As of 2014, more than 36.9 million people are living with HIV with countless more having succumbed to the disease since 1981. Many events observing World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) are spent remembering those we have lost, raising funds for HIV/AIDS research and educating others about the disease. On the campus of Washington University, organizers helped to put a face to the disease, and a very beautiful one at that, who wants to help end the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and continue to celebrate life. 

 

Ongina, from RuPaul’s Drag Race season one, delivered a keynote speech on Tuesday to an event hosted by +PLUS (People Like Us), detailing her own story.


“I am HIV positive. Those words I never thought I would say,” Ongina said, “Because like all of us, the best and the worst, we think we’re invincible. Especially when we are younger, impressionable, trusting and careless. We do things due to all of those reasons and obviously more without first thinking about the consequences or how they will change our lives forever, both good and bad.”


The female impersonator went on to tell those in attendance about her life growing up in the Philippines, and later Lynnwood, Washington, where she first felt judgment from her peers.


“For the first time in my young years, I felt the stare of judgment and ridicule as a young queer boy,” Ongina explained. “I was not only the new kid on the block, but I smelled freshly off the boat; looked too fierce for these kids to handle and had too much fashion sense to match my Adidas for anyone to comprehend.”


From there, Ongina’s story shifted to her move to New York in 2001, where the entertainer was able to live her life to the fullest. The Drag Racer spoke of a 2004 incident which shook her confidence. She was gay bashed while walking home to her apartment.

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“It wasn’t physically bad, what’s worse is the feeling I felt was similar to the first time I walked to that bus stop the first day of school," she said. "Instead of emotionally hurt, I was physically hurt - being gay, flamboyant and a person of color - which made me a bigger target. Instead it fed my fuel to live as gay, flamboyant and a person of color as I want to be.”


In March 2006, Ongina was diagnosed with HIV after having sex with someone she’d recently met.


“I trusted him, I believed him, and we had unprotected sex. It can happen to just about every single one of you," she stated.


When Ongina first went to the doctor with symptoms that included a fever of 108 degrees and rashes over her body, the doctor dismissed her concerns that they were HIV related as just the flu and told her to go rest. It wasn’t until she went to a clinic, where they ran tests, which led to the diagnosis. That was followed by a depression of seven months, until she decided to turn her life around.


“I woke up one morning and said I wasn’t going to be sad about it anymore,” Ongina said. “I decided ‘I’m going to do something about it. I didn’t know what that something was, and I knew what I had to go to be happy again. I knew sinking into a depression was not going to make HIV go away. I decided that day I’m going to continue my life as I had before: gay, proud, Asian, HIV+ and more. Because being a statistic wasn’t for me and I had to do something to regain the same confidence I’d built up all my life.”


Ongina moved to Los Angeles in 2007 where as soon as she landed, jokingly said, “one day Ongina is going to be famous!” Soon after that, in 2008, Ongina was cast for the inaugural season of Drag Race, where she would emerge as one of the season’s fan favorites for her public revelation of her HIV status after winning the MAC Viva Glam Challenge with the message to “Celebrate Life.” The plucky diva spoke about the fact that she had not told many about her status, including her parents.


The producers asked Ongina if they could use the footage, and she agreed to - only if they were using it inspire others. Before the episode aired, in November 2008, Ongina traveled to Washington to tell her parents of her HIV status.


“I have loving parents (which is not always the case) but once I shared [it] with them a weight was lifted off my shoulders," she recalled. "They both said they would continue to support and love me - that was the best response I could ever ask for. My mom cried and asked why I didn’t tell her first - I didn’t have to explain it to her, she knew why I couldn’t. And then my dad sat then and drank his beer - that was ok with me - that means he’s proud of me. I promised them I’m well and well taken care of.”


Ongina then shifted gears and spoke of statistics of those living with HIV. As of June 2015, there are 2 million new cases of HIV and that 1.2 million of those live within the United States, with one in eight not knowing their status.


“How much more can we do, or I do, to spread awareness and educate people about the threat of this virus?” she asked. “I get it, we’ve come a long way and studies show that infections have fallen by 35% since the year 2000. Congratulations. If you put it in millions, that’s little.”


Ongina closed things out, reiterating what needs to be done to change attitudes about HIV and AIDS: education and talking about the virus.


“Let’s be honest - there’s a stigma out there, and education is needed. If I can help one person who will listen, and then that one person helps someone else, and it continues to carry on, I feel like I’ve done my job,” she said.

 

 

 

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