(This was first published in November 2016 in Seafarer Asia magazine. A little background: Jebsen was, at first, overcome with anxiety and shock when this story came out. He was so shaken that a few curt words were exchanged between us, and I thought that was the end of our budding friendship. (It wasn’t, of course—we kept on, and Jebsen and his friends often have dinner and drinks at Fred’s Revolucion, a bar I help run.)
Although everything was on the record, Jebsen was not prepared for the exposure that his story was to bring…attention that eventually helped propel Positibong Marino Philippines, Inc., (PMPI) the country’s first organized network and support group for HIV+ seafarers. The group, supported by the International Transport Workers’ Federation and AMOSUP, the largest seafarer’s union in the Philippines, has broken grounds on so many fronts: bringing awareness about discrimination towards affected seafarers; changing the way medical information is disclosed and dealt with; adding more dimension to how OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) cares for affected OFWs; and transforming human resource culture in various corporations.
Today, PMPI celebrated its first anniversary at the Dr. Mario S. Oca Hall in the AMOSUP Seaman’s Hospital in Intramuros, Manila. Jebsen, trim and dapper and looking a thousand times more self-assured than before, greeted guests and gave out awards of distinction to the heads of companies who now join him in his cause. At our table, it was just our luck that we were seated beside this beaming, youthful-looking woman. Jebsen came around and gave her a hug. “Mama, sila ang dahilan kung bakit ako nag-viral,” he said, gesturing to me.
Here’s the thing: writers and editors don’t expect this at all. Well, maybe some do, but I don’t. We find a story, write it up, let it go. So when we do get acknowledged, especially for something that snowballs into something so significant for a community that’s fighting for equality, for change, well then, I admit we allow ourselves a little puffing up. I let out a very ungraceful, self-conscious laugh. “Ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha. Let me hug you, ma’am. I’m so honored to meet you.” So I hug his mom, and congratulate her on raising such a fine son.
I look forward to writing the next chapter in Jebsen’s story. This time, for our new magazine, FAS Maritime by Navs & Moor.)
Jebsen Gamido, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2009, shook up maritime institutions with his determination to pursue his rightful place on board a ship. His fight to end discrimination continues with allies in the ITF and AMOSUP.
As told to Regina Abuyuan
Where am I now? I’ve just resigned from a training center where I was training manager. I’m preparing to go back on board, and putting up a non-profit support group for HIV-positive seafarers. Sometimes I receive e-mails from young men whose stories are similar to mine. When they feel discriminated, they e-mail me. I talk to them over the phone. I’m not a trained counselor, and HIV has many faces, and it so happens mine is the Seafarer’s.
If I had my way, I would’ve applied for a dance scholarship for college. Maybe cheerdance or dance troupe in University of Santo Tomas. Ang desire ko talaga is broadcast communications. But my father is a seaman, a chief cook on a ship. When I got into the Academy, he decided it was time for me to give back to the family.
When I first came to Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific (MAAP), I was overwhelmed. The campus was so beautiful! I thought, they’re giving me a full scholarship. My parents wouldn’t have to worry about tuition fees. So I wouldn’t call it a compromise—my dreams of dance to maritime studies—I just shifted my perspective.
I entered the academy at age 16. I had a girlfriend back then. I already knew I wasn’t really straight, but I loved her so much. So much. In the Academy, they try to strip you of your civilian ways. You all have the same haircut, they bombard you with schedules. You don’t have time to think about the usual things a 16- or 17-year-old would waste time on, although we get to relax and joke around in the barracks. But outside, you’re poker faced. Serious. You have to follow the commands of the seniors. They don’t allow outside communication; that’s part of their disciplinary measures to separate you from your civilian life. Eventually, my relationship with my girlfriend suffered. We broke up in my first year of college.
But you’re treated like the lowest of mammals in the first year only. In the second year, you get to express your personality, your individuality. Everyone starts to grow their hair…and me, because I was surrounded by men, I began to discover myself. But I still had to be discreet, of course, because of the environment. There was a time when my phone got confiscated. My senior said, “Bakit puro Britney and Christina Aguilera ang tugtog mo? Bakla ka ba?!” I denied it, but my batch mates knew, and they were okay with me, and I was okay with them.
