Gender Equality has come a long way since the dark ages. Today, discrimination and social stigmas are still a challenge the LGBT community has to face. In this day and age where people are starting to break from the norms and accept the personal preferences of other individuals, there are still a lot of holes to be fixed in order to achieve true equality.
Let me introduce to you my friend and former classmate, Joemar Belleza, who is now actively working towards LGBT Gender Equality and HIV Awareness.
What motivated you to create your blog BaklaPoAko.com?
“When I was still in Bicol, I was a closeted gay. Only some of my close friends know that I am gay and most are just suspecting me because of my soft side. I was fighting with myself before because I studied in a Catholic school from preparatory to HS which led me to believe that being gay was a sin. But when I studied in a state university, I saw the different faces of homosexuality. And I realized that it wasn’t really that bad as I was expecting it to be.
When I transferred here in Manila to work and continue my graduate studies, my circle of friends became mostly from the LGBT. And it was a liberation for me since there are no barriers anymore that I need to think of in coming out from the closet. Then I noticed that the life of a gay man is basically a pendulum between love and death. Some are getting married even though it is not yet recognized here in the Philippines. While some were dying because of a disease that seemed to be a disease-that-should-not-be-named, HIV.
Then I asked myself, what else can I do in a world that has still so many things to be done?
Checking online for resources for gay-friendly and gay-centric blogs, I became so disappointed that majority of gay-themed blogs are only porn sites. There are only a few focusing on the plight of LGBT and those that were discussing HIV intellectually. So I decided to put up my blog BaklaPoAko.Com as my contribution and legacy to the LGBT community. Its first goal was to spread HIV awareness online. So I affiliated with LoveYourself Inc., a group of volunteers working for spreading HIV in the Philippines specifically for MSM (males having sex with males), where I, later on, earned my certification as a certified DOH HIV counselor. I wrote blogs answering queries in line with HIV, rebutting HIV myths and presenting HIV statistics every month.
Then, later on, I also wrote blogs regarding LGBT issues. And when I say LGBT issues, it is not only about issues that are pro-LGBT but also issues that the LGBT must talk about within the community that has an impact to our obvious division. Then lastly, I incorporated blogs focusing on the purchasing power of the pink peso which is the only incoming generating aspect of my blog.”
Your blog is a staunch activist against HIV stigmas in the Philippines. What prompted you to fight for this particular cause apart from Gender Equality?
“Honestly, never did I see myself being a staunch activist for HIV stigma before. Talking about HIV in the open would make an HIV-infected person in the first place. Then I told myself that you don’t need to be HIV-positive to talk about such matter. You just need to be human.
But during the time when I became curious about my HIV status and HIV in general, there I saw that there are plenty of myths surrounding HIV in forms of blogs and materials online that led to greater HIV stigma. And I wouldn’t come clean, I also have the same stigma etched in my mind without checking the facts first.
Then I noticed that there are only a few people fighting the stigma online—which is apparently reaching a wider range of audience. And I told myself, if I wouldn’t speak my knowledge about HIV and fight the stigma, then nobody else will. I have been a closeted gay all my life and it was really hard when you can’t fight for what you believe in because you are mum with what the majority knows—despite it being a myth or not.
That is the same driving force that I had thought about the sole victims of HIV stigma, the PLHIV (people living with HIV). They can’t openly fight for their rights because of the stigma surrounding the matter. People are so close-minded in breaking the norm that this stigma has already built over the years. And PLHIV have been fighting such oppression as nameless and faceless people because of the fear of being discriminated.
So I used my voice, my digital voice, in raising awareness about HIV and fighting the myths surrounding it by being mainstream. By fighting oppression with education. And by persuading like-minded people out from our own league to be allies in their own little ways.”
How do you think the government is responding to Gender Equality issues in the Philippines?
“Unfortunately, it is quite saddening to say that the government doesn’t prioritize gender equality issues in the Philippines. And we can’t blame them. Why? There are only a few openly gay politicians who are fighting for our rights. There is obviously gender politics in politics.
