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27 Jul 2012

Young, gay HIV-positive Singaporeans share their experiences online

Although they remain anonymous, some young gay men in Singapore are using social media to share their viewpoints on being HIV-positive. Fridae interviews “Zack”, a 24-year-old gay man who feels like he has been “given a second chance at life” after being disgnosed with HIV and a “full flush” of STDs.

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.

“J” told his story to The New Paper in 2010. Click here to read

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.

Follow Zack at his Twitter account, @POZboySG, or his Tumblr, pozboysg.tumblr.com. Ask him questions at formspring.me/POZboySG.

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.



1. 2012-07-27 23:07  
Amazing courage, Zack. All the best to you. I hope other young guys will learn from this and always practice safe sex. Use a condom. Always.
2. 2012-07-27 23:36  
...Zack will not just be the mark of Zorro but the mark of a true fighter, fight on!
修改於2012-07-27 23:40:05
3. 2012-07-28 01:17  
Hi Zack, take good care of yourself. Do not miss your medication again from now on. May God bless you always. Fight it on, do not give up ok. All the best to you.
4. 2012-07-28 14:09  
Zack is to be thanked for his honesty and applauded for his courage. He says what needs to be said, and what many governments have decided they no longer need to say.

The National AIDS Prevention and Alleviation Committee said of Thailand in 2010 – “It is thought that around 85% of Thai youth do not see HIV as something that they should be concerned about, even though 70% of all STI cases in Thailand occur among this group. Premarital sex has become more common among young Thais, but only 20-30% of sexually active young people are using condoms consistently.

In Bangkok, it is estimated that the rate of HIV amongst msn is almost 25%. Yet Thailand once had one of the region’s most effective AIDS awareness publicity campaigns. Like many countries, as soon as infection rates showed the slightest decline, budgets were dramatically cut. Now young people are very much out on a limb, picking up information, often inaccurate, from their peers. Very sadly, seemingly like Singapore, it is now reaping the effects.
修改於2012-07-28 14:10:27
5. 2012-07-28 14:38  
i am HIV since 1987 , safe sex now only and responsible living . but we need to fight against the world prejudices
and the human stupidity every day .
good luck to all , stay safe i and if you have the virus take medicines and you can live like me a normal happy gay life
6. 2012-07-28 15:06  
I hope their concerns are taken into utmost respect especially in outing Jan. Doesn't seemed it appears to be so...
7. 2012-07-28 15:42  
A great example to other Singaporeans and indeed to other gay men around the planet. I have had HIV since 1984 and am privileged to live in a country (Australia) where I feel able to be out about my status but there are very few countries where people feel they have that freedom. Well done, Zac. There can't be silence about the experience of having HIV -- otherwise people think it's gone away somehow.
8. 2012-07-28 17:53  
Kudos to Zack for trying his best to tell his story so all of us have a healthy takeaway on his personal experience but I have a question, why did the writer use another person's picture and drag someone out of his HIV "closet"? This is purely unacceptable behaviour, has the said person consented to his picture being published on Fridae? This is an extremely unwise move and I hope something is done to navigate this tricky situation before this blows out of proportion and Fridae will be taken to task to explain its actions. Creating "hype" at the expense of another living person's expense and right to privacy is the ultimate low your website has ever done.
修改於2012-07-28 18:05:44
9. 2012-07-28 20:41  
Well... we are all going to die eventually... i just hope there sex adventures were amazing.... LOL
10. 2012-07-28 23:35  
isnt he unrealistic? after went through hell, he wants to be a trolley dolly? there are jobs that he can still do, but a job with close contact to healthy others and food and drinks on a plane should be avoided at all cost, unless he very healthy and has a v.v.v. stable logical mind.
11. 2012-07-29 00:04  
Do something good for yourself, do something good for the world...THINK before you ACT! Help end HIV!
12. 2012-07-29 00:26  
Fewer young hiv+ Singaporeans, Indonesians and Malaysians would die if their questionably democratic governments and religious leaders stopped playing Allah and dealt with reality instead of imposing Victorian religious morality as left over from the Dutch and Victorian-era British. Prior to that, being gay was quite tolerated in pre-colonial societies.
13. 2012-07-29 01:23  
And please stop all the drug-fuelled sex parties.
14. 2012-07-29 03:38  
We need more transparency towards educating younger generation about HIV to prevent or reduce the infection rate. HIV do not discriminate!
15. 2012-07-29 09:18  
To "Substitute", people with HIV can do virtually any jobs-- certainly they can be trolley dollies for goodness sake!! There is no risk to people from casual contact with people with HIV. The only job where they may be disaqualified is doing invasive surgery but even this is disputed as using double gloves is regarded as a protection for both doctors and patients. You can only catch HIV by doing certain things: having unprotected sex, sharing needles and mother-to-baby transmission. Many people with HIV are much less infectious now that most are on antiviral treatments but that is no reason not to practice safe sex. Please educate yourself on these issues rather than stigmatise people with HIV as people you can easily catch the virus from. It is extremely difficult to catch unless you try hard!!
回應#16於於2012-07-29 09:19被作者刪除。
17. 2012-07-29 19:03  
@10 What nonsense is that? People with HIV can and do work in contact with other people and in the catering industry! There is no reason to prevent them to do so.
回應#18於於2012-07-30 00:40被作者刪除。
19. 2012-07-30 00:54  
hemio and blackorange both raise opposite sides of an issue. ongoing discussion and debate are necessary.
20. 2012-07-30 04:54  
use condom - what so difficult?
21. 2012-07-30 15:46  
Thank you Zack for speaking out and sharing information and little details about what is going on behind. Thank you for your courage and thank you for pressing on. :) Hugs & Kisses
22. 2012-07-30 18:18  
I recently read an online article on the New York Times where a gay porn star just "casually" thoughts that "HIV is no longer a death threat anymore" and he wouldn't stop having unprotected sex just because of his condition. And that's just infuriating to me. Because HIV is not only a disease that only affects you, it also affects family, friends and your social life as well. You cannot travel freely as you want, you have to be on medication all the time (and who knows if your med will keep working), you will definitely lose a lot of support and relationship. Your physical suffer sometimes are not as painful as your emotional suffer. And to able to stand up from such horrible circumstance and continuing to live a full life like Zack is an incredible thing to do. I applaud Zack for being very opened about his status (particularly where it's still a taboo in Singapore). I wish the best for him and everything he dreams to do!
23. 2012-07-30 18:21  
@20: It's difficult when you're drunk, high, or just stupid.
24. 2012-07-30 19:00  
@9: Am I the only person here that is thoroughly annoyed by your inane remark?
25. 2012-07-31 00:07  
Thanks Zack, I learned something from you. Take great care.
26. 2012-07-31 19:46  
"...feels like he has been “given a second chance at life” after being disgnosed with HIV and a “full flush” of STDs."