You can’t avoid homophobes. They have issues about everything—like why my soap was different, or why I used body scrub. Then the seniors would trash-talk me to my juniors, which they shouldn’t do because MAAP works on a class system. Juniors look up to you. There were a lot of bullies. There was a lot of bullying.
But that didn’t stop me from being the class clown; gays, we’re naturally gay! I’m also a “dual”. That means I studied Deck and Engine. Out of 250 in the batch, there were 50 Duals, under one sponsoring company, which is Maersk. As a Dual, more sea service is required of us. One year and a half compared to the usual one year. I went on board the Kapitan Felix Oca for about six months. Friendster was big at that time; Yahoo Messenger. Everything was happening so fast, all at the same time. I was discovering my sexuality, coming of age, and we were free. That’s when I started having sexual encounters. In my mind, HIV was something far-fetched. It couldn’t happen to me. It was something that was contracted only by sex workers. Looking back, all the men I had sex with looked physically healthy. I had around five sexual encounters during my inter-island KFO days.
Then it was time to do international sea service. It was December 2009; I was supposed to board a Maersk ship in 2010. We had our medicals—and that’s when it happened.
“Me, as I was surrounded by men, I began to discover myself. But I still had to be discreet, of the environment. There was a time when my phone got confiscated. My senior said, “Bakit puro Britney and Christina Aguilera ang tugtog mo? Bakla ka ba?!”
I was diagnosed with HIV.
During that time, blood tests were done loosely—you’d get a blood test, and they’d read everything. No confidentiality. The med tech who told me I was reactive to HIV said it in an open space, in a lounge, with people behind me. “Reactive dugo mo sa HIV. Pa-confirm ka sa San Lazaro…”
I guess I’m lucky, though. Others, they find out through their agency. The reports come through computer-based systems; there’s one instance that a seaman found out through his in-law, who had access to his records. Everyone was staring at him funny when he came to the office. Confidentiality is an issue that’s related to HIV discrimination. Their own family members shun them, even if they’re the breadwinner.
Until now, seafarers face a lot of discrimination, and because of this, they aren’t able to find work. Under the ILO (International Labour Organization), a medical certificate is just to tell if someone is fit or unfit—but there are provisions or standards that state when you can work, which a lot of manning agencies or clinics don’t know. So some seamen deny their condition, or their papers get held up. Either way, they’re unable to access treatment. That’s what I’d like to address.
When I reported to my agency, they asked me to get a second opinion. The whole 2010 was a ping pong game. All my communication with my agency was via phone. Then afterwards, they said I should talk to the general manager. We had a closed door meeting with two more high ranking officers from MAAP. News spread. The upperclassmen knew, so did Vice Admiral (Ma. Eduardo) Santos, president of MAAP. They all didn’t know what to do. I was the first case of an HIV-positive cadet from MAAP. I was also the first case at Maersk. The medical clinic didn’t want to release my papers because they said I was unfit to work.
I started to lose hope. The first five months of 2010, I just cried and cried. Unlimited tears. I was so full of dreams and my family was depending on me. I had already bought a new suitcase, new socks. I was running for cum laude. My classmates called me every day but I didn’t pick up the phone. I was depressed and ashamed. Then my name was stricken from the roster. My ship, as they say, had sailed.
Around May, I decided I would stop crying. I just grew tired of it. I didn’t get any counseling, but I was spending time in San Lazaro. I got to meet people who had been living with HIV for up to five years. Some were younger than me. Parang nabuhayan ako ng loob! There’s still life after being diagnosed. That time, HIV wasn’t in the news much. After my diagnosis, it seemed to be everywhere. Until now, the numbers are rising. I’m one of those numbers. As I grow in the world of HIV, na-realize ko na wala siyang pinipili. It strikes people from all walks of life, even doctors, nurses, di mo masasabi. And since early diagnosis ako, walang complications, which is a blessing. I didn’t have to go on for years not knowing. If you don’t get tested right away, you wouldn’t know because it’s asymptomatic.
I also got referred to the Commission of Human Rights. Prior to that, I was referred to PNAC, the Philippine National Aids Council, who first implemented RA 8504. That bill protects the rights of those diagnosed with HIV. When MAAP and Maersk found out that I had access to all these people, they started to take action.
