The Power of Visibility

Why Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness’ coming out as HIV positive is a significant turning point in the fight against HIV and AIDS

image courtesy of Twitter

I haven’t seen a single episode of the updated version of Queer Eye. You can’t avoid it, though. Since the show has been rebooted in 2018, the new cast stormed the Internet and even if I’m never seen the show, I know that it’s inspiring and transformative (my friends who watch it tell me so all the time) and I’ve become quite aware of the cast — most notably Jonathan Van Ness.

Earlier this week, promoting his memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, Jonathan Van Ness revealed to Alex Hawgood for an article on The New York Times of his difficult early years, which includes drug addition, sex addiction, and an HIV diagnosis at 25. All of this and more are chronicled in the 32-year old television star’s memoir.

I started reading all the articles that came out of this revelation because this is big news for the PLHIV community.

Van Ness is part of a global phenomenon that has touched lives and changed people for the better. Queer Eye has four successful seasons in just two years with one special aired and another one special coming out in November.

Van Ness, on his own, is a force to be reckoned with as his own persona, outside of Queer Eye’s Fab Five, is social media ray of sunshine that spreads joy and positivity and hope wherever he goes. Anyone with a social media account and is connected in some shape or form to a member of the LGBTQIA+ community would know this. He’s a meme on his own and his persona is shared multiple times.

As I said before, I don’t watch the show but I know his cultural influence to the general public and I want to reinforce that this is an important step towards the advocacy.

Because, let’s face it, this is a celebrity-centered world and we need famous people at the forefront of the advocacy.

A Familiar Face

Over the past few years, we’ve had many PLHIV advocates who have made the rounds in television, radio, and articles in magazines and newspapers but while this was enough to make some noise, it has never really made an impactful change towards the attitudes on HIV and people living with HIV.

I am also including myself on this list. I feel confident that I’ve made some significant change to the people in my general vicinity. I’ve given an opportunity for my circles and my community to have a discussion about the virus amongst their friends and family. I’ve given them an avenue to have private discussions about their fears and general questions that they are afraid to talk about in public.

But this is only in my general vicinity. It’s one of the reasons why I try to be active on social media. Because visibility for PLHIVs count. Not just in creating awareness but also in removing the stigma.

Jonathan Van Ness, now that he’s come out as PLHIV, can serve as the visibility that is needed to show the world that people with the virus are still functioning members of society and that we can contribute to the community and be positive instruments of change.

Because of movies and television shows that focus on the drama, it creates an image of fear and death when it comes to HIV. But if people saw Jonathan Van Ness being all wonderful and fabulous on a show like Queer Eye then they might be able to change their mind about people living with HIV.

Visibility as an Instrument of Change

Visibility is important because when people can see that you can live a normal and meaningful life while HIV positive then people won’t be so scared to talk about it, to ask questions, and to take the test. These are key factors in removing stigma and in building healthier attitudes towards HIV prevention.

As long as PLHIV stay hidden and all that non-reactive people see about HIV are images of death and fear and shame through movies and television shows and news reports then people will always be scared.

Shows like Batang Poz and Posi+ive helped push the boundaries but, even as television shows, they ended and they are not without their dramatic moments.

A real person like Jonathan Van Ness, living out loud and fabulously, can change this by just being seen. And we need more of this, everyday. The more PLHIVs come out and show themselves, the more people’s attitude towards HIV will change.

Maybe better policies will be enacted because they can actually see the numbers and the people whose lives will be affected.

According to the latest Department of Health HIV registry released recently, there are a total of 68,401 total reported cases of HIV since 1984. That’s over 70,000 people. Most of them faceless, hidden, or invisible. This doesn’t mean anything to anyone.

But if you see your child’s teacher, or a police officer, or office accountant, or a person on television as a person living with HIV and having an okay life, then maybe you might think differently about it. Maybe you’d be more open minded when it comes to your friend or a member of your family.

Maybe it will help someone feel okay with having HIV.

Blood Makes Noise
Wanggo Gallaga
Wanggo Gallaga has been writing professionally since he was 14. He’s a scriptwriter, poet, and teaches Scriptwriting at De La Salle — College of St Benilde. He was diagnosed with HIV in August of 2008.

It’s Your Secret (a note on disclosure)

On a personal level, I think full disclosure is the ideal situation for any person living with HIV (PLHIV).

Of course, it’s easy for me to say since I’m one of the lucky few who have been able to publicly declare my HIV status and not have suffered because of it. Other people are not so lucky. Other PLHIVs have been kicked out of their homes, lost their jobs, their friends or partners; it’s a common refrain. This is not news. This is the sad and frustrating reality of our world. Being open about our HIV status does not guarantee our safety and security in this country.

As someone who is public about my status, I can say, though, that it is an ideal situation to be in because of the advantages that comes with living my life openly. I don’t have to lie about certain lifestyle changes that have occurred in my life — most notably, my sleeping hours and avoiding stressful situations — and I can take my pills openly. I don’t have to be discreet about it.

If I have a medical emergency, for whatever reason, the people around me are usually very supportive and helpful. They become extra nurturing, even, and watch out for me.

I think the most important thing is that I don’t have to hide this part of my life from the people who matter to me the most. My relationships are secure with regards to secrets. I am not keeping a secret from people I love and from people who love me. It makes things clear and keeps things simple.

