The Queens of Manila

On the other end of my road, tucked into a quiet side street in the busy metropolis of Pasay, Manila lives an elderly man.  Born to Filipino mothers, our fathers originated from India.  Both made a life for themselves in the Philippines. However the cards dealt to us has made all the difference.

It is our kismat or fate.

Pasay is a compact city south of Manila. After moving to the Philippines from India, I’ve called it home for close to a decade now. Pasay could be any random city in the world, with its shopping centres, casinos and posh hotels, but there are still a few old gems to its name.

Rica, Pasay 2016. (c) shirin bhandari

Rica was born a man. Official birth records list him as Frederico Ramasamy. Now into his 60s- he knew he was gay since childhood. His mother despised him for being different and put her efforts in raising his two brothers.

Rica moved to the capital in 1969 from the southern province of Zamboanga with hopes of a better life. She has not been back since.
She sleeps alone in a dingy shack and works as a community sweeper to earn her keep. The space is cramped. Money is tight. The galvanized sheets that serve as a roof only reach half way. There is no bed, just a hard bamboo sofa minus the cushions. Clothes are piled into a broken hamper. A rickety table with plastic chairs rest along the door of an old refrigerator. Torn posters of past gay beauty pageants are filed against a concrete wall.
A handful of Rica’s friends are homeless and not as fortunate. There is enough stigma and isolation with being elderly, impoverished and gay.

“Kabaong (a coffin) would you believe?!” Rica exclaims as we talk about the latest donation. We laugh at the idea and logistics of fitting a “slightly” used casket into the diminutive house.
“I don’t have a proper bed come to think of it…I may be old, but I’m still alive!”

Across the shanties, a few feet away- the bungalow with the battered red gate was the original site for The Home for the Golden Gays. It was established in the mid 1970’s by LGBT rights activist, celebrity columnist and city councillor- Justo Justo. He founded a care facility in Pasay for elderly and homeless gays using his own property. It offered a sense of community and security.

Despite being married with children, Justo Justo was openly gay. At the time of his death in 2012, his family and wife resented his choice of lifestyle-and forcibly closed the Home for the Golden Gays a day after his death. The former 350sqm abode could easily fit 15 people.  Rica lived in the same home and looked after Justo Justo (JJ) until the end. After eviction, some went back to their relatives. Others were not as lucky and now live on the streets of Pasay without proper shelter and income in their old age. They survive by selling recycled bottles picked out from people’s garbage. They sleep outside a shopping mall, under bridges or around the building of The Cultural Centre of the Philippines.

JJ was a pioneer for LGBT rights in the Philippines. He was one of the only people in the media who spoke openly about the country’s HIV crisis. His friendly and approachable personality made him an icon in the local gay community. He was a prominent celebrity writer and even invented his own gay language “Swardspeak”- which is an amusing mixture of Tagalog, Spanish and English. It often makes references to popular culture- which only a street smart Manila native can understand.

The Philippines in the past five years has one of the highest HIV cases in Asia. The Department of Health warned a “concentrated epidemic” in 6 Philippine cities- (half found in Metro Manila) may reach uncontrollable levels.

Majority of the infections are through male to male contact.
“It’s been four years”. Ramon Busa, the successor to JJ’s work sighs.
We sit inside Rica’s shack and discuss the coming month’s activities. It is also used as a meeting point for the remaining members. There are two divisions – the “silver gays” (ages 45 up) and the “golden gays” (ages 60 up).

The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country and is one of the most tolerant gay destinations in Asia. But it is by no means free of prejudice and discrimination. Through the past three decades countless newspaper, magazine features, local television interviews and foreign documentaries have been made about their plight.
The irony however- the Home for the Golden Gays is currently homeless.

Rica potters around and hangs a dusty looking long gown in gold on a clothes line next to dark coloured men’s underwear. The Golden Gays take pride in their thrift store finds.  A stack of photo albums are placed on my lap. The pages are filled with articles and photographs from the past-in their prime, young, dolled up and beautiful. A handful worked as entertainers in night clubs for Japanese and American soldiers as far back as the Second World War. Some worked in beauty salons. People tolerated them as long as they had money and could earn a living- but not when they are old and in need of care.

Fate led me down the road to meet them. I have known about their story through the years and never thought I’d find myself involved in their cause. After seeing a photograph at a Pride Parade I felt I owed it to my city to help.

“I’m in touch with the other lolas,they should be here soon-”, Ramon smiles. Lola is a Tagalog term for grandmother.  I often work for Ramon on updates needed to be written and added to their website. The group realizes that having a strong online presence may guide them in finding a new home. It is the only way they can remain relevant in such modern times. They receive no support from the government, a pension system is nonexistent- but Ramon remains resilient. He asks me to write short pieces concerning gay rights, retirement and health concerns that affect the local LGBT community.

The Golden Gays of Pasay. 2016 (c) shirin bhandari

Within the next hour, 20 Lolas filled the space donning wigs, accessories, garish make up with bright pink blush and sparkly eye shadow. Two vans arrived to collect us. We were brought a few minutes from Pasay to the main business district area of Makati. The young LGBT support group of a reputable BPO organized a special event to keep everyone busy the entire day. Food, costumes, a karaoke stall, games and giveaways were prepared for the elderly group.

Makati, 2016 (c) shirin bhandari

The call centre hall was made into a makeshift catwalk. One by one they paraded up the stage to shout out a life quote as you would in a pageant.
The crowd cheered on.

“Respect yourself and you will receive the respect you deserve. We want to show young gay people that you can live a clean life despite the circumstances handed to you. You can be beautiful at any age.” Busa explains.

The Home for the Golden Gays survives on donations and community outreach programs. They are few and far between. It is important they remain active and healthy. Time is of the essence.
The search for a new home is still up in the air. Their dream is not just to house their own members but to provide a place of refuge to others in need.
The program was just a day’s escape from reality.

(c) shirin bhandari 2016

“Did you have a good time?” I asked Rica.

“I’m so happy. Take my picture, I want to remember this- but don’t show my teeth!” she laughed as she put on the heavily beaded crown fit for a queen.

Rica poses with a friend, 2016. (c) shirin bhandari

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