I felt neglected, ignored, and discriminated against. Maersk and MAAP even offered that they would pay for any other course I wanted to take. Kahit sa La Salle pa. But I really wanted to pursue maritime. I had the conviction, and people around me were rooting for me to continue.
My case was forwarded to Denmark. In early 2011, I was asked to report. I went onboard, but prior to that, they had someone from Singapore talk to me, tell me that they were taking a risk with me. Out of all their cadets from Pakistan, Ukraine, India, they were giving me the first chance for an HIV-positive to go on board.
I went on board the Maersk-Avon. It’s standard practice that I disclose my condition to the captain, and he said “yeah, it’s okay.” No big deal. On board, I didn’t experience any special treatment about my load of work or responsibilities. I wouldn’t like that so.
Throughout my trials, I got my strength from the Lord. I was crying on a bus home and this guy saw me. He invited me to a Christian church. I was floored. I genuinely felt that Jesus is alive—that was in U.P. Diliman, July 22, 2010. Then I was invited to a weekend retreat. Little by little, the Lord built me up again. Because I wasn’t doing anything then, I got very busy with church activities, conducting small bible groups in U.S.T. and La Salle.
Back in the Academy, I became the leader of a Christian fellowship. I couldn’t be stopped from sharing. I learned to share because I learned to love and accept myself. You wouldn’t share your experiences if you hate yourself. Later, the big bosses from FAME (Filipino Association for Mariner’s Employment, Inc.), PAMI (Philippine Association of Maritime Institutions)—they always invite me to get involved and “be the voice” of HIV awareness. We need to talk about it! If we don’t nothing will happen.
After six months onboard, I came back, and my health was much better, my CD4 (a blood indicator of how strong the immune system is) increased. Maybe one factor was that I was happy.
When I went back to MAAP, I tried to inform the students more about HIV. I talked to them about it, tried to “normalize” HIV with them. After I graduated, took my board exams, Maersk sponsored my trainings to get my license. I thought everything was okay, but in 2015, after complying with all my trainings and forwarding all my documents to the agency, the new general manager had me called in. He told me there was a “surplus of officers.”
But I felt more empowered by that time. I admit, I also felt hurt that he would say that, after everything I went through. “Okay sir,” I said, “you’re sure this is not about my case, right? Please make sure sir.” I stated that I was in contact with the CHR (Commission on Human Rights). He denied that it was because of my case. But one month passed, I sent e-mails, no reply. I was worried because I had to earn for my family, I had to supply my needs. So I got a land-based job as an instructor, and my employers saw my potential. I became the youngest training manager in the company.
I was back to square one. All my struggles, all my insecurities, everything came back. So I sought the advice of an older seafarer who I admire. He introduced me to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), and I met Dr. Asif Altaf (HIV/AIDS Coordinator) in Pan Pacific Hotel in March 2015.
I shared my story with Dr. Asif and Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale. I met with them several times and sent e-mails to superiors at ITF. It was one month of e-mails, of going through every detail of my story, until they e-mailed Maersk. They found that I had indeed been discriminated. Immediately, I received an e-mail from Maersk, with the manager asking me to report. When I reported there, he shook my hand and was very warm—but the first time, he wouldn’t even shake hands with me.
He stuck to his story about the surplus of officers, that he’d call me as soon as they had on opening, and that I would have to undergo recruitment again. Okay. In my head, I was thinking, “bring it on.” This was last year, in November. I was enjoying my land-based work, but I knew I had to go back to the sea. I’m only 26. I still have time to sharpen my skills.
So I resigned in May 2016 to pursue my seafaring career. I don’t want to wait any longer.
ITF and AMOSUP asked me to put up a non-profit for their campaign on AIDS and HIV awareness—we already have a name, GPS+, to give reference to maritime and to the “plus”—“positive”.
I want to talk to more seamen, more youth. I want clinics to be unified in their treatment and decisions about seafarers who are diagnosed with HIV. Who can they turn to? What policies should manning agencies adopt? What can be implemented in maritime schools about this issue? What else can we do?
But I really want to go back on board. I feel I need to give my story more edge, to give more impact to my testimony.
This not the end. I’m still waiting for the climax.