Does anyone here knows that other STDs can cause the non-specific HIV antibody test to come up positive too?

Since the HIV antibody test has never been "validated" with an isolated and purified HIV, the antibody claimed to be specific to HIV is nothing but random antibody that will cross-react with more than 70 conditions as documented in scientific literatures, including but not limited to pregnancy, TB, Hep B, flu, flu vaccination, allergy, upper respiratory track infection, Malaria, natural occuring antibodies, anti-collagen antibody etc.

修改於2012-07-31 19:48:13
27. 2012-07-31 19:53  
To no. 13, I totally agree with you. STOP ALL the drug-fuelled sex parties or Chem Sex if you do not want to end up dying from a total collapse of your immune system.

For you guys who were born before the early 1980s, I bet you never heard of GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency. This was the name replaced by a more "politically correct" name AIDS - Acquired Immune Defficiency Syndrome in 1984. When the first AIDS cases start appearing around the US cities with the most homosexual population : San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York in 1980, almost all the AIDS patient were homosexsuals who were engaged in a "fast-tracking" lifestyle. (I didn't say all homosexuals were AIDS patients, what I said is all AIDS patients were homosexuals, please do not confuse the totally difference meaning).

All sorts of recreational drugs, Poppers, Alchohol, repetitive multiple sexually transmitted infections/diseases, tonnes of antibiotics, smoking and lack of proper sleep and food intake. Do you need more to get sick ??

修改於2012-07-31 20:11:09
28. 2012-08-04 21:40  
Lately some scientists have come out to deny the existence of HIV, and that the HIV scare epidemic had brought a lot of financial gains to companies producing the antiretroviral drugs?? Watch - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWoJanKCVDw&feature=related
29. 2012-08-04 21:48  
Nonetheless, Zack, J and the rest young Singaporeans really handled the diagnosis with great courage, even better than older adults facing such issue! You guys have crossed path with HIV, managed it & shunned it well, and will live long long lives...!
30. 2012-08-08 10:18  
It takes great courage in comming forward with your sexual orientation, especially when you are HIV Positive. I think more people with HIV should come forward as well, regardless whether you are Straight, Gay, Bi-sexual or transgender. share your life experience so that HIV could be prevented or at least being minimized.

In my personal opinion falling in love is the most wonderful and greatest gifts to mankind regardless of whether it is between a man and a woman, between two men, two women, etc. However that love should be sincere and coming deep from the heart no matter what difficulties and problems both partners would be confronted with. Life is never a bed of roses and sometimes never being fair. The most important element to accept and love what your partner is in a reciprocal manner and try avoiding an open relationship like the majority of gays have been practising. Try being monogamous that could sometimes be difficult but that should be the ultimate solutions in preventing HIV and binding two persons in love always.




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