Wednesday, July 27, 2016

HIVisions - Visions Gone Viral

By: Kris Tangco

The HIV crisis has gone on for four decades, and for four decades the world has struggled against it. Doctors, scientists, educators, policy makers, writers, artists -- people of all walks and all colors have, in their own ways, sought to make sense of this crisis and its relationship with society. From citizens to states, from medicine to prayer, from cures to cries for reform, people’s visions of how to respond to the crisis are as diverse as the people who bear its scars. The goal of this series is to give you a glimpse of these visions: the roles people of different passions and disciplines have played in this crisis that, as of March 2016 as recorded by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, is infecting 25 Filipinos daily.

From left to right: Tokwa Peñaflorida, Henri Palma, and Kay Aranzanso

It was a muggy April evening as I sat down at a coffee shop in Capitol Commons with Henri Palma, Kay Aranzanso, and Tokwa Peñaflorida. Lamps lay low over the counter table where we were seated, the warm light creating a lazy haze that hung low between us. Other people chatted heartily while the busy sound of aspirating coffeemakers punctuated the noise of the air.

Henri Palma, a program director of a corporate foundation, is in-charge of exhibits and arts appreciation activities spearheaded by the foundation. I sat beside Henri, facing across the table two of his close friends, Kay and Tokwa. Both were upcoming artists who have worked HIV advocacy into their art before, like the The Red Letter Days exhibit of the advocacy group, Red Whistle.

That evening, we talked about how art speaks out for and with people living with HIV (PLHIV).

Creating Art for the cause  HIV/AIDS

Visual art, with technical skill and creative genius, has the potential to make real our innermost longings. On the finite surface of a canvas or the three-dimensional space of a sculpture or an installation, art is an attempt to create representations of realities that transcend these borders. Artists like Kay and Tokwa draw their inspiration from the peculiarities of everyday, to create images that convey perspectives artists have about various objects and facets of existence and their nuances . For these two artists, we see how their work takes on an established tradition that seeks to make art more amenable to non-conservative views on sexuality.

The conversation focused on how HIV is transmitted. From drug use to unprotected sex, we closed in on the more intimate and vulnerable corners -- spaces and situations that society prefers kept behind closed doors. As Kay and Tokwa talk about their work, they undress sex and its meanings, from one’s quest for power to one’s search for intimacy and self-esteem.

“The focus of my art is mainly erotic art. This is my way of studying the female body,” Kay shares. Fascinated with female anatomy, she describes her nudes as very raw. “As a woman, my take on the female body is different: The male habit of objectifying the female form is removed.” Her figures depart from traditional portrayals of women set by popular culture and trends, which focused on details such as fair skin, plump breasts, narrow waists and curvy hips. Turning her paintbrush away from these, Kay’s art concerns itself with essence: what makes a woman a woman.
Tokwa, on the other hand, sets his brush to the male form: as he creates a substantial amount of homoerotic art as part of his extensive oeuvre, which includes other genres such as children’s books and fashion illustrations. “My thesis back in Fine Arts School focused on gender and sexuality,” Tokwa shares. “I want to explore male sensuality through my art.” Tokwa talks of vulnerability and relationship in explaining his work, all inspired by human experiences of longing and love as expressed in the male homosexual bond.

“Our works are all about sex positivity,” Tokwa points out. Kay’s female nudes and Tokwa’s homoerotic images reveal intimate corners that society would otherwise relegate to more hidden and discreet spaces. “The shock and exposure that our art can give is something that should educate the wider public. If we keep on shunning away sex in our regular conversations, it wouldn’t help educating people about HIV/AIDS,” says Kay.

Both Kay and Tokwa admit their art was not intended for HIV awareness, but that people’s response to their work had naturally grown to accommodate that angle. “I want people to interpret my work in the light of HIV awareness. I don’t want to spoon-feed them,” says Tokwa. To them, it is not about drawing syringes and images of dying people: “To educate people about HIV/AIDS, I think we should be more sex-positive,” Kay says.

