Becoming the next Sarah Jane Salazar

Peter Imbong

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4 years after AIDS advocate Wanggo Gallaga came out with his condition, he is still trying to enlighten people on the often taboo topic of AIDS and HIV

HIV POSTER BOY. Wanggo Gallaga in his Project Headshot Clinic 'Aware' portait from 2008. Image from Facebook

MANILA, Philippines – Much has been said and told about Wanggo Gallaga since he publicly — and with considerable fanfare — came out as HIV positive in 2008.

Countless articles, TV interviews and AIDS advocacy fund raisers, exhibits and parties later, the now 33-year-old writer and filmmaker has unwittingly become this generation’s banner boy for AIDS.

“I knew about HIV as far back as 1989 when I first bought a cassette tape of Madonna’s Just Like a Prayer album,” recalls Wanggo.

“And inside the jacket she had a page dedicated to AIDS and HIV. Then there’s also Freddie Mercury; I knew he died of it.

“The only person I knew who had it then was Sarah Jane Salazar,” he adds, referring to the AIDS activist who, in 1997 became only the second Filipino to come out as HIV positive.

“But she was a sex worker,” he says, “So you kind of felt distanced from that reality.” 

But now, since his very public outing, Wanggo has, in a way, become something like a modern-day Sarah Jane Salazar, a responsibility he thinks is a long way from being done.

As the face of Project Headshot Clinic, an HIV and AIDS exhibit by started by photographer Niccolo Cosme in 2008 in support of Wanggo, he thoughtfully admits, “It bothers me that after doing this for 5 years, we’re still being asked the same questions.

“We’re still in step one — informing people — when we should be going to the next step.

“So at this point people should take it upon themselves to do something else and not wait for the government or NGOs to do something about it.” 

Wanggo, the son of acclaimed director Peque Gallaga, says that becoming an advocate and going public with his condition changed the way he was planning to deal with it, “because now I had to deal with it in a public manner. I’ve been interviewed over and over, and had strangers who had no one else to talk to contacting me.

“All of a sudden, I had to be above it all and come from a level of strength. That helped me get through any kind of drama,” he says.

“By being strong for others, I was strong for myself.”

But as he found out, that strength was simply a distraction. “At some point I believed that I was actually strong. So much so that it was only 3 years later that I finally had a break down and realized I was in denial.”

“When I see these talks and events about HIV, they go towards the drama: while talking about their story, they start crying and it elevates it into the level of a soap opera; it changes the conversation,” he says.

This is precisely why Wanggo talks about his condition in a matter-of-fact way, “with a lot of self deprecation and humor — not to because it’s something to make fun of — but because when it’s light-hearted, they feel more comfortable and open.”

“A lot of people come up to me and tell me that what I did then was brave,” he says. “But there was nothing brave about it because it’s not brave if you have nothing to lose.

“And the truth was that my family, friends and industry already accepted me so there was nothing to be afraid of coming out in public.” –

The theme of this year’s Project Headshot Clinic campaign is “Unite.” For more information, visit their Facebook page.

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