- Emil Cañita, who identifies as trans and gender-fluid, has been living with HIV for eight years.
- The disease can be treated with one pill a day or one shot a month.
- Asian-Australian gay and bisexual men are the most vulnerable group to HIV.
Cañita has always felt a sense of “in-betweenness” when it comes to his culture and gender identity
the 30-year old queer artist shares.
Now, as a HIV advocate, Cañita acts as a go-between for the newly diagnosed and those who can provide them with help.
‘I’m not Diego’
Cañita moved to Australia just before finishing high school, to a bay-side town called Victoria Point in Queensland.
“It was quite eye-opening. It was a very white experience,” he shares.
Cañita admits he questioned how he was going to exist in his new country.
I went to this public school with another Filipino named Diego. We would go around the school and people would always mistake our names.
I recognised that I was in-between. Filipino aunties that I would come across would say that I was Aussie, not Filipino; but with Aussies, I would be looked at as Filipino. I didn't quite fit in with either.
And then aside from that, there was my queer identity. Who was I and who would I consider as my community?"
Feminine, masculine and in-between
Although he’s been aware of his unconventional identity even at four years old, fully learning his queerness took time.
"Prior to that, I had girlfriends, so my mum was confused. I remember her saying, 'If you're gay, why don't you look like or dress like a woman?' She had a very binary male-female idea of relationships."
Although Cañita opened himself to loving men, he refused to admit to his transness.
I told myself that I need to make sure that I'm not that."
It took something massive for him to recognise who he really was.
"I don't think non-binary is necessarily what I would identify as. In some contexts, people will find me more feminine. In others, people would think me more masculine. Sometimes, I'm in-between. Both masculine and feminine essences are in me. Both these energies are part of me and I know my identity is always fluid and always changing."
New Year’s Day and Mother’s Day
Cañita’s sexual and gender identities weren’t the only things that changed over the years.
On New Year’s Day seven years ago, he got the news that his then-partner tested positive for HIV.
According to Dr Jason Ong, a Melbourne Sexual Health Centre physician and Associate Professor of Monash University,
The most common way in Australia for the virus to be transmitted is through condom-less sex. About 68 per cent of new infections are from male-to-male sex."
Cañita was 22 when he got infected.
He gets tested regularly and found out during Christmas. It was a bit of a shock in some ways because he wasn't getting sick.
When he told me, it was definitely quite cinematic - just like the movies."
He says he was fortunate that he was able to ground the cinematic disclosure with his knowledge about the virus.
"My then-partner felt terrible and blamed himself for giving it to me. I realise now that I didn't look after myself after I was diagnosed because I was worried about him.
"I was lucky with my queer family though. It was easy to disclose my status to them because they have been at the forefront of a lot of queer advocacy, so they were already quite knowledgeable about HIV. A lot of them knew someone who had the virus or dated someone who had it."
While his chosen family was familiar with how it was to live with the virus, his mum wasn’t.
Because I was working at a sexual health clinic at that time, I knew the language, what to say when it came to disclosing; but I don't think she could listen to what I was saying. This would resonate with a lot of mums. I was explaining to her that I was going to be fine, but her anxiety took over and she thought I was a goner for sure."
A pill a day
Despite his mum’s initial fears, advancements in HIV treatment have helped Cañita live a normal life.
"It's such a manageable condition that some may even say you're worse off having diabetes. It's just one pill a day or one shot a month for those who prefer that, and that's it."
Dr Ong agrees, sharing that the Australian government actually pushed to fund HIV medications for free regardless of a patient’s visa status.
Diagnosis and status
After prevention, what’s most important with HIV is the diagnosis.
Dr Ong shares that Asian-born gay and bisexual men are the most vulnerable group in Australia.
The Philippines is actually rather concerning because rates are worsening over time whereas other countries are getting better.
In our clinic, we are seeing a lot of young, Asian-born men from China, Thailand and the Philippines being newly diagnosed."
Cañita admits that the failure to get diagnosed has a lot to do with stigma and fear.
People who just moved here, a lot of their families and friends from their home countries don’t have a good understanding of HIV. They feel isolated. They feel like they're going to be disowned by their families because a lot of the media representation around HIV is still based from almost half a century ago."
I want to get to know a person first and see if I can trust them. If things develop further and I feel like I want to share this part of myself with them... then yes, I usually share my status with them."
Because Cañita understands the importance of trusting someone with something so sensitive and life-changing, he works to mediate between the newly diagnosed and those who can offer assistance.
"A lot of my motivation comes from me being a young Filipino migrant, diagnosed at 22, and not knowing anyone else like me. I couldn't connect with anyone, so if I could be that person to another person, I know how much that would mean.
Our sense of community, of connection is so central to our well-being.
"We’ve found that time and time again that a positive person connecting with another positive person, particularly during their time of diagnosis, can have a huge impact on how they're going to feel about HIV over time.
"An HIV diagnosis doesn't have to be a barrier to living a full life."