For years, Singapore’s HIV-positive community has been virtually invisible. Out of the thousands infected, only two have outed themselves in the media as PWAs (Person with AIDS).
The first was Paddy Chew, who’s bisexual and came out in December 1998 and passed away in August 1999. The second was Andy Low, a heterosexual man who disclosed his status in July 2009 but has since disappeared from the public eye. Aside from them, no-one has come forward to the mainstream media as the human face of the disease.
But the ground is shifting. Two young Singaporean PWAs have begun using social media as a tool to explain their issues to the world at large. Using tools like Wordpress, Tumblr and Twitter, they’re sharing their stories and opinions, while limiting exposure of their real-world identities.
One of these personalities is “Zack”, better known by his Twitter handle, @pozboysg. He’s a 24-year-old gay man, and he’s been living with HIV for four years.
He’s astonishingly candid when he talks about the effects of his diagnosis – depression and a bout of self-destructive behaviour, resulting in a “full flush” of STDs, including HPV, genital herpes, syphilis, Chlamydia and gonorrhea. Thankfully, he’s since received treatment and is much healthier now, mentally and physically.
Zack has appeared (with his face hidden) on several TV shows, providing his perspective on the disease, such as Channel News Asia’s Talking Point and Removing the Stigma: HIV in the Workplace. This year, he’s also set up a Tumblr page, called “The Adventures of POZboySG”, so he can talk about HIV issues at a greater depth than 140 characters might allow. He’s also got a Formspring account, so that readers can send him questions.
Perhaps even braver than Zack is “J”, a 22-year-old National Serviceman. He experienced a “front page coming out” when local tabloid The New Paper profiled him for World AIDS Day 2010. Although he was photographed in shadow, his image was still recognisable enough that friends started calling him out of nowhere to ask about his health.
He was left with a healthy distrust of reporters after that. Now, he prefers to speak for himself: he writes a column for the Canadian website Positive Lite, and maintains a Wordpress and Twitter account. (His handle, @tastylongwiener, was created before he was diagnosed.) He was also the initator of an online youth education project on STDs last year, called SilenceSG.
What makes J truly remarkable is the fact that he shows us his face. Although his real name is a secret, he’s willing to post public photographs of himself which don’t obscure his features in any way. No-one else does this – although we hope more people will.
J declined to be interviewed, but Zack was happy to speak to Fridae. We hope their stories will inspire other HIV-positive people of all ages and orientations, and improve awareness and acceptance among the rest of us.
æ: Age, sex, occupation, location?
Zack: 24, male, Singapore. I just graduated from a local university and started working, so I’m a civil servant now.
æ: Why did you start writing about yourself online?
Zack: I was in a sero-discordant relationship before. [Ed: This means a relationship between an HIV-positive and HIV-negative partner.] It ended pretty badly and my ex actually told everyone about my status. So in order to cope, I started my Twitter account to tell my story.
æ: How did people respond?
Zack: The initial response was actually pretty positive. It started alright, I guess. I basically haven’t had any flak yet. But some people said I was hiding behind a noble cause in order to pick up HIV positive guys on Twitter. It’s actually not true; I’m kind of dating someone already.
æ: What about your Tumblr?
Zack: I started it because I’d like to reach out to those people who are actually not so active on Twitter; just expanding my outreach. I’m educating people about STIs and STDs, and I need to explain a lot, so I thought having a Tumblr account was actually more powerful that way.
Response has been quite slow, but it picked up recently when I went on @hellofromsg. They are actually just curating Singaporeans for a Twitter account every week, and I’m the fourth Singaporean to actually be on it.
æ: When did you find out about your status?
Zack: I got myself tested during National Service. I was a soldier in the Singapore Armed Forces, an officer, and I was in a relationship with someone who was HIV-positive also. I had an inkling about my status, so I just took up the courage to get tested four months before I ORDed, so that’s how I got the news.
Then I went into hospital for one week for a certain infection. And that was when my mum found out: when she went through my stuff and she saw the hospitalisation bills. For the next one-year period I just had a really antagonistic relationship with my mother, so I kind of moved out.
æ: You’ve talked about how you went into a depressive stage after that.
Zack: I went on a downward spiral. When they’re diagnosed with HIV, people either get really depressed and become reclusives in life, or they get really angry.
