(Note: I had sought clearance from Avin to write and share this article.)
The last time someone living with HIV came out openly to let Singaporeans know that he was HIV positive, that was 15 years ago.
Today, at the 8th Singapore AIDS Conference, the second ever Singaporean shared with Singaporeans that he was HIV positive.
This was especially important and meaningful to me, because Avin is a very, very close and dear friend of mine. Avin is someone I love and treasure. He is someone who has been there with me in each step of my journey to learning and he is someone who continue to bring cheer and joy in my life. With or without HIV, Avin is someone that means a lot to me and someone whom I’ve learnt to rely on, trust and place my confidence in.
Avin shared at the conference today that he is a person living with HIV. You can see the video on his sharing below.
Many times, when we talk about people living with HIV, we talk about sufferers and victims. We call them patients. But Avin is so much more than that. In fact, people living with HIV are so much more than that. There are many people living with HIV who continue to live dynamic lives, who continue to pursue their dreams and passions. But yet, we continue to call them sufferers or victims.
One thing you need to know is this – with current advances in medication, if a person living with HIV takes his medication regularly, he will continue to live a normal life span. This means that Avin might continue to live a longer life than I do. Avin will continue to plan for his future, continue to pursue them and continue to plan for the next 10, 20, even 40 or 50 years or more. He has a long life ahead of him, just like any of us do.
Avin first told me that he is HIV positive 2 years ago. When I found out, I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” And Avin told me, “Well, there wasn’t a need for you to know.” And he was right, there wasn’t a need for me to know. With or without HIV, it doesn’t make a difference. Avin is still the person that he is – the complete person that he is. Yes, he might have HIV but it’s like me having eczema on my leg. In fact, it’s like you failing your exams, breaking up from a relationship or possibly being involved in a traffic accident.
One thing I’ve learnt is this. Being HIV positive doesn’t change who you are. You are still who you are. But if someone decides to take the opportunity that presents with finding out that he or she is HIV positive, he can take this opportunity to learn more about his life, and how he can choose to live his life in a more positive way. And this is what Avin has chosen to do.
And this is what I’ve learnt – when someone finds out that he or she is HIV positive, it’s like any other challenge that presents in life. You learn to manage finding out a challenge and you think about how to manage it, and then you move on to another challenge in life. Do you remember doing badly in your examinations? Or when you had broken up with your ex-partner? Do you remember how devastated that you might have felt and how you thought that the world might end right there, right then? If you do, then you will also remember how you would then learn to understand what happened, how you can use this opportunity to learn more about yourself, and how you can think about how you can do things better. This is no different from people who find out about their HIV positive status.
In the few years that I’ve known Avin, we’ve grown very close. I confide in him in many things about my life. When I stopped dating someone last year and felt devastated, Avin was there, with my two sisters. He spent his time talking to me, reminding me about myself and how I can learn to move beyond myself and see the bigger picture. And this is exactly how Avin looks at his life. He has an awareness of his life, and thinks about why things happen, and how he can continue to live a better life.
Avin continues to want to do good and to do his best to also contribute to the community. He might be HIV positive but he doesn’t let that stop him. In fact, he has let it spur him on. He works doubly hard because he feels a sense of responsibility to others to do what he can for them. This is the Avin I know. To some of you, he might be a person living with HIV. But to me, he is so much, so much more. I don’t see his HIV status. That’s not important to me. He doesn’t see me as someone who had eczema on my leg. To me, Avin is someone who I admire and greatly respect, and someone who continues to inspire me and give me the support I need.
And truth is, if we learn to see beyond the lives of people living with HIV, we realise that we won’t see their HIV. We realise that we will see them for who they truly are – people with deep and enriching lives, who goes through setbacks in life, gain successes, and continues to live a complete life. In fact, they are no different from you and I. In fact, they are like us.