Rather than fearing sex uncritically, society must be able to recognize the fundamental place of sex in human life. At one level, we deal with accepting sex as a fundamental reality of human existence that it helps to actually be more open about it. And on another level, we deal with accepting PLHIVs by emphasizing that their experiences and struggles in life are much closer to normal. “Our art draws from the intersection of personal experience, sexuality, and the body. It is something that we all have and do,” says Tokwa.

Works for The Red Letter Days: “Penitensya” and “Pectin and Sugar and How to Make Homemade Jams”

"Penitensya" by Kaye Aranzanso

Kay Aranzanso’s “Penitensya” delves into the politics of sex. Here, the woman is on “top”; she is in control, the rhythm imposed by her sexual position, a tool of dominance. Pleasure is her power: power to pleasure her partner and, at the same time, to pleasure herself. Relating this to HIV/AIDS, the figure of a woman on top implies a position of dominance, her being in a position of authority gives her the freedom to use protection or otherwise during sexual intercourse. Relating Kay’s slant on women figures, it is important to remember that the HIV/AIDS crisis, which is often associated with homosexual men, disproportionately affect women. In 2015 for example, 58% of new infections in young people aged 15-24 years old occurred among teenage girls and young women, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

"Pectin and Sugar and How To Make Homemade Jams" by Tokwa Peñaflorida

“I started out by thinking of a story with a very personal approach,” explains Tokwa in his piece, “Pectin and Sugar and How To Make Homemade Jams.” The image of two men superimposed with colored blobs and a bunch of fruits is an allusion to a homosexual relationship that has become too comfortable or complacent, both lovers bound by the stickiness of the jam, as it were. The fruit jam is the bright and dense sweetness of their relationship made manifest, but its restrictive viscosity underscores the dangers of their relationship’s complacency. Relating this story to HIV/AIDS, the complacency Tokwa describes in this piece alludes to the complacency of  both lovers to find out their status. In fact, studies have documented a disturbing habit common among gay men of not revealing their HIV status to their partners, out of a need for self-protection and fear of rejection -- a sobering reminder of stigma’s power within the gay community.

Exhibiting art for the cause of HIV

“One goal you should have with your art exhibit is to have a wider reach,” says Henri Palma. Apart from maximizing reach, the exhibit must ensure that its collection gets the message across while maintaining artistic standards in choosing works to be included in the collection.

Henri points to the unpreparedness of the general public in appreciating art. “Art has always had the perception of being elitist. Museums seem to be intimidating venues.” Henri’s exhibits often take place in malls, which are more accessible. Instead of putting up barriers, his exhibits, such as those organized by the corporate foundation where he works, make art more accessible to people.

The art being exhibited is, of course, the heart of any successful exhibit. However, the criteria for choosing what gets in are considerably arbitrary. Principles of formalism can be applied, and this includes an analysis of the form and style of the work, the method for creating the work and purely visual aspects. We see the facility with which Kay and Tokwa create the image of the male and female forms, the complex composition and use of color in Tokwa’s work. The work is evaluated according to various aspects including space, volume, and general aesthetic elements.

On the other hand, the sociocultural and historical context where the work is anchored on introduces a level of relativism. This is where the narratives of each work are considered, one of sexual politics and human experience in the works of our two featured artists. In the context of an HIV/AIDS exhibit, the depth and wealth of meaning it bears with the crisis must be weighed together with theories used for evaluating visual art. Some artists may not have the intention of creating work with HIV/AIDS in mind, but it is highly possible to read these works in the light of HIV/AIDS discourse, as described in the stories of the works of Kay and Tokwa.

“I would not include a still life painting of a syringe, for example,” muses Henri when asked about what kind of images he would want in an exhibit with PLHIVs as the theme. While a painting may be created with great technical skill, the message and narrative it contains may not just have enough relevance to the theme of the exhibit. Discernment on the part of the exhibitor and curator is vital to the collection’s success.

Henri cites Visual AIDS, the only organization that supports solely HIV-related art. Its projects aim to encourage dialogue and scholarship on HIV/AIDS, and supports PLHIV artists in exhibiting their work. Apart from exhibitions, Visual AIDS utilizes art as a catalyst for public presentations about HIV, activism, and social activism. Speakers would explain about various realities of the HIV crisis and PLHIVs’ experiences while keeping the artwork as the focal point of the discussion.

