21 Aug 2009

Positive living (Part 6)

Having explored several religions to seek the purpose of life, SL Yang no longer sees HIV as a mortal enemy but has chosen to look at it as a reminder to live his life positively.

Confronted with life and death issues, it was only natural that I began questioning what life and the afterlife were about. Living with HIV made me question the very nature of existence – what was the meaning of life? Was this all there was? These questions led me down several paths as I explored the mystical and spiritual aspects of life.

Living in multi-cultural Singapore has allowed me to observe and experience the diverse religious practices in daily life. We would sing hymns at school and read passages from the bible. During Ramadan, I would be woken up by the call to prayer, which I still find mesmerising to this day. I have attempted to experience darshan (a Hindu ritual) at a fire puja, and even participated in a temple medium’s trance readings.

There was a period when I actually meditated on the rosary, though I was not a Catholic. I dipped into New Age teachings and read from Louise Hays, when a friend gave me her book to read – it was all about the transformative power of thought called You Can Heal Your Life. I even tried to pierce the veil of mystery that was the Kabbalah. And I read books on Buddhism and attended meditation classes.

All these activities were in the pursuit of that age-old question man has been asking himself and others since the dawn of time – What is the purpose of life? Surely there is more than just eating, sleeping, growing old and then dying…

I have since decided that life is grander than that. While most of us are blinded by fear and ignorance, we sometimes manage to rise above that and give of ourselves and be of service to others. Having been HIV-positive has exposed me to the uglier side of human nature – but it has also allowed me to experience the kindness and compassion from my fellow man.

It has made me realise that I am not defined by the virus that inhabits my body – rather, my life has been transformed by the experiences as a result of having that virus. On the one hand, I can view being HIV-positive as a terrible thing. But I have chosen to look at is as a reminder for me to live my life positively. I no longer see the virus as a terrible enemy and harbinger of my demise. Instead, I’ve learnt to live with it each day and made peace with it.

Certainly, more needs to be done regarding the rights of people with HIV and in prevention work. The recently-concluded 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Bali reminds us of this.

Meanwhile, life has to go on. Having written about my life to date has made me look back and reflect a little. And then the inevitable question – where to now?

Many challenges still lie ahead. Personally, there are still some dreams and goals I want to pursue. And as I look at the community of queer, lesbian, gay, transgender people that we are, there are still barriers to surmount and battles to be won. I still fret about the continued rise in infections amongst gay men, particularly the young. And I wonder if all the HIV-positive amongst us are being truly be accepted by the rest of the community. As we each lead our separate lives, come together with friends and loved ones, celebrate life and love… so much lies ahead.

Liza Minelli, bless her heart, may have sung that life is a cabaret. I would like to think that it is more like a Broadway musical – and we are free to write the lyrics and stage directions. Some may hanker after a starring role, others may prefer to be in the chorus – but ultimately, it’s about community spirit and making it through the performance as a troupe and a team.

It is in this spirit that I would like to share some lyrics from a song – it used to be a disco-anthem on the dance floor in the 80s, sung by Gloria Gaynor. But before that, it was originally a song written for a Broadway musical – La Cage Aux Folles and the song is "I am What I am." Many see it as a gay anthem – and indeed, it was written by a gay man. But what many don’t realise, also, is that Jerry Herman, the composer and lyricist, is also HIV-positive – he was diagnosed in 1985. 

What is poignant is that the musical opened in 1983. Shortly after that, cast members began dying of a mysterious illness. AIDS swept through the theatre community – and half of the original La Cage chorus didn't live to finish the run.

While his lyrics may stir emotions in many gay men and women, it resonates deeply with me because I read it as a personal declaration from a fellow HIV-positive person. And it is a declaration of defiance, struggle and survival:

I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces
Its one life and there’s no return and no deposit
One life so its time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a damn till you can shout out
I am what I am

We may celebrate the pride of our individuality and the beauty of our diversity, but I hope each of us realises also that there is strength in our unity.

This column concludes Fridae’s special 6-part series 'Living with HIV - A gay man's personal journey.' If you have any comments about the series, please post your comment below or send us a private email here (select ‘Editorial’ under the ‘Department’ field.)