But why do we sometimes see only their HIV status and then stop there, and not see beyond? The human mind is really interesting. We only want to know as much as we are comfortable to know. Since everyone judges a person living with HIV, why should we do any different? Why should we take the time to have to understand them? It’s too much work! I would rather spend my time thinking about which mobile phone I want to buy, which Kate Spade bag you want to buy, or some other thing that affects you. We don’t have the time to think about someone else – we think. So, when someone says a person is HIV positive, it’s just easier to point a finger at them and judge them – we’ve learnt to think.
But what if it’s someone you know who is HIV positive? What if it’s someone you know who is HIV positive but has chosen not to tell you because they fear that the judgement you give to someone is the very same judgement that you would give to them. Can you imagine, when you are HIV positive, you hope that there’s someone you can tell, so that the person can be that family or friend who can walk with you, as you learn to go on in your life, so that they can be the support you need, to remind you of who you are and to encourage you to believe in yourself? But at the very same time, they are worried that you would judge them, and so they choose not to tell you? There are many people living with HIV who have thus chosen to live in this silence, fearing that others won’t understand. And because of that, it is also hard for them to take care of themselves. It is hard for them to have to take care of a part of them, which they feel that they have to hide from others.
These are the people who are around you and I. They are people who you know and might be close to, who are healthy and well, but who do not tell you, because they are worried that your attitudes towards them would change.
But whether or not they have HIV, do you remember who they are? Do you remember what they have done for you? Do you remember the time that you had spent with them and how you completely enjoyed yourself, and how you laughed your hearts out? Do you remember how, at one point when you truly need someone to be there for you, he or she was there to provide you with that comforting hug? Whether or not someone is HIV positive, this does not change. But what changes is when they do let us know that they are HIV positive, we choose to forget all that make them who they are, and what we’ve done together, and then choose to think only about their HIV status. Why do we allow ourselves to believe in the judgement that people give to them instead of stop and remember who they truly are, with or without HIV?
If you can understand this, if you know of anyone who is living with HIV, instead of putting judgement on them on the very first instance, can we stop ourselves from making that snap judgement? Can we spend just a few seconds to understand that they are individuals with complete lives, just like we do, who have reasons to do what they do, and who are individuals in their own right? If you hold up a mirror to yourself, do you see only one side of you or do you see the multiple facets of you that make you who you are. This is the very same mirror that you should use to people living with HIV.
So, today, when Avin was preparing to share at the conference about his HIV status, I gave him many hugs. I wanted him to know that there are many people who are there for him, who continue to believe in him – not because he is HIV positive – but because I believe in who he is as a person and what he wants to do. Avin knows that he has a responsibility to share with Singaporeans about his HIV status, so that we can see that people living with HIV are healthy, strong individuals who continue to be active, all-rounded individuals who want to do something for society and who, like us, do their part to make this world a better place. I believe in Avin and I believe in what he aspires to do. I’m not a person living with HIV. I cannot be the strength that he is, and the amazing person that he is. But I can give him that support and I can continue to believe in the strength that he is. I can give him that many hugs and always put an arm over his shoulder.
He is a person, who happens to be HIV positive. I am a person, who happens to have a patch of eczema on my leg. And you are a person, who happened to not do well in your examinations, at some point or another. We are all people, who meet with unexpected life’s challenges at some point or another, and who continue to move on with life, as we continue to face new challenges, and take them in our stride, and learn to manage them in as best a way as we can.
And this is what I really hope that by Avin sharing his story that other people living with HIV will also be inspired by. Avin doesn’t live the life that some of us do. He lives a different life. Just like your life is different from mine, and mine is different from someone else. Some of us might ask – but why should Avin’s sharing inspire me? It shouldn’t. Here’s why – he’s sharing inspires me not because of what he has done with his life, but what he believes that he can do and wants to do.