The experiences of those who live with HIV and the larger stories that loom over our collective imaginations are dynamic, and art is well-suited to the task of rendering this complexity into tangible forms. And while art draws from and draws out complexity, artists like Henri, Tokwa, and Kay show that creativity can be anchored on an unchanging virtue: acceptance. Art inspired by the stories of people so often shut out is one way of teaching acceptance, of reaching out by drawing people in.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

LoveYourself's Latest Service: LoveYourself Purple, A Counseling Program for Couples

LoveYourself introduces an innovation with its new service called Couple’s HIV Counseling and Testing (CHCT), otherwise lightheartedly coined as LoveYourself Purple, designed for couples who wish to undergo HIV counseling and testing together. This service aims to provide intervention for couples so that they may plan for their future and discuss a realistic risk reduction plan that they can implement together. An important note to be mindful of with LoveYourself’s CHCT program is the nuance of the word “couple” which implies that at least two individuals who wish to avail the program are in a pre-sexual or sexual relationship.

The Learning and Development arm of LoveYourself, Love University, together with one of its founding members, Chris Lagman, coordinated the training program for LoveYourself volunteers who will be counselors for this service. This service was developed with the backdrop of rising incidence of HIV infections among males who have sex with males (MSM), many of these infections taking place among MSMs who are in a relationship.

The service has been dubbed as LoveYourself Purple, with purple being the marriage of the colors blue and red, representing wisdom and love, respectively. The union of colors wittingly conjures the image of two, mutually consenting people who have decided to avail of LoveYourself’s services and manage their sexual health.

The Rising Incidence of HIV Incidence Among Couples

In male-male couples, a rise in the risk of HIV infection is attributed to a number of factors, including failing to confirm the HIV status of either partner before having unprotected anal intercourse (UAI), more frequent sex acts and receptive roles, as well as lower condom use during anal sex. Although UAI is the primary mode of HIV transmission among MSM’s, research has identified that this sexual practice has been mostly opted by couples to show their love, intimacy, and trust towards one another, which in turn edifies the commitment and satisfaction they have for each other. UAI is also seen by couples as the primary reason to establish a sexual agreement among themselves.

There has also been a confirmed tendency among couples to assume the seronegativity of their partners and a failure of either or both parties to adhere to a sexual agreement. In this light, Ali Borja, a clinical psychologist and speaker who has given talks on a broad range of topics including depression and suicide prevention, finds it very timely and relevant to offer a couple’s counseling service, which LoveYourself is going to undertake and offer as the CHCT.

The service will be different from LoveYourself’s usual one-on-one counseling services. Confidentiality of personal and sensitive information will still be upheld to the highest degree, but for couple’s counseling, the consent to undergo counseling together and consequently discussions of each partner’s sexual behaviors will have to be obtained with both parties present. The couple will receive their results together as well.


LoveYourself Purple will commence on August 7, 2016, Sunday. The service will be held only on Sundays, from 9AM to 2PM thereafter. The service can be availed of at any of LoveYourself’s two clinics, LoveYourself Anglo along Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong, or LoveYourself Uni just next to Buendia (Gil Puyat) LRT station.

One couple will be allotted one hour for consultation and testing purposes, which means that five couples will only be entertained during both of LoveYourself’s clinics’ Sunday operating hours. Setting appointment is therefore recommended, and interested couples can sign-up at to choose their preferred schedule. All parties must have read and consented to the conditions stated in the sign-up sheet before proceeding to the appointment.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

As LoveYourself Turned Five, A Message from LoveYourself Founder Vinn Pagtakhan

By Gello Ganon

One drop has caused the ripple of altruism. One vision has shed light on the lost.  One voice has resonated through the hearts of many.

Vinn Pagtakhan, the namesake of Vinn Advocacy, which would later be known as Love Yourself, started with a vision to provide a home, where, once visited, one can only leave with either a happy heart or at least, a hopeful one. It is a place where judgement is dusted off in the doormat before entering and hope is served for snacks. In just half a decade, shoulders were tapped to take on the mission to be a voice of the silent and to be the guide for the lost. They’re to be called the LoveYourself volunteers, modern-day superheroes (or super heroines for that matter) who work in the shadows.

