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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.)

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-08-21 17:53  
"One life so its time to open up your closet"

This is one of the values I hold closely to my heart! I have only one life to live, and I ain't gonna live it in pretense!

SL Yang, thank you for these six articles you have shared with us. It's educational, evoking, & slows us down to think for a moment. Ultimately, thank you for always displaying your positive attitude that must have indeed, touched & inspired many of us in the community.

You go guy, & keep on keepin' on! =)
2. 2009-08-21 19:53  
my favourite quote from the recent AIDS conference:

“The most important way to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV is for these people to change the way they think of themselves. If they understand that they are important and didn’t do anything wrong to get HIV, they will have the power to work for their community.”
- Sitthiphan Boonyapisomran, MSM Program Coordinator – TREAT Asia (Thailand)
3. 2009-08-22 11:40  
A great salute to you SL Yang, writer.

AIDS among gay men occurr; during anal sex; when a man's cock enters another man's rectum without condom, rubbing friction inside the rectum will destroy the flanking skin tissue. consequently, expose to sperm liquid invade its origin tissue, hence may cause AIDS.

any other way can cause AIDS. pls strewing this info for benefit of all. TQ

4. 2009-08-23 10:37  
Thanks SL Yang for your sharing, and for your reminder to live life positively and to its fullest. I've always loved the song "I Am What I Am" and for those who've not heard it, here's a recording of a live performance by the great Dame Shirley Bassey:

5. 2009-08-23 16:03  
Thanks SL Yang for your articles. I am sure they have informed as well as brought many provoking reflections and encouragement to many. Although you have written about your experiences of living with HIV, your writings have much relevance to those who live without it too. It is a reminder of how we should authentically live, and how we should honestly love... thanks again.
6. 2009-08-24 00:52  
What a journey it has been! Thanks Yang!

Is it important that we do what we can? YES. There is a whole new generation of younger gay people, and they are not getting the safe sex information they need. At the same time, they have to deal with a lack of basic respect from those around them. Low self-esteem, a lack of hope for a better future and relationships contribute to these people not protecting themselves amply. Can we sit by and just watch that happen over and over?

Every little thing you contribute to the gay community is one step in the right direction. Thanks again Yang you have contributed much!
7. 2009-08-24 18:00  
Thank you SL Yang for sharing your life with us. On these 6 Fridays you've helped us to stop and think and feel in ways that are immeasurably valuable for all of us regardless of our HIV status, our gender identity or sexual orientation. Your positive approach to your life, your thoughts, and your actions; is an approach that everyone of us can (with a little practice) adopt for ourselves with amazingly rewarding, unimaginable results. Each day, we should save a little time to think and speak positively about ourselves, our family, friends, colleagues, our talents and goals, and each day we should visualize ourselves as the amazing success stories we were all created to be, by the same power that created this universe; a power that doesn't create mistakes; a power that creates perfection.
8. 2009-08-26 17:52  
Dear SL Yang, thanks for the great sharing. I was somehow called to read all the 6 instalments although I vaguely remember reading one of them before. I am not exactly those out and proud kinda guy but I've been pretty cautious in my practices. Having chronic diarrhoea and recent changes in my stool nature alarmed me even more and got me very paranoia everytime I think about the sudden change. Despite all that, I still haven't find myself getting a test just yet because I was too scared to. I am also not one who have rampant sex with anyone so I've always cheated myself with the fact that I should be safe. But after reading your stories, I think I should be responsible and get it tested soon before it's too late.

What annoyed me most was when one of my friends complained in high pitch voice that his patient refused to disclose his infection of retrovirus. And he went on and on with how angry he was for not able to obtain that piece of medical history because his patient refused to tell anything about it. I felt utterly numbfounded and I felt like telling him off. Even though he didn't put it clearly, it was pretty apparent from his tone that he's going to tag the person once the information is out. Although it is just medically inethical to do so, stigma exist no matter how we try to educate the people. But I salute the Singaporean government for the legislation and the human rights practiced there.

With that, for all the positivity in you, I sincerely hope that you will be healthy and live for a long time to come.

