, it’s unique, and it is not tragic. And, I think it’s something that is probably a little bit different from other people’s stories, because I took it more as a relief that I don’t have to fear HIV anymore. I don’t have to – there was no fear in saying, okay, I’d like to have children, and now I can’t have my own children – that’s not part of my thinking. I didn’t think that, uh, “What if I fall in love with someone who is not positive? Would that impact our relationship?”

I’ve been in a sero-discordant relationship already before. Two of my ex-partners in Paris have been positive since ’87, and we had intense relationships, emotional and sexual relationships, and it was okay. It didn’t matter then, in the ‘90s, and now 20 years later – why should it matter to me?

As a hopeless romantic, all throughout my seven years in Paris, I just, you know, moved from one relationship to another, and to another, and to another – which also probably, in a way, was good for me, because had I been out in Paris having fun – you know, that sort of fun that gay men do, going to those places where you meet other men in their nakedness in the dark, in the wetness, in the steam – well, you know, I could’ve exposed myself and my health to certain risks.  But I was young. I was afraid, and, uh, so I didn’t go that way. I was just happy to meet someone I could love, and who loved me in return. And that, that really – that was part of my growing up there. Baby steps of independence from my family, for one, and baby steps into discovering what “gay” means, and what that meant for me.

You know, I enjoyed Paris, but there was this very heavy cloud of fear for seven years. There was a heavy cloud of fear for seven years in Manila when I was back there. In Africa, even worse, because Tanzania is one of the – the eighth, I think, country with most incidence of HIV/AIDS at that time, so I really had to be very careful. I was celibate for the first seven months. (laughs) That was a long time, because, you know, not only because of the risk of catching HIV, but because it is illegal to have sex with men in Tanzania, and I could be in prison for 20 or 30 years. And that wasn’t the point; I was there for work. So, I was really, really very careful when I was there.

I had a perfect bill of health, but I’ve been very aware that I needed to protect myself, and protect others. That fear followed me, from Manila, to Paris, back to Manila, and to Africa. And when I came to Australia, I, I started really dealing, first with my fear of disclosure, of being found out that I’m gay, and then, now four years since I contracted HIV, I’ve dealt with the fear of disclosing that I am positive.

When the doctor broke the news to me, it seemed that he was more distressed than I was.  I’ve had 25 years of this, this thought at the back of my mind that every time I get into contact with someone I am putting my health at risk. So, there is that fear, and that fear, combined with, with desire, is a very difficult space to navigate. Yeah? And so when the doctor announced that I was positive it felt like more of a relief – that I said, “It’s another fear less.”

I think the one thing that HIV/AIDS did to, uh, a lot of us – already, growing up and being a little bit different from the others, we already lived in some sort of a fear of being found out, right? So, there’s already that stigma with gay men, especially in the Philippines, which is highly Catholic, especially given the background of my family, which is Protestant. So that religious indoctrination that you get just because you live in that country makes you feel that there is something that you can’t disclose. Right? And there is that fear.

I uprooted myself from the Philippines. I didn’t really escape intentionally, but I had the opportunity not to go back. And, jokingly, I’d say, well, I escaped from the Philippines, because I escaped from religion, first of all, because I escaped from corruption, and I escaped from politics. I escaped from mentality in the Philippines, and I, I escaped from judgment, and self-righteousness, and all these things – and pollution, and probably, also, I escaped from family drama.

And so I left the Philippines, and slowly, you know, accepted that the fears were unwarranted. Only when I arrived in Melbourne in 2004, I said, “Well, here, I can be completely me, right?” This was only in Melbourne that I finally said, well, okay, I am gay. And then, that’s also the time I started to wear the label “atheist” on my forehead. And I’ve always been a humanist secularist, and I was a borderline atheist, and then I said, yeah, I’m atheist, and, yes, I’m gay. And so all my years of experience around the world, I came here, and everything seemed to fall into place. And so I – that’s why I’m happy here.

So, everyone knows I’m gay here in Australia, and everyone now in the Philippines – and everyone in the world must know that I am gay. But, um, not everyone knows I’m positive. My brother knows that I’m positive. He may have shared the news to my siblings and to my mother.  And all of my friends here in Melbourne know, because that was one of the first thing I did when I found out. I said, “I have news for you. It’s neither good nor bad, but this is it.” And there’s no drama about it.

And after a few months – uh, six months, and a year, being looked after an excellent team of doctors at the Alfred – I realized that I’ve never been looked after as much in my entire life, and that someone was actually concerned about my well being, my health, and so it was more of a positive experience, in experiencing directly the hospital system here in Australia. And – which is why I have no problem paying taxes.

I met my current partner two and a half years ago. And he is negative. And, uh, he – and we don’t… we don’t protect each other when we’re having sex, right? We fuck each other bareback. That’s how you say, right? And we’re participating in a partner study in Melbourne. It’s called “Opposites Attract.” And it’s been going really well, because, you know my viral load is, uh, undetectable. Then it would seem that I am not infectious. There are still certain risks, yes, yes, of course. But overall we live perfectly, you know, free lives.

There’s no fear, you know. My keyword, I guess, here is freedom. And that freedom is absence of fear. And so in Melbourne, I have that freedom, and I feel safe here, and, and so in my 50s now, I feel perfectly safe disclosing to everyone – including my mother, and including every one of my peers when I was at uni, in the Philippines – all that past life that you sometimes walk away from because there’s something that you can’t easily talk about.

And so this is a really good way of disclosing it, because I don’t have to say it many times. I just have to say it once, and this is it. This is how I’m saying it to everyone – that I am healthy, that I am happy, that I am free, that I am positive, and all that.

I’m happy. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be saying these things to you. I wouldn’t have come up and raised my hand, and said, “Well, I, I think I come with a with a happy story, with a happy space. Um, there is nothing tragic about my life experiences, including this one.” I think there was probably a little bit more tragedy when I was younger, when I lost my father when I was 15. At the same time, it’s probably one of the things that allowed me to come out, because had he survived into his older years, then it would’ve been more difficult for me to, you know, come out. And if he were alive today, then it probably would be harder to disclose. But, no, you know, that’s 35 years ago.