As Love Yourself turns 5, a simple celebration was held at Ramada Hotel in Binondo, Manila on the eve of July 2, 2016. Volunteers and friends of LoveYourself gathered and kicked off the night with the Circle of Love, an event commemorating good deeds, happy memories and shared dreams. Vinn, the progenitor of LoveYourself, welcomed the night with a heartfelt message of what Love Yourself has gone through, where it stands now and what it aims to be.

Anniversary Message
Vinn Pagtakhan

“Anniversaries are wonderful, magical, celebratory occasions. Anniversaries are opportunities for recollections of the year gone by and positive reflections for the year ahead.”

“This past year has been a happy and successful year in so many ways. It has been defined by a kaleidoscope of happy memories, supportive friendships and enduring relationships.”

“Of course there have also been some paths that may have been slightly more difficult to travel together. Yet in spite of and despite the odd stumbling blocks along the way--we have traveled through yet another year--together, supportive, encouraging and enduring.”

“When I initially started with our advocacy, little did I know that we will have an empire of dedicated and passionate lovers.”

Sabi nga ni Chris, the LoveYourself Family is founded by a small group of people with big hearts who are convinced that unconditional love, a solid sense of self-worth, and an unbreakable courage of heart are the tools necessary to address the HIV situation here in the country. Keeping in mind that LoveYourself is just a vessel to help the community but our loyalty lies with the advocacy.”

“LoveYourself was founded by love and genuine care, its walls were built by time, sacrifices and hardwork of our volunteers and volunteer leaders. Now and hopefully for the coming years, we keep the culture of being caring, passionate and kind.. ang pagiging maasikaso at maalaga.”

“And as we take the time to express our gratitude for 5 fantastic years gone by--we turn expectantly to the years that lie ahead.”

“We look forward to wonderful years together - a time to build and strengthen forged relationships even further; a time to create and cherish even more shared memories and a time filled with dreams that are brought ever closer, and milestones - whatever they may be - achieved, and of course a family to cherish.”

“Tonight, as we celebrate our 5th anniversary, I value even more, the special people that we are able to share this occasion with.”

“Our fairy godmothers (miss Marvi, Doc Loyd, Doc Gerard & Doc Gen and of course ang ating one and only ninang Doc Annie Rossana).

“The founding members and core leaders (Chris, Neil, Ian, Kuya Law, Tony, Von and Antzy)”

“The new breed of leaders, ang 2nd generation TWG (Kurt, Edgie, Paul, Earl, Danvic, Jay, Mommy Miggy and little princess Philip & orginal Ops TWG, Px & Sephy, the wondergirls Dexter, Jeoff, Mama Renee).”

“My admin team (Jhaydee, Voki, Anton, Yesha, Karlo, Wico, Kahel, Mommy Allen and Malou, Ryan and Winston; RSC Girls, Shude and Ken, Ivy, Pete, Barry, Gab, Mike & Jase).”

“The batches (Originals, Next Gen, Synergy, Impetus, Vanguard, Ignite, Ascend, Sensation, Absolute, Hiraya, Bigkis, Katha, Kinaadman and our babies batch Magayon).”

“As the saying goes, It doesn't matter where you go in life or what you achieve, or what you do - what matters most is who you have beside you along the way! Memorize ninyo na toh but I will keep repeating this over and over.. kayo lovers ang puso at kaluluwa ng Loveyourself, and once a lover, no matter where you are now or where you will be in the future, you will always be part of the Loveyourself family.”

“Thank you - one and all - for being beside us this past year...and may you be ever near in the years ahead.”

“I'll leave you tonight with a quote that really inspires me and resonates the passion to help more: ‘When you volunteer, you are not paid in money or recognition, you are paid in love. People may forget what you said and people may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel’".

LoveYourself Welcomes 2nd Batch of Volunteers for 2016, "Magayon"

Last June 11, LoveYourself once again welcomed a new set of volunteers, collectively known as Batch Magayon. This new set of volunteers corresponds to LoveYourself’s second wave of recruited volunteers for 2016.