What I saw was this – Avin continues to believe himself. He continues to want to live a life that is truly his and one that he knows he can be true to and happy with. He continues to want to learn more about himself, and in the face of the most dire situations, he wants to pick himself up, dust it off and say – you know, if life give me shit, I will throw shit back at life. Well, no, Avin didn’t say that. I did.
But in essence, this was what Avin meant. We are all thrown into situations which we never thought we would face. Sometimes, we are thrown into the deep end of the pool. We have a few choices. We can choose to sink and let the water consume us, or we can decide to do things differently – we can try to float, grab for another floating object, give one big shout, take our swimming trunks out and wave it in the air. Whatever it might be! But we can make it work for ourselves.
We can continue to believe in ourselves and remember who we are – every bit that we were before we are diagnosed with HIV is every bit we continue to be and will be, except that there is now the HIV status.
Avin continues to believe in his hopes and dreams. He still has another 50, 60 or more years ahead of him – pretty much a life that someone his age would live. He has a lot of time to make things happen. And he’s already making plans to make his hopes and dreams come true. He is a true inspiration to me, a true friend who would not think twice about being by my side when I need a shoulder to lean on, and a person who continues to believe in me and who has that much respect and love for me, as I have for him.
To me, he isn’t someone living with HIV. Avin is a very true and real friend to me and someone whom I value and love with all my heart and soul. Every time I think about Avin, I’m very comforted to know that at 31, I can still find a friend who I can trust with all my heart and who can continue to be open to me and be as genuine to me, as I can be to him. To me, this is a beautiful friendship that I treasure greatly. Does Avin have HIV? Yes, he does. But does it make it who he is? No, it doesn’t. HIV is only 1 aspect of his life. But I remember the 1,001 things that make him who he is, the thousands and thousands other realities of him that make him so much more than who you might know him as, and that he knows he is. Because to him, he lives a life that is complete and he will take it and make the best out of it.
Avin, today I’m very proud of you, as I’ve always been. Today, I’m really happy that I can be there for you, as you’ve always been there for me. Others might assume things if they do not know you. But I know that you will continue to touch the lives of others. And today, you’ve made that difference to the many lives of Singaporeans. In any case, us – your family and friends, and the people closest to you – are grateful and thankful for your existence in our lives and the joy you bring to our lives – I know you have brought so much more laughter to mine! – and you know what, that’s all that really matters, that we’ve grown and learnt so much more from you, and with you.
Thank you, Avin, from the deepest of my heart.
Below, I would like to leave you with some of the most powerful portions of Avin’s speech that he had given today.
“I think we have the potential, no, actually I think we the have the capacity to do it. It’s no longer just thinking but I think we should put our words, and put where the money is, and do it – to make things better for everyone, for people living with HIV, for caregivers, for their loved ones, ‘coz coming out is not just about me. It’s about my parents, my siblings, her friends and how she’s going to be viewed, and there should be a support network for everyone down the line. I see this as a great chance to change the way we do things, see things and how we interact with people.
Yet, with every PLHIV who has passed on, forgotten or systematically excluded from society, I see it as another lost opportunity and wasted chance, which could have been harnessed to stand up and fight for his or her rights.”
And this is why I feel empowered to do so, and that’s one of my reasons to come out as well. I hope that by me coming out, I can be a part of a change. I hope to lower stigma and discrimination, hope to be face for HIV in Singapore and I hope that fair employment policies can be really enacted.
But, it’s quite a big thing and it can’t be achieved by just one person. So, everyone in this hall, you can make a difference. And it need not be a big thing … because sometimes the biggest impact comes in the smallest action.
And if ever, someone comes up to you and tell you that he or she is someone living with HIV, don’t question their past, don’t question how they got it, because these are all irrelevant. Ask instead – what can you do – and just lend them a listening ear. Take comfort in knowing that you are someone who is being trusted with something very important and you have helped made that someone’s life much life easier, just by being there and accepting him or her.
So, thank you very much. And I hope there will be less stigma and discrimination from everyone.