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Determined To Live

June 27, 2024

How stigma and shame kept me in the closet about my HIV status, and why I’m finally coming out after two decades of silence.

"Coming out" is never a one-time action but a daily calibration of how much truth can be surfaced based on the moment's level of physical, psychological, or professional safety. Because of this queer people are masterful at hiding parts of ourselves..." – Michael Dumlao, The Wisdom of Guncles


Hello. My name is Michael Dumlao. I am proudly Filipino, gay, and creative in my gender expression. And for the first time in my life, I am coming out as someone who has lived with HIV for almost 20 years.

Except for a handful of friends, lovers, and medical professionals, I kept my status a secret from almost everyone I care about: from my family, my close friends, and coworkers. I hid my truth because of my debilitating fear of the stigma against people with HIV, and specifically gay men of color, and how disclosure might have ripped away my chances for a career, community, and companionship. But to best understand all the reasons why I concealed my diagnosis, and why I’ve chosen to disclose it now, allow me to go back to the day my life changed forever.

On a crisp, autumn morning in October 2005, I walked up to the brown, wooden doors of Whitman Walker Health’s Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center on the corner of 14th and R Street in Washington, DC. I was 25 and had been notified that the results of my prior screening for sexually transmitted diseases were ready. There was an odd comfort to the routine upon entry: I signed in with an attendant, settled into a chair, and tried to avoid looking at the faces of others present lest we recognize each other. My palms grew moist from nervous sweat, and my thoughts swirled in a mix of apprehension, denial, and hope.

My name was called, and I was led to an office and sat across a desk from a nurse holding a manila folder. As she opened it to read my diagnosis, I could hear my heart thump in the otherwise deathly silent room.

“Your test results came back positive for the human immunodeficiency virus.” 

My immediate emotional reaction shocked me. It wasn’t fear, anger, or despair. It was relief. After years of being afraid I would get the virus and believing that preventative measures were never truly foolproof, at least now I could stop running away from what seemed to be inevitable for a young, urban, sexually active, gay man of color. I had fulfilled an inescapable statistical destiny and could hence deal with it rather than evade and fear it.

But then another thought took root, and a feeling that would inform so much of my life to come: a deepening shame and disappointment that I wasn’t careful enough, smart enough, or God-fearing enough to avoid this mistake. I didn't want to affirm what the Church had accused me of being at 16 when they cast me out of our congregation upon learning I had a boyfriend: unclean, undesirable, and undeserving of love. For a long time, HIV was that insidious reminder that maybe the Church was right. That this was my punishment for choosing to live my truth.

So, from that day onward, I decided to manage my health on my own. I avoided support groups for recently diagnosed people. I decided against ever telling my California-based parents, lest I confirm their fear that I would one day die of AIDS away from their care. I convinced myself that being gay and Filipino is who I am, whereas HIV is what I have, and that I would not let it define how others would see me. All while legislators were debating the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people fighting for the right to openly serve, marry their partner, and stay employed.

I did not want having HIV to be another demerit against me in a city where I lived alone and was trying desperately to grow a career. I didn’t want employers to diminish my value, fearing that disclosure would make firms less likely to invest in me, let alone employ me, out of concern I would be too sick to contribute.

Above all, I was afraid I would never be held again and would walk the world alone, forever. I feared I had lost a right to a family, let alone a partner. For who would want me? Fortunately, the answer came swiftly, when I met my now-husband, also recently diagnosed as HIV positive. Unlike me, he was open about his status and joined the support groups I declined to attend. As he became my source of knowledge and counsel, I grew a deep admiration for his fortitude and authenticity.

That admiration turned to love. A few years later, the boyfriend became my husband.

One of the early effects of learning I am HIV positive, was believing I was going to die young. I came out as a gay person in 1996 and stepped into a community still reeling from a genocide that left a generation of queer men dead from HIV/AIDS, and many more fighting for dignity and access to care, all of which would indelibly connect queerness with HIV/AIDS. I resolved to leave my mark and convince the world, my family, and myself that I would not be forgotten. Like the lead character in the musical “Hamilton,” I labored like I was "running out of time" because I wasn't sure how much I had left.

I was not going to grieve. I was determined to live.