The batch name “magayon” comes from the Bicolano word “beautiful”. LoveYourself hopes that this batch of volunteers will allow beauty to radiate from within themselves and touch the lives of people they will encounter in the organization’s advocacy of HIV awareness and self-worth.

Batch Magayon volunteers will receive training to become counselors in LoveYourself’s two HIV testing clinics - the LoveYourself Uni in Pasay and LoveYourself Anglo in Mandaluyong. Batch Magayon volunteers will also have the opportunity to move further with the option of undertaking life coaching training as part of LoveYourself’s latest program, the NEX+ CHAP+ER program, a life coaching service for PLHIV’s (People Living With HIV).

Behind the Logo

The sinarapan is used as an icon for Batch Magayon. LoveYourself Creatives lead Geno Maglinao connects the diminutive sinarapan, endemic to Bicol and also the world’s smallest edible fish, with beauty. This association conveys the importance of looking beyond traditional perceptions of the beautiful to beauty from within, hearkening to Miss Universe 2016 Pia Wurtzbach’s words, “confidently beautiful with a heart”.

The choice of Philippine endemic species for batch logos is in line with LoveYourself Creatives’ plans for 2016. The first batch for 2016, Kinaadman, utilized the Philippine Eagle Owl, a species prevalent in the Visayas region. Similarly, the choice of virtues and traits expressed in various Filipino dialects as names for batches of new recruits was started this 2016.

Recruiting Magayon

Similar with past recruitments, Magayon recruits underwent a careful review process whereby the candidates’ capacity to perform in and contribute to the organization are evaluated. LoveYourself Recruitment Team Lead Pete Tan shares that as LoveYourself is expanding with the creation of more internal committees in response to its growing number of services, such as the NEX+ CHAPTER program, among others being planned to be launched soon, the considerations for evaluating candidates also correspondingly increased.

With 50 volunteers, Magayon bears the same trend in the increased number of recruits seen in Kinaadman earlier this year. LoveYourself’s stronger social media presence,the success of its mass testing events including this year’s Incognito and exciting fundraisers such as Cherry Poppin’ have all been a big help in attracting people to join the organization.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: Monching Domingo Co, a Lover and a Fighter

LoveYourself counselor and single dad Monching has had his fair share of ups and downs, but his unwavering spirit and constant inspirations in life have gotten him through hell and high water time and time again.

By Jean Natividad

We were already at the final stretch of our hour-long interview, but Monching couldn't help but shed tears. It was a rainy evening in June, and we were seated outside the bustling Pineapple Lab in Makati City, guests taking long drags from their cigarettes nearby.

The mood inside was celebratory. It was LoveYourself's Pride Night 2016 event, and hundreds of LGBT members and allies gathered to celebrate love, acceptance, and freedom. Outside, it was rather sentimental as Monching revealed his touching narrative.

It was an emotional hour that didn't seem enough to hear about the story of Monching, a young professional, a LoveYourself volunteer, a gay single father, and a relentless fighter. It was during this hour that he took this writer for a rollercoaster ride through the ups, downs, twists, and turns of his soap opera-like life.

The dedicated Lover
Monching is celebrating his first year as a LoveYourself volunteer. To join the organization was a plan that took a while to materialize, and his inspiration for doing so is something familiar to other volunteers.

"I was inspired to join the organization by a friend who was infected with HIV. Sadly, he passed away even before I could join LoveYourself," Monching shares.

"He disappeared from our group of friends, and I was the only one he opened up to about his situation. I was grateful because he trusted me, but I do get sad thinking that had I known more about HIV that time, maybe I would have been able to help him better," he adds.

But what Monching couldn't do for his friend then, he's doing for LoveYourself clients now. As a LoveYourself counselor, Monching educates and helps clients go through the HIV testing process.

"So far, I haven't had a reactive client, so I'm preparing for that. It's wonderful to see the relief in the faces of nonreactive clients after they find out their status... But I'm also preparing myself to let my future reactive clients know that testing positive for HIV infection is not the end of the world."

Monching adds, "I'm also able to help more people in my network because since they know I'm a counselor, they get in touch with me and I get to refer them to our clinics. I'm happy to be able to help in my small ways."