On Full Disclosure

Being open about my status also meant that I had no choice but to reveal to any potential romantic or sexual partner about being HIV positive. Naturally, this made the conversation very awkward and uncomfortable. I’ve had my fair share of dates and hookups that never reached its full potential because some people are not ready to handle someone with HIV.

I don’t take that against them. If they are not ready, then they aren’t ready. 

It’s just something that I believe in. I contracted the virus because I was reckless enough to sleep with multiple partners and not use protection. I bet if I knew someone had HIV back in 2004, being an ignorant young 20something, I probably would not have slept with him either. I’d like for people to know what they are getting themselves into with me.

So, in my opinion, full disclosure is important. In the original HIV Law, Republic Act 8504, the language of the law made it so that a PLHIV is “obliged to disclose his/her HIV status and health condition to his/her spouse or sexual partner at the earliest opportune time.” The language is not clearly defined. It is a single sentence and it is phrased in a way that it doesn’t insist on it, so there is no way to determine if you will be breaking the law by not disclosing.

In the past 11 years since diagnosis, I have always disclosed my HIV status to any potential romantic or sexual partner. I felt it was necessary. I felt it was my obligation, But over the years, my stand has changed.

Again, it’s easy for me to disclose because I’ve never been discriminated upon before. I have never suffered from stigma. But now that it’s been eleven years, and I’m not in the public sphere as I used to be, there are people out there who don’t know about my status and I no longer tell them, even if we enter a sexual relationship.

I don’t have to. Republic Act 11166, the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act of 2018, is much more comprehensive and better defined in its terms and terminology. Article VI, Section 47 states “Any person who, after having been tested, is found to be infected with HIV is strongly encouraged to disclose his health condition to the spouse, sexual partners, and/or any person prior to engaging in penetrative sex or any potential exposure to HIV.” The section also includes a clause on how to disclose, which creates a safeguard the PLHIV from any sort of reprisal.

The reason this becomes beneficial to PLHIVs is the use of the phrase “strong encouraged” rather than “obliged.” 

“Obliged” is such a passive-aggressive term. It neither insists nor does it provide any alternative action. “Strongly encouraged” denotes that one is not required to inform them. It respects the notion that disclosure is solely upon the discretion of the PLHIV. And if the PLHIV has an undetectable viral load, then s/he is no longer a threat to anybody for being a “potential exposure to HIV.”

So who do you tell?

Which brings me back to my original statement: full disclosure is an ideal situation for any PLHIV. I think the amount of PLHIV who are living their lives with their status out in the open is a strong measurement for how progressive a society is. If the PLHIV community are unafraid of reprisal or discrimination, then we have a society that works for the betterment of everyone in it.

But we don’t have that right now. Conservative thinking and old school beliefs are still pervasive. These values diminish the quality of life for many members of various communities who are marginalized and live on the fringes.

And because of that, a lot of poz still live with their status kept secret.

But it’s always good to share that secret with someone. HIV is manageable but one shouldn’t have to face it alone.

Always tell someone. Definitely, your doctor. Develop and nurture a strong relationship with your doctor; someone who can address all your medical concerns and who can insist on practical solutions to any of your medical issues. Form a support group with other PLHIV who understand what you are going through.

And then, be very discerning, and choose someone from your inner circle. Be it someone in your family or from your close circle of friends. This person can help you out of situations were your HIV status may be put into question. You will have a friend who can help you avoid certain situations and certain questions that might reveal your HIV status. It helps with the stress because keeping a secret like HIV can be very stressful.

And we want to stay away from stress.

Poz has a great article on the basics of disclosure ( that you might want to take a look at if you have any questions on how to disclose and why.

But let me reiterate, the choice is yours. It’s your secret and you are not in any obligation to reveal this information to anyone. It’s no longer illegal not to; it’s not a law. It is strongly encouraged. But again, it is up to you.

Blood Makes Noise
Wanggo Gallaga
Wanggo Gallaga has been writing professionally since he was 14. He’s a scriptwriter, poet, and teaches Scriptwriting at De La Salle — College of St Benilde. He was diagnosed with HIV in August of 2008.

Editor’s Note

RAA 11166 & IRR states:

Section 23 HIV Prevention Measures.

  • The PNAC, in coordination with the DOH, LGUs, and other relevant government agencies, private sector, CSOs, faith-based organizations, and PLHIVs, shall implement preventive measures, including but not limited to the following: 
    • Establishment and enforcement of rights-based mechanisms, which include psychosocial counseling: A. to promote HIV status disclosure to partners; and B. to strongly encourage newly tested HIV-positive individuals to conduct partner notification.

Section 47 Disclosure to Persons with Potential Exposure to HIV.

a) Any person who, after having been tested is found to be infected with HIV, is strongly encouraged to disclose this health condition to the spouse, sexual partners, and/or any person prior to engaging in penetrative sex or any potential exposure to HIV.
b) A person living with HIV may seek help from qualified professionals, including medical professionals, health workers, peer educators, or social workers for disclosing this health condition to one’s partner or spouse. Confidentiality shall likewise be observed.
c) Further, the DOH through the PNAC, shall establish an enabling environment to encourage newly tested HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to partners. 

Read more on the new HIV Law (RA 11166) and the Implementing Rules and Regulations here: