Having served the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) as Executive Director from 2008 to 2010, Bakhtiar Talhah recently returned to the fray when he became its president. He is definitely no stranger to HIV.
His platform when running for president was, after all, being HIV positive and gay. He has won the battle against the disease including the stigma and discrimination that comes along with it for the past 22 years.
Bakhtiar, whose day job is as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil chief operating officer, is on first line medication.
“I don’t think we have even chipped at the surface of stigma and discrimination. I don’t think my personal coming out has done much except maybe in some areas where there is more personalised one-to-one dealings with those in the government and decision-makers in corporations,” he says.
“My personal story of being gay and HIV positive has landed some credibility to the work that we have done in Malaysia.”
He adds that there was some reaction from partner organisations on whether it was possible to have a gay, Muslim president leading MAC and still be able to deal with decision makers in the government.
“But I think I have proven that it doesn’t make an iota of difference to anyone in the government. If I have managed to quell those concerns, then let’s normalise it. If I have played a part in normalising it, then I am very grateful.”
He remembers that his father was the most important person when it came to dealing with his disease. His mother had passed away earlier on.
“No one else’s opinion mattered. I came out as gay to him when I was 20. He was very accepting,” he says, recalling that he wrote his father about the diagnosis in 1995 when he was studying in the United States.
“I wrote to him. Back then, it was just letters. I had to wait 10 to 14 days for his reply,” he adds.
“He wrote back with concern and asked me to take care of myself. It was a five-page letter and I have read it hundreds of times. He wrote in cursive writing, ‘You’ re my son and I love you no matter what.'”
Bakhtiar admits that he had it easy because of the support he had, adding that his decision in coming out both as gay and HIV positive was definitely a gradual process.
“I am definitely more comfortable now that I’ve come out.”
He says that his father’s passing has a role to play with his decision.
“I have a child and I thought what kind of values do I want to pass on if I wasn’t being true to myself? “
“In the end, I have a lot to be thankful for all the blessings I have received in my life.”
Making it work
Bakhtiar admits that taking on the presidency has been tough as he has a different style of working although at the epicentre of it all, the partnerships forged with Partner Organisations and the grassroots communities cannot change.
He is proud of the fact that the current MAC executive committee has representation from key populations besides health professionals.
“We are gaining momentum. MAC is going through a very crucial point financially. I would like to see us through,” he says.
He says this also means relooking at the work structure of the organisation to better serve the community, tackling the issue of the rise in sexual transmission besides focusing on testing and treating.
Work is also being done to foster relationships with more organisations besides strengthening existing ones with entities such as the MOH and religious departments.
In terms of funding, monies are channelled through the MOH and private corporations while The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is supporting case management programme for key populations.
“Some Partner Organisations are doing quite well by being more proactive in fundraising. Our aim now is to help them become self-sustaining. We are trying as much as we can,” he says.
Assistance from MAC and MAF in this regard is to lend technical expertise to help Partner Organisations draw up viable business models.
He points that it is also important for some Partner Organisations to ensure case management of a patient was done.
Dealing with sex and HIV
In this respect, Bakhtiar says the country’s legal framework continues to hinder the progress of HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
“The issue now is sexual transmission and we have sex workers, transgender people and MSM. The ‘unspeakables’ to some. The political climate is not conducive to speak openly about it.”
The fact that the majority of infections is through sexual transmission is a contrast to the “early years” when the main cause was injecting drug use.
Battling the rise in sexual transmission of HIV is proving to be a challenge because of the stigma that is attached to the key populations themselves.
For one, jurisdiction for religious Muslim matters falls under the purview of a respective state.
By leveraging on its relationship with the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM), MAC, together with the MOH has held dialogues with the relevant state religious officials in hopes of creating an environment that will enable prevention and awareness work to be carried out more effectively.
The idea is to firstly have the officials understand the issues on the ground.
It is, Bakhtiar points out about working together to achieve the key performance indicators under the National Strategic Plan for Ending AIDS.
“But you still denounce the LGBT community, have raids against transgender people and sex workers or policies targeting the MSM. All this just drives them underground, making it difficult for us to reach them.”
As a start, he says the plan is to work with states that have hotspots for the various marginalised communities in order to have a more targeted response.
“MAC and MOH will also work with Islamic scholars who are more progressive and open to views,” he says pointing out that the priority is to save lives regardless of whether there is behavioural change.
“You cannot not do anything.”
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