A love without labels

(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)

UNAIDS #LoveWithoutLabels campaign, which celebrates everyone’s right to choose their sexual identity and partners ends on 31 May. On the last day of the #LoveWithoutLabels campaign, we speak with a Filipino couple, Darren Eleazar Perez and Jeffry Acaba. Darren is a master’s degree student in Media and Communications and Jeff is the Education and Advocacy Lead of Youth LEAD, a regional network of young key populations. Both men are based in Bangkok, Thailand.

UNAIDS: When and how did you realize your sexual identity?

Darren: It was just something I’ve always known. I didn’t wake up one day and realize I was gay. I just knew- like you know you’re right or left handed. As I grew up, I just gravitated towards men.

Jeff: As for me, I observed that I was leaning towards an attraction to men rather than women at 7 years old. When I was in fourth year of high school, I had a guy best friend and I became attracted to him. My classmates started making fun of us saying we were together and gay – that’s when I realized I probably was.

IMG_3362UNAIDS: How did you cope with that? Were there any challenges along the way?

Darren: I grew up in a Middle-Eastern country with parents who were religious so for me, it wasn’t something I wanted to tell anyone. I became depressed but I told no one. Everything I found out about myself and my sexuality was through the internet but still there was not enough information about it back then.

Jeff: It was difficult for me. I was bullied based on my sexuality when I was in high school. Even in college, close friends of mine would also judge me and would label me as immoral. That was hard to deal with but eventually I came through. I went on with my life and accepted that this was who I was.

UNAIDS: Can you tell us how you met and how did you start being in a relationship?

Jeff: We met through Grindr. We went out the first time and we talked about regular stuff like music and film. The second date we talked more and Darren opened up to me and it went on from there. We ended up going on several dates and we bonded.

Darren: One time, we went out  for a movie. It was just one of those magical nights that neither of us wanted to end. It got really late. I was sitting at a bench giving my dissection of the movie. The movie was Guardians of the Galaxy, and I was mimicking what the character was saying and in the middle of the conversation I leaned in and we kissed. Later on I had to ask and make sure if that meant we were together – and it did. And that’s it. We’ve been together ever since.

UNAIDS: Are you open about your relationship? Do you introduce each other openly to other people as your partner?

Jeff and Darren: Yes!

Darren: My parents know about him. They’ve never met but they will soon. The only reason he hasn’t met my parents is because of the distance. They live far away. He met my sister and her husband.

Jeff: He met my parents. He met my dad first. At first my dad was a little apprehensive but slowly warmed up to Darren.

UNAIDS: What do you love best and what can’t you stand about each other?

Jeff: What I love best about him is that he always makes me laugh. I also love that he loves cooking! What I don’t like about him is he’s so disorganized, but I think it’s a sign of a creative mind.

Darren: Honestly, What I love about my relationship is that we don’t function as a couple all the time. There are many layers to our relationship. We are each other’s best friend. Sometime ago Jeff told me, “I don’t just love you but I really really like you”. I think this is really important in a relationship. Loving someone is a pinnacle but it’s also important that we understand and complement each other. We make up for what the other lacks.

I hate Jeff’s obsessive-compulsive nature. He woke me up in the middle of the night once, and asked me where his yoga mat was just because he couldn’t find it. It was just behind the curtain! Gosh!

UNAIDS: Have you experienced any stigma/discrimination because of your relationship?

Darren: The worst I can think of, is when some distant family members refuse to acknowledge the relationship. They just ask me “Oh Darren, how’s your friend?” And I’m there thinking : “he’s not my friend and everyone knows that” but yeah. It’s not a big deal. We get the occasional stare once in awhile but it’s so minute I don’t even realize.IMG_2175

Jeff: I think it’s difficult if you’re stigmatized as a gay person because it would be difficult for you to be truthful to yourself and to what you feel towards the other person. It would also be difficult to exercise your rights, say, right to access health services. A lot of evidence shows that the rise of the HIV in Thailand and the Philippines, is through couples, and to most gay couples, it’s very difficult to talk about your sexuality and your HIV status if you are stigmatized for being gay.

Darren: Even if I were straight I would still get tested if I was sexually active. It’s a responsibility towards yourself as well as the other person.

UNAIDS: With this campaign, we are trying to remind everyone that love is love and at the end of the day relationships share common ground no matter the sexual identities of the two partners. So do you have the same kinds of conflicts and issues that heterosexual couples have?

Darren: It’s not accurate to say that it’s exactly the same. With a same sex relationship there is the sense of being in the non-normative paradigm. I would want to get married, have kids and all that. All the heteronormative things but it’s a little different in the same sex scenario.

Jeff: We want to get married, we want to have kids. We see a future together, we fight, we make up, and we love. We have basic relationship goals. Trust, acceptance, love, hope, intimacy, emotion, dreams. It’s all the same. If you fall in love you fall in love, there’s nothing to prove there.

Darren: There are things that we want in this relationship and the fact that we are of the same sex doesn’t change anything. Love is love.

UNAIDS: What’s next for you two? Where do you see yourselves in the next 5 years?

Darren: It’s been an amazing journey so far. I see a house by a beach. I wrote Jeff a letter all those years ago and I shared everything that I wanted from this relationship. I told him I wanted children, I wanted a house by the beach, a dog and someone special by my side.  That letter tells him that that was my dream; it was all I wanted but I was never able to picture it with anyone. I wrote that; ever since I met him, I see that dream with him. It’s where we want to go. We’re not there yet, but that’s where we’re headed.

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UNAIDS would like to thank Darren and Jeff for sharing their inspiring love story with us and reminding us all that love is love and the importance of #LoveWithoutLabels. We wish them all the happiness together!


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