I became addicted to drugs, and I had even more sex than ever before. I went to saunas; I just became the village bicycle. It went pretty bad. I actually lost a lot of weight due to my addiction and my failing health. I kept getting sick all the time. I kept having fevers, flus, and sometimes when I overdid what I did last time I went into septic shock. There were three occasions where I went into septic shock directly after having sex – my temperature just went up and I started shivering like crazy. My buddies thought I was going to die.
I was actually afraid to start medication and break the news to my dad (my parents are separated). So I caught a waterborne illness called cryptosporidiosis, the kind that kills people with weakened immune systems. I think I caught it from one of the bathhouses in Singapore: it was the dirtiest, the filthiest place before renovation. And I was still under the influence of drugs, so I didn’t care; I was going around having sex everywhere there in very unhygienic conditions. Even my [HIV+] friends were like, “You caught crypto in Singapore?”
I got a very severe inflammation in my colon and I was in hospital for two months. And that’s when my entire family got to know – the entire clan, actually: aunts, uncles, nephews and my dad.
æ: I understand this also the period you were diagnosed with other STDs.
Zack: I was infected with HPV, so I have to go to the DSC clinic every week for treatment. I’ve been doing it for the past two years, because my warts are huge. The doctor burns them off. It’s really painful. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, it would be a 7 for me. Thanks to the medication, they’ve recently disappeared, so I’m actually quite happy.
I also had a herpes infection. I had 50 or more tiny ulcers in my mouth. That was the most horrible part. Even drinking water was torture. I’ve cried only about once or twice over my HIV, but because of these ulcers, I cried every time I had to drink.
æ: How are you paying for your treatment?
Zack: When I was in school, my dad was the one who provided me with the means and support to buy my medication. But I made a mistake, and I missed my medications for stretches of a time and the first-line medication stopped working for me.
So things got from bad to worse. I had to change it to second-line medication. And it costs S$900 (US$719) a month now, up from my S$100 first-line medication. So my advice to newly diagnosed patients is, don’t mess with your medication.
I now get them from the pharmacy, because as a student I was under Medifund’s health plan. But now I’ve got a job and my Medifund is going to start expiring very soon. Some people choose to use their Medisave.
æ: Will you ever go completely public about your HIV status?
Zack: I can’t reveal myself. Not only am I civil servant, but I actually have dreams of flying. I want to be a trolley dolly: I’m still trying that job in Singapore Airlines. And the HIV travel ban is still very much in place in many countries that SIA travels to, so they definitely would not want me. That’s why I have to keep my identity under wraps. Because I still worry about my career, I still worry about people not wanting to hire me.
Nowadays, when I have to see the doctor for a follow-up review, I just take MC [sick leave]. I see the doctor and spend the rest of the day gong to the gym.
æ: So what are your aims now?
Zack: I feel like I’ve been given a second chance to live. And it’s hard to say this, but the government’s helped me with the Medifund, so I feel I have to give back to society.
I started the blog and Twitter account to tell my story and advise people to make responsible choices in life. If not then they might end up like me. It kind of breaks my heart to know that a lot of young boys, young gay boys, are going down the same path as me and I’m trying my best to warn them not to, because it’s really a shitty issue. Medication is not cheap, and your family might throw you out. I’m actually very blessed to have family that’s so supportive.
I’ve also set up the account to tell other HIV+ boys in Singapore that they are not alone in this trouble, so I’m just here to give them a guiding hand. If you know more about the disease you won’t be so afraid, and most young Singaporeans don’t know much about HIV. So I’m the smarty pants who’s actually giving them advice on how to live a life with it.
Lastly, I’m using the platform not to seek pity but to get understanding from people, so they won’t perpetuate the stereotypes and myths about the disease. All of us are human beings. You shouldn’t treat us like lepers. We have our goals, our ambitions, people we love, family we love. We have jobs we worry about and bills to pay. We are the same as anybody else. Don’t treat us differently.
Editor's note (Jul 28): The screengrab of "Jan's" bio found on positivelite.com that was originally published on Jul 27 has been removed at his request. All details about "Jan" in this article is based on information available in the public domain (including his own blog and Twitter feed) at the time of publication. Fridae does not advocate outing anyone who does not want to come out.