Living Out Loud: An Interview with Drag Performer Ongina
Drag performer Ongina (born Ryan Ong Palao) made headlines when he disclosed his HIV status on season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Diagnosed in 2006, he hadn’t even told his parents.
The moment “drastically” changed his life.
Since then, Palao, who lives in Los Angeles and identifies as a gay man, has used the persona of Ongina to promote HIV testing and prevention through packed performances, OraQuick commercials, Logo TV segments, and amfAR’s online video series, Epic Voices.
In observance of National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on September 27, amfAR spoke to Palao about the events leading up to his diagnosis, his very public HIV disclosure, and how Ongina is helping expand the dialogue about HIV.
What made you decide to disclose your HIV status to RuPaul on his show, RuPaul’s Drag Race?
I won the challenge to be a guest spokesperson for MAC Viva Glam and it hits close to home for me. Because I am living with HIV, the emotions from winning took over my entire body and I just came out and said it. I hadn’t told my parents as of that moment, but I did go home later in the year to tell them. I wanted them to find out from me and not the show.
How did that moment change the trajectory of your life?
It changed my life drastically because it was a weight lifted off my shoulders to be able to finally say it out loud and own it for myself. It also became an inspiration for others to live out loud about being HIV positive. I’m happy to have helped people come to terms, like I did, with their status.
Could you talk about the events leading up to your diagnosis and how you coped in the immediate aftermath?
I knew I was sick and I knew it wasn’t a common cold. I remember talking to my new primary care doctor, as I had just moved to Queens, NY, and he told me it was just the flu and gave me antibiotics. However, I knew my symptoms were worse, so I decided to go to the GMHC (formerly, Gay Men’s Health Crisis) clinic. A few days later, they called me while I was at work and my stomach turned and I just knew. I walked into the private office and the doctor delivered the news that my results came back positive for HIV and I felt numb.
The next few months were rough because I was in denial. But I developed a relationship with someone I was dating before I was positive. He and all of my friends helped pick me back up to continue to live my life to the fullest.
Gay and bisexual men are more severely affected by HIV than any other group in the United States. Why does this population continue to bear the greatest burden of the epidemic? And what needs to be done to reverse the trend?
I believe it starts with gay and bisexual men not knowing their status. People fear knowing and for many of them, the lie is better than the truth. It’s also because gay and bisexual men continue to have unprotected sex, sometimes under the influence, which often affects decision making.
While testing is becoming more and more accessible, it’s important that we continue to talk about it and spread the importance of knowing one’s status. At the same time, we need to advocate for protected sex. I know and understand that this might be easier said than done, but there’s a power when your voice is loud and you continue to talk about it and I’m hoping that my voice is.
In amfAR’s Epic Voices, you mention how when you travel the world for performances people come up to you and tell you about their own HIV diagnosis. How emotional is it to hear those stories?
It’s very emotional when people share with me the pain and suffering associated with overcoming their status and living their truth. It’s also very overwhelming because they share with me how I’ve helped them. I don’t think they know how much it’s really helping me! It empowers me to continue the work I do to help people out there who need support. It also gives me hope that one day people will be able to talk about being HIV positive without the stigma.
You use the platform of Ongina to advocate for HIV, trans rights, and equality. Why do you think the persona is so effective in raising awareness around these issues?
I use Ongina to advocate for raising awareness because when I came out on RuPaul’s Drag Race about my status, my persona became real and people found a closer connection to me beyond my persona. And because of this, I’m using it to raise important awareness for HIV, trans rights, equality, and basic human rights.