The journey with HIV/AIDS can be lonely for some. There are those who are shunned by family and friends. Others are luckier when they have the love and support of loved ones.
Andrew Tan, who has been living with HIV since 1994, is one of the lucky ones. The activist, in fact, has spoken on multiple occasions about the support his mother and family have given him.
But there is another person that Andrew has, in the recent past, spoken about publicly. His partner Reuben Kiew.
Reuben has been with Andrew every step of the way. That’s 31 years, to be exact.
He first mentioned Reuben during a speech he made at the opening session of the International AIDS Society conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. It was a huge leap. To talk not only about his HIV positive status but also coming out in public (in Malaysia, no less) as a gay man.
Andrew giggled but firmly said that it was time, to someone who asked whether he was sure he wanted to do it.
Flash forward a few years and Andrew is still at it. Educating and creating awareness about HIV/AIDS. All the time with Reuben by his side.
The two are currently attached to the Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society (KLASS).
They first met while working in sister companies where Andrew was attached to the advertising and marketing department while Reuben worked in human resource and administration.
Andrew and Reuben have been living together for the past 20 years along with a current family of seven dogs and five cats.
“It is only natural that our relationship has progressed to this point. It is a lot of hard work,” says Reuben.
“It may be a gay relationship but the way I look at it, it is like any marriage that lasts.”
To which Andrew says: “We have been together for so long. We are like an old married couple.”
He remembers that things started when they used to lunch together with other colleagues and the two “gravitated towards each other.”
“Pretty soon, people got used to seeing us going for lunch,” he says.
The 57-year-old also recalls a company trip that both of them went on to Penang where three people had to share a room. It was raining heavily. He and Reuben talked for hours on the balcony. Andrew remembers thinking that Reuben was nice and hoped there would be something more between them.
“Then when it came time to sleep, it was set up where his feet was facing my head. He turned his pillow around so this would not happen. And I thought it was really considerate of him.”
Once their relationship blossomed, it was normal for Andrew to have dinner with his family and then head over to Reuben’s home.
Soon, Reuben was attending family gatherings where to this day, he still receives ang pow from elders in the family.
Andrew was diagnosed after bouts of fever saw him admitted into hospital. Doctors thought it was a viral infection and tested him for various illnesses. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him until Andrew asked what hadn’t they tested for and was told HIV. He told them to test for that.
“There was definitely no pre-test counselling,” he says adding that doctors discharged him upon him being diagnosed as positive. He didn’t seek treatment for the illness until much later.
Reuben, in the meantime, tested negative.
“I thought it was me against the world and even told Reuben that he was free to go. But he said he wanted to stay. So, I said, ‘Okay-lah’,” he says.
Living with HIV has not been easy especially in the beginning when there were so many pills to pop on top of having to pay a bomb for it. It cost RM2,000 a month for a regime that had him taking 20 tablets between eight and 12 hours a day. Some had to be crushed and dissolved in water to be taken an hour before meals. That was the challenge of adherence then.
“I had to sell my apartment to buy my meds,” he says.
The cost of medication slowly went down especially when the government started subsidising treatment including giving first line treatment for free.
These days, Andrew likes to joke that he is taking more medication for “old age” diseases like high cholesterol – something he never thought would happen to him.
Of his advocacy work, he says that their work at KLASS was all about starting a movement to ensure that people received the care they needed besides helping them achieve communal viral load suppression.
“It remains a challenge because we need to change people’s mindset,” he says.
“The key to survival is acceptance by the people who mean the world to us.”
He remembers the time when Andrew had bouts of fever and was in hospital after his mother returned from a trip and insisted on Andrew being admitted upon seeing his condition.
Desperate to get him better, Reuben even “smuggled” in a Chinese sinseh (medicine woman) to treat Andrew and says that Andrew managed to sleep through the night because the fever had been broken.
“When he was diagnosed, I wasn’t sure what HIV was. Was he going to die? He had already lost so much weight because he couldn’t eat,” says the 60-year-old.
“But looking back, there wasn’t any reason to call it off. I am not the type to shrug away in times of adversity. I said, ‘Let’s go through this together’.”
He also remembers feeling very helpless at the time as he didn’t know much about the disease.
“You were also seeing a person that you knew before the sickness, deteriorate in front of you and you don’t know what to do to make it better,” he adds.
These days, however, Reuben says he isn’t as scared as he used to be when Andrew falls sick. “We know we have it under control,” he says.
Reuben adds about how he was accepted by Andrew’s family by default to the point where a seat is always reserved for him at family weddings or gatherings.
Reuben has continued to educate himself on the disease and has moved from helping to sell knickknacks at booths as a volunteer to being programme manager for KLASS MSM pilot project, aptly named Let Us Walk With You (LUWWY).
The project, which began in 2015 helps MSM access community-friendly prevention, testing, treatment and care services.
KLASS together with Intan Life Zone in Johor Bahru are two non-governmental organisations under the pilot project funded by the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria via the MAC. Outreach is conducted via social media platforms and mobile apps.
He also talks with pride at how Andrew has transitioned to being someone who can stand on an international stage and speak.
“It is empowering. He has come a long way,” he adds.
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