'HIV no barrier to a full life': Emil says the perception is often worse than the disease

February 09 2023

An article from Nikki Alfonso-Gregorio and TJ Correa of SBS Australia (Filipino) titled ‘HIV no barrier to a full life’: Emil says the perception is often worse than the disease.


Read the article here.

man with artwork standing in a room
Emil Cañita, artist and HIV advocate Credit: Sean Barrett
  • 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

“A friend of mine does research into our pre-colonial Filipino language and told me that the term ‘bakla’ translates to male energy being in harmony with female energy. Coming across that was a great introduction to learning about my own 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.

Man standing at table
Emil Cañita Credit: Christopher Sherman

‘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 never really felt racism until I moved there.

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.

"I came out to my mum when I was around 15 when I had my first boyfriend. I guess that's what love does - it makes you braver and more honest.

"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."
black and white photo of man standing
"I remember my mum 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." Credit: Seamus Platt

Although Cañita opened himself to loving men, he refused to admit to his transness.

"When I was living in our hometown of Laoag, Ilocos Norte, I remember my family would make fun of a very young trans cousin of mine. It stayed with me. I didn't want to be in danger or to be made fun of that way.

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.

"It was only when COVID happened in 2020 and I was stuck at home that I got to where my identity is now. I had just moved to Melbourne then and I was stuck at home for two years. I had a lot of time to think and seek help from my therapist.

"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,

"HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. What the virus does is it weakens the immune system, so someone with HIV, over time, gets more vulnerable to infections.

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."
hands clasped in front of rainbow
"About 68 per cent of new infections are from male-to-male sex." Credit: cottonbro from Pexels

Cañita was 22 when he got infected.

"I was still at uni at that time. The guy I was seeing called me and told me he was positive on New Year's Day, while I was on my way to my mum's.

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.

"I was already volunteering at an HIV organisation in Queensland at that time, so I had a bit of information about how HIV is now and how good the treatment is.

"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.

"I told mum on Mother's Day. I know - I'm always picking the right moments!

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.

"After I got my diagnosis, the clinic connected me to HIV specialists who got me on treatment. It was easy and straightforward. I just take a tablet a day and I'm protected from HIV. I can't transmit the virus anymore and it doesn't affect my health.
a series of pills arranged to form the word HIV
"I just take a tablet a day and I'm protected from HIV. I can't transmit the virus anymore and it doesn't affect my health." Credit: cottonbro from Pexels
"You'd be surprised at how different it is now. It's not like how it was in the 1980s. There was even someone who I came across who was 97 years old and living with HIV!

"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.

"The government's roll-out is still being worked out in the community, but even without the program, people without Medicare can access free HIV medication."

While HIV treatment is free even without Medicare, preventive medications such as Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) come at a reasonable cost.


Cañita shares,

"You take PrEp before [you have a sexual encounter] and protection is around 97-99 per cent. If you're at risk of HIV but didn't use protection, you can go to any emergency department and ask for PEP. The way I explain those two to people is that PrEp is like birth control, while PEP is like the morning-after pill."

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.

"One out of four Southeast Asian-born men are undiagnosed, and 57 per cent of new diagnoses are classified as late. This means diagnosis has been delayed for many years. By the time they see a doctor, their immune systems have already been impacted.

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.

"As someone Asian, we have to navigate other things like homophobia, racism, and then now we have to navigate HIV stigma.

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."

While Cañita advocates openly for the newly diagnosed through his work with Living Positive Victoria  and the Positive Asian Network, he shares that status sharing is a personal decision.

"We know how unsafe it is out there for us to talk about our status. For me, it's on a need-to-know basis and a safety thing.

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."

Living positively

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.

man in pink jacket on bed
Emil Cañita Credit: Christopher Sherman
"I run a disclosure workshop to help them find ways on how to tell their family and friends about their HIV status.

"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."

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