So I worked, feverishly. In the first five years after my diagnosis, I finished a graduate degree, started a new career, founded a non-profit, launched a small business, and got engaged—all while managing medication and my mental health away from a full support network that could have made it easier. And while that work was a distraction from being sick, it led to stress, little sleep, anxiety, and a reckless disregard for self-care. I thought that if I could project a simulacrum of a thriving, out-and-proud, gay, Filipino professional living his truth, it would be enough to misdirect people from one truth I was hiding: a sickness that threatened to destroy the perfect image of success I was trying to build.

I was also afraid to have the difficult conversations that came with disclosing my status. I didn't have the words, the emotional tools, nor the courage to deal with other people's emotions, let alone my own. I had already come out once. Why would I go through the trauma of coming out again?

Because coming out is never a one-time affair. And I hope that like the first time I confessed my hidden self, I’d finally be able to live in the light of my entire truth. Act Up AIDS activists taught us that silence equaled death, and for me, my silence and secrecy equaled guilt and loneliness. 

Today, I’ve chosen to come out because stigma endures as a leading reason AIDS still claims around one million lives per year.

Much progress has been made by activists, researchers, health practitioners, and policy makers to improve equitable access to care and continuously innovate effective treatment; I am living proof of that success. But stigma continues to create barriers to HIV prevention and treatment services. In fact, I am publishing this story on National HIV Testing Day because stigma and fear of being HIV positive stops people from getting tested, knowing their status, and accessing life-saving care. In many cases, the fear of disclosing status is a fear of being branded as queer, of being exposed to anti-gay discrimination, criminalization, and violence regardless of whether they are actually queer. For members of the LGBTQ community, disclosing status reinforces homophobic sentiments (both societal and internalized) that continue to regard homosexuality as sinful, unnatural and abhorrent.

Act Up AIDS activists taught us that silence equaled death. For me, my silence and secrecy equaled guilt and loneliness.

Inexpensive medications can suppress the virus and radically prolong life with minimal side effects. Science has proven that, like me, anyone on treatment with an undetectable viral load has a zero percent chance of passing it on—knowledge that should liberate those living with HIV from stigma. Yet fear, discrimination, and maltreatment in clinical settings are persistent barriers that keep people from the services they need.

I’m able to come out now because I am privileged to work for a place where, for the first time in my life, I have the psychological and professional safety to reveal my status. Abt has led landmark HIV/AIDS research and programs since the earliest days of the epidemic, helping advance the prevention trial networks and clinical models of care that today provide services for half of those living with HIV in the U.S. Globally, the company has helped countries once in dire crisis—with soaring death rates and up to one in four people acquiring HIV in the early 2000s—now approach epidemic control and sustainably finance care and treatment through domestic resources. I know my disclosure can have impact here, and this is a place where I am fully supported to own my whole story.

Finally, I’m coming out for me, and to honor a promise I made to my husband that after 20 years, he would no longer be one of a handful of people burdened with carrying my truth. We could stand as proof that two people, both living with HIV, can thrive despite HIV, united in love for each other and the communities that give life meaning. My hope is that in telling my story, it could help someone know that they do not have to walk this journey alone.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to come out to my parents as HIV positive. My father, mother, brothers, and husband sat around a dinner table, our hands busy making Filipino lumpia based on the recipe we inherited from my grandmother. While we rolled the pastry, I turned to my mother and held her hand. 

“Mom,” I said, “I have something to tell you.”

“What is it, son?” she asked.

“Mom, I’m HIV positive.”

“Oh,” she gasped.

As tears fell down her cheeks, she asked what I feared she would ask, “How long do you have left? How long will you live?”

In the blink of an eye, my thoughts raced back to that chilly October day when I heard my test result, then to my fearful decision to live in secret, to being held by my then-boyfriend in his bed the first night we met, to the long nights I worked to maintain graduate school, a job, and a small business, to discovering that one pill could prolong my life, to my wedding day and the moment my husband and I first walked into the house we bought together, to learning that my viral load was undetectable, to the day I started at Abt Global, and all the life that I lived until that moment when I finally told my mother about my status while holding her hand.

While my mother and father pulled me into a long embrace, I looked at my husband with a smile of deep gratitude. In their arms, I finally answered her question.

“Mom, Dad. Don’t worry. I’m going to live forever.”

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