Originally published in print- the Philippine Star, 10th of February 2018.
“Call me Lola”, Rikka says. Lola is a Tagalog word for grandmother. It is also a term of endearment for elderly gay men in the Philippines. In an apartment, tucked along a dusty side street in the bustling metropolis of Pasay, Manila — Rikka joins a group of elderly gay men at noon. A pile of stilettos are found in a corner near the door. A fraying string is weighed down by brightly beaded gowns hung across the living room. They rehearse and discuss the next day’s show in the cramped space.
Across the shanties, four blocks away — the bungalow with the battered red gate was the original site for The Home for the Golden Gays. It was established in 1975 by LGBT rights activist and columnist Justo Justo. His house served as a care facility for elderly destitute gays. A day after Justo’s passing in 2012, his family evicted the Golden Gays, and the group has remained homeless since.
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. Justo was a pioneer of LGBT rights in the country and 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 invented his own gay language swardspeak — an amusing mixture of Tagalog, Spanish and English words. It often makes references to popular culture — where only a street-smart local, can decipher. Today, his close friend Ramon Busa heads the Home for the Golden Gays.
The remaining 48 members are scattered throughout the metro, living with relatives. A few, who are not as fortunate, sleep on the rough streets of Manila. They survive through community outreach programs, donations and the occasional drag shows generated by the Golden Gays. Sponsors offer a free meal for the day; cash donations or a week’s worth of groceries. In exchange, the lolas get dolled up and provide entertainment by dancing and singing. On lean months they work odd jobs in beauty salons, as street sweepers or cigarette vendors. People value and tolerate them as long as they have money and can earn a living, not when they are old and in need of care. It is difficult to deal with the stigma and isolation from being elderly, impoverished and gay.
The apartment is a temporary shelter that is paid for by one of the members Rey Ravago. He works as a masseuse to make ends meet. The place is not big enough to accommodate more than three people to sleep. The lolas previously convened at Rikka’s home. It burned down a year ago, taking all of Rikka’s possessions, memorabilia, gowns, and accessories.
A day after the fire I met Rikka at a public school in Pasay to bring food and clothes. “Is this how it will all end?” he says holding back tears. Social workers allowed Rikka and his neighbors to sleep on the floor of a classroom for two weeks until they could find a new home. A year later, Rikka is back singing in a fabulous gown donated by an adoring fan.
I lived in Pasay for a decade, and have remained in contact with the Golden Gays even after moving. They are gracious to invite me to photograph them through the years.
Rikka was born, Frederico Ramasamy and traveled to the capital from Zamboanga in 1969. His family could not come to terms with his sexuality. “I just left,” Rikka says. He has not been back since. He lived with Justo for many years and cared for him until his death. Rikka is now in his 60’s. He sleeps alone in a dingy shack and works as a community sweeper to earn his keep. Money is tight. The galvanized sheets that serve as a roof only reach halfway. There is no bed, just a hard bamboo mat. I have a soft spot for Rikka. Both our fathers are Indian, however, the cards dealt us, has made all the difference. It is our kismat or fate.
We leave the apartment and head to a small restaurant down the road. Traffic comes to a halt as the lolas walk the street in vibrant gowns, donning wigs and garish makeup. The venue is an establishment in Pasay. The building has seen better days, like the surrounding neighborhood. The restaurant has been generous to the group over the years. They allot the top floor space for a minimal fee. The Golden Gays are sometimes invited by large organizations or companies that feel a need to give back to the community.
The sponsored event begins with a modest meal, songs, and dance numbers. It ends with a pageant show, where the lolas strut on a makeshift catwalk inside the restaurant. Gifts are given at the end of the event. They have a few hours relief from the reality of struggling to survive in such a harsh and unforgiving city.
The Philippines in the past 5 years has the highest HIV/AIDS cases in Asia. The Department of Health warned a concentrated epidemic in 6 Philippine cities — half of which are found in Metro Manila. Eighty-three percent of new infections are from male-to-male contact, where two out of three are among 15 to 24-year-old men.
The Golden Gays are vocal about the AIDS crisis and use the gathering as an opportunity to speak out. “Respect yourself and you will receive the respect you deserve. We want to show young gay people that you can live a clean healthy life despite the circumstances handed to you. Stay protected. You can be beautiful at any age,” Ramon says to the audience of a top BPO company.
The senior working class LGBT community receives no support from the government, a pension system is non-existent — but they remain resilient. The goal is to learn a trade and live together in a house that will serve as a place of refuge, not only for its members but for others in need. In the meantime, the performances will go on.
Before leaving, I ask Rikka what is the strangest gift he has ever received.
“Kabaong. A coffin would you believe,” he bursts out laughing. We fall over in hysterics at the idea and logistics of fitting a slightly used casket into a diminutive room.
“Can’t they see I have endured? I’m alive. I’m not fearful of getting older.” Rikka smiles and puts on a heavily beaded crown fit for a queen.