But that is how politics is working. So long that there are acknowledged openly gay politicians who are fighting for our rights and taken seriously in the government, then that is the only time that the government can look into the matter with consideration.”
I was aware of how queer kids were bullied back then. If you can send a message to your bullies before, what would it be?
“I have been once a victim of bullies from preparatory to HS in a supposedly inclusive environment, a Catholic school. But it went otherwise. But 10-15 years after, I was able to see the benefit of what the bullies did for me. It made me push twice as hard compared to my straight counterparts to be recognized in the society.
I have learned kindness from so much unkindness. And I have learned to be open-minded because of so much close-mindedness. So in one way or another, I would like to thank my bullies for bringing out the best in me. The anger fueled me to work harder and find the voice that has been mummed for decades.
Also, I would like to tell them that 10-15 years from now, your sexual orientation and gender identity wouldn’t really prove your worth in the society. It is all about impact.”
I know you’re in a long-term relationship with Andrae. How did you guys fall in love and how did you manage to keep the love alive through these years?
“Whenever I am asked this question before, there is always a feeling of shame to tell people that we met in PlanetRomeo, a gay dating site. But talking about it now that we are on our 4th year, I can proudly say that we indeed found love in a hopeless place.
We first met there and dated. I think that the best way to have a longer-lasting relationship is not to jump into sex first. I know it sounds a little bit weird for people who are kings of sex but nurturing emotions first will make the relationship stronger. And that is the same reason why I admire same-sex relationships for women because they are emotional beings rather than sexual ones like men. So they definitely have longer years to be in a relationship compared to ours.
Apart from that, being transparent is so important so doubt will not stand a chance in your relationship. I guess even heterosexual couples need that. And lastly, I think that being tolerant with each other’s shortcomings are so important. Because when pride kicks in and no one will try to understand, then it is too late to save a relationship that can really stand the test of time.”
Name three people who inspire you the most. Why?
“The first group of people who inspire me are the Thai directors who direct gay films. Thai directors are so great in making a message of acceptance of the gay community come across the mainstream in wholesome gay movies that they release like my favorite “The Love of Siam.”
I always believed that you don’t need to shove the message to the public with the use of force and you can still talk about gay love without making it look like a porn. And that is the same genre that I use in my blog: assertive and wholesome.
Second is the younger gay people. I can see the sadness and confusion in their eyes of what tomorrow brings. They inspire me to push further with my advocacy of gender equality. I can myself in their shoes. And now that I have the power and capacity to work on their behalf makes me inspired to push things every day for their benefit so that they will no longer experience the same things that I have experienced before.
And lastly, I am also inspired by our PLHIV brothers and sisters. Despite having HIV, there are still living quality lives. I am inspired of how these people face each day with hope and vigor when other people think that it is already a death sentence for them.”
A piece of advice for the young members of the LGBT community.
“I have always been telling my audience in speaking engagements over and over again: turn your scars into stars. I am quite privileged that I used all of the negative things in my favor: discrimination, rejection, and oppression. I am sorry to hear the stories of young LGBT members who resorted to suicide because of the pressure that society has put on them to change.
I want to tell the young members of the LGBT community that there is always a right time for a metamorphosis. There is always a right time for acceptance. Wait for it. If not, work for it with assertiveness and not aggressiveness. You will one day see the pot of gold in our rainbow’s end. Just don’t resort to suicide even though it might be the easiest way out.”
You’re an entrepreneur, makeup artist and blogger. What’s next for Joemz?
“I think that I will be back with my law school and finish my degree. It has been my first love, after all. And I guess that working on the legal system focusing more on gender equality issues and healthcare system laws for PLHIV in the Philippines will better make me an advocate with what I have started as a blogger.”
Joemar is a Manila-based advocacy blogger focusing on HIV awareness, LGBT issues, and the purchasing power of the pink peso. Apart from blogging, Joemar is also wearing other hats like being a fraud analyst in a global financial firm, running his own startup online business exclusively for the LGBT called Equalitee PH, being a certified makeup artist and also finishing his graduate studies at UP Open University.