The tenacious fighter
Monching, 33, is a single parent to his son Yuan, 14. "Being a parent is really tough because you have to set aside your own dreams for your child. When I had Yuan, suddenly, all my dreams and actions were just for him."

"And as an LGBT parent, it's also tough because of the discrimination in society. What I'm trying to avoid is to have my son bullied just because I’m a gay father, " Monching tells us.

Thankfully, bullying has never been an issue for his growing son, who understood early on that his father isn't straight. Monching notes he doesn't pretend to be straight, especially when attending school meetings and events, but he does make sure to conduct himself in ways that he'd be respected as the father of Yuan. "I wanted to make a statement that being gay is not a limitation in being a parent," he says.

Monching had Yuan when he was 19 with his girlfriend back then. They ended their relationship three years after Yuan was born, and the child stayed with Monching and Monching’s mother. "I would say I was bisexual. When I was young, I would really have crushes on girls and have girlfriends. But I once had a male childhood friend that I also liked, and as I grew up, I noticed how my attraction for men grew stronger," he shares.

He admits he had fears after finding out he was going to be a young father, one of which was how to raise his child given he was still a student then. Monching chose to quit school temporarily and work to raise his son. He took a job as a service crew in a fast-food joint and waited for the chance to go back to school.

Monching eventually made it back to the classroom. By that time, his son was already studying, too - and it was twice the struggle to get himself and his child an education. The call centre business was just booming in the country then, and so he switched jobs to better finance their education.

"The challenge was also to divide my time as a father, as a student, as an employee, and as a lover," he coyly shared. "So I would work at night, and then go to school in the morning, and then go home to check on Yuan, sleep, repeat. And when I had extra time, I went out on dates."

Four years of that strenuous routine and Monching got his degree in BS Psychology, proving not just to himself but to others as well that hard work really pays off. "Yuan graduated from elementary school and I graduated from college just one day apart. It was a happy moment, having that feeling of fulfilment as a father and as a student. It was like hitting two birds with one stone."

The good of it all   

Theirs is a bond beautifully captured by Monching's anecdote: "I remember when I broke up with an ex boyfriend. I was so drained, I went to my room, and I just broke down. Yuan saw me crying and asked why. I told him it was nothing and I was just so, so tired. I closed my eyes, and perhaps he thought I was already asleep. I heard him say, 'Da, don't worry. When I grow up, I'll be the one to take care of you. No one's going to ever make you cry again.' He left the room, and I was just so overcome by emotion.'"

Monching adds, "He's my forever boyfriend. I told him that one time: 'You're my boyfriend forever. Out of all the men I will meet and will be my boyfriend and will leave me, I know you're the only one who will never ever abandon me. You're my forever.'" Aside from being his ‘forever boyfriend,’ Monching also considers Yuan his kryptonite, his only weakness.

There are many other rewards Monching is reaping at the moment. No matter how cliche, he admits all his worries and exhaustion disappear when he gets home and sees his son. He also feels immense joy in knowing that he is his child's hero.

He adds, "I'm also happy to inspire people, especially those who are single parents - straight or not. It's also rewarding that I have a supportive family and equally supportive colleagues that remind me of everything I've conquered whenever I feel so tired. It's rewarding to be appreciated by people for the things I've done that I didn't even do for myself or just to impress others.”

What he hopes to share

Having gone through all his experiences, Monching shares messages he hopes will inspire single parents, gay parents, and their children. "For solo parents like me, we have to be brave and strong because someone's counting and leaning on us. If we're weak, how can our children draw strength from us? And vice-versa, we can also draw strength from our children.

"For gay parents, we still can't avoid discrimination, but in whatever we do, we must remember to put our children first before men. Men will disappear, but our children won't. We also need to be brave and we need to prove that being gay is not a hindrance to being a parent... Parenthood knows no gender."

In tears, thinking of his very own kryptonite, Monching concludes our evening interview with a message befitting the deeper meaning of Pride Night, "For children whose parents are part of the LGBT community, keep loving your parents because they draw strength from you. Acceptance should come from you first because if not from you, and if other people keep condemning us, where else would we get the strength to move forward?"

Photos: Jack Torres
Photo Editing: Mark Long

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

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