"...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..."
9. 2009-08-30 19:44  
A Russian proverb says, a man is always alone in his grief..... It is so true.
Comment #10 was deleted by an administrator on 2009-09-04 01:28
11. 2009-10-06 20:03  
Admire your courage and am touched by your story. Unfortunately, there are some other HIV positive individuals, who see their illness as a mean to bring destruction to the others. I have personally encounter one of such guy, who happens to have a profile in this particular website and other gay dating websites!!! He did not reveal his situation in his profile and is living with a life of deceits.

Fortunately, my gut instinct saved my life. When I subsequently mention about his name to my other friends, I came to know that other guys have either dated him or had unprotected sex and yet he gets away every single time.

Friends, if you read this, please exercise some common sense and dont make assumptions that everyone is as honest as they say they are. It is better to be safe than sorry. Dont let ANYONE pressurize you into doing anything you are not comfortable. When someone does that on you, chances are they are hiding something from you.

I would hope that this message gets across, coz who knows, it might save someone life one day.
12. 2009-11-07 00:19  
To the author, and anyone in a similar position, may i present part of a poem by Anne Porter from Living Things, which was recently reproduced in the Methodist School of Music newsletter:

Why is it that music
at its most beautiful
opens a wound in us
an ache a desolation
deep as a homesickness
for some far-off
and half-forgotten country...

..and shining at the heart of it
is the longed-for beauty
of the One who waits for us
yet also came to live with us
and wanders where we wander...

As Gandalf said to Pippin in The Return of the King, this is not the end. Yes, there is another country, a distant shore. There is a whole other world out there, the spiritual realm, and One who is Love. Dare i speak His name here? Journey mercies, SL, and anyone else who is listening... :)
13. 2009-12-17 17:32  
Do you know where HIV originated? Please read this link:
14. 2010-01-12 12:41  
Yang, I am thankful that you did the articles despite your initial hesitations. I believe they will serve diversified purposes to individuals according to how they are touched, reminded or warned.

Like you said, one cannot understand what a HIV+ patient goes thru if one is not in its shoe. Your articles shed great light and we at least get a glimpse of their struggles and issues even if it is just a tip of the ice berg. With that, let's hope it's enough to stir up more understanding and respect from the common folks.

I particularly admire your optimism. You chose to look at it as a blessing : A daily reminder for you not to take life, people or things for granted. I'm so learning from you. Though I may have a long learning journey ahead, it does not matter how slow my footsteps are, I'll reach where I wanna be as long as I do not stop....Thanks for the life lessons Yang. YOU do not know how many people YOU have blessed with your articles....

If it's convenient and you are keen, drop me a message and let me know how you are doing....Do take care now....

15. 2010-03-20 09:04  
Hey guys..My good friend Amber who is HIV+ is setting her journey to teach English to Kindergarten Children in China and is scared because yes a Physical is part of the exam to get a work Visa in China but The person offering the job also stated that you must take an HIV test as well to get the work visa in China is that True? She is really scared and terrified.....Are you denied employment if you are positive? Can anyone confirm this for me I would like to bring some calm to my best friend. She means the world to me. I appreciate all the help in answering this.
16. 2010-04-06 00:48  
thanks SL Yang for sharing your journey with dealing with a life change .
Your story has touch me with tears of sadness and joy knowing there is hope for a better tomorrow for those's dealing with HIV/AIDS.
17. 2010-04-30 10:20  
SL Yang, I sincerely say thank you, thank you for giving hope to all of us out there, regardless race or religion, to accept and move on, it sounds easy but it never is isn't it?

Thank you again for a simple to the heart article for us all to read and hope we all hear and learn from the message.

Thank you.
18. 2010-06-24 18:27  
thank you very much SL
19. 2010-12-01 17:43  
On World AIDS Day, this reminds us to live our lives with respect and kindness (to ourselves, body and mind, and to others as well).
20. 2011-06-14 15:47  
To every human on this Planet (especially those who are labelled as "HIV+" by medical society):
Remember this name - ROBERT GALLO
He's our beloved "Father of AIDS" !! We owed him so much !!! make sure you perform your "social reponsibility" and take "HIV test", every test you took contributes to his pocket (in the form of loyalties) :)

[Robert Gallo: The Man That Created AIDS]
Comment #21 was deleted by an administrator on 2012-11-12 12:49

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