Friday 9 March 2018

"I come from the city of flowers" the Golden Gays of Manila

Lola is the Tagalog (Filipino) word for "grandmother". In the Philippines it is also an affectionate term applied to older gay men. I recently stumbled upon an article about the Lolas of Manila when reading Shirin Bhandari's excellent blog. I was enthralled by her post about their lives and their home, established in 1975 by Justo Justo, a former Pasay City Councillor, accomplished playwright, columnist and AIDS campaigner. During my recent trip it was my privilege to meet some of the Lolas at their current home in a quiet Pasay side street.

It is the third incarnation of the Home for the Golden Gays, the original location being in Justo's own house where care and shelter was provided for older gay men. Sadly, Justo died in 2012 and his family reclaimed the property, evicting everyone. Having secured further premises the Lolas then suffered a fire, losing their possessions including the precious gowns and costumes they use in their stage shows. Today they have a tiny, temporary shelter where they can meet and spend time together and where they keep the costumes that admirers have since donated to them. However, there is only space for a handful of people to sleep there.

One of the Lolas who lives here is Rikka, originally from Zamboanga, Mindanao's "City of Flowers". When he was in grade 5 or 6, his father became unwell and Rikka began working as a shoeshine, cleaning houses or delivering water in order to help support the family. He knew he felt different at an early age and would occasionally experiment secretly putting on lipstick before being caught and punished by his mother as well as suffering physical abuse from his father.

He later moved to Manila where he had two sisters, one of whom worked in the famous American Club. Whilst studying he made his first gay friends, one in the same year as him and one a year older. Rikka was extremely shy but the new friends encouraged him not to attend classes and instead to walk the city streets together, having fun. He remembers "walking all the way to Lunetta so we could look at handsome men".  On one occasion the older boy suggested they go to the cinema. Rikka readily agreed but had not realised that it was to see an x-rated film and described his shock at seeing naked bodies on the screen. It was during this time that he stopped attending classes altogether and unbeknown to him the school contacted his family. This resulted in his mother making a surprise visit to the city. Thrilled to see her he was to be disappointed as she rejected him and told him to leave the sisters' home. 

There followed several years of homelessness, living in the streets and being the recipient of occasional help from kind hearted vendors. For some time he lived in an informal camp around the construction site of Manila's Cultural Centre together with many other homeless people. He described being very scared, often hungry but amazingly naive. He made friends with a group of people who slept in the same place as him. Every morning they went out into the city, returning in the afternoon with food, clothes and other objects. Never questioning where these things came from it was only later that he realised they had been stolen. His time at the Cultural Centre came to an end when the police arrived one night to destroy the settlement and drive the people off. This was not his first experience of losing his sleeping place and such clearances were common during that period. 

Things changed for the better for Rikka the day he met Justo Justo in the street. He remembers being called "bakla" (the Tagalog word for gay, sometimes pejorative) by a well dressed, good looking man in the street who told him to come with him. This was Justo. Arriving at the gate of a house, this man called out to the keeper "open the gate the Queen is here". On entering Rikka could not believe what he found. Not only was there was a place to sleep and food to eat but many gay men were living there. After a short time Justo called him to the office and asked him his name. Receiving the reply "Rico", Justo told him "from now on you will be Rikka". In the more difficult days he had won several dancing competitions with cash prizes that he used to buy food, now he learned how to apply make-up and was able to indulge his love of music, singing, dancing through taking part in pageants and beauty contests.

Rikka speaks expressively mixing English, a little Tagalog and the occasional expression in the Spanish Creole of his home city. His story is emotional in the telling. His eyes light up when he talks about Justo saving him from the streets and his own self-discovery. He covers them when talking about his family's rejection and there is a deep sadness when he remembers the date of Justo's death. There are times when he is clearly not in the room with us, but reliving the past.

Ramon, Rikka and Rey
I also met Ramon who co-ordinates the group's activities and Rey who does a Beyonce tribute act as well as working part time as a hairdresser in order to earn a little more. Together they explained that many of the other members of the group like to go out during the day, meet their friends or just wander. Others have work outside, such as Noelito who works as a vendor. When asked if there are any female members, Ramon says that there are a few who come along but they prefer not to attract attention and are extremely shy of outsiders. When asked if it is easier to be a gay man than to be a lesbian in the Philippines, Rey says perhaps it is but that bringing money to the family earns respect and tolerance if not necessarily acceptance. It is not unknown for older gays to be turned out of their home once their ability to earn is gone.

As well as being a refuge, the home for the Golden Gays is the place where their theatrical performances are planned, where they prepare themselves for shows and from where they often walk in their gowns, wigs and full make-up to a nearby restaurant which they use as a regular venue. Ramon recounts how before a footbridge was built over the busy main road, they would regularly bring the traffic to a standstill as they crossed the road carrying all of their props. People would get out of their cars to stare at them in astonishment and the Lolas would blow kisses to the waiting traffic. Ramon joked that the city council constructed the bridge to prevent further traffic hold-ups and refers to it as The Golden Gays Bridge. Pun fully intended. Much to my disappointment their next performance was to take place after my return to London.

The Golden Gays urgently need better premises and would like to deliver improved services to the community. The group's priorities include education to enable the community to better support themselves, accommodation for elders who become homeless and most importantly, outreach work in relation to AIDS and HIV. The Philippines has the highest infection growth rates in  the Asia Pacific region.  The organisation seeks donations to help with these matters and contact details can be found here on their website.

As well as hearing Rikka's personal story, I learned a little about gay history in the Philippines. Amongst his other accomplishments, Justo was the first writer to be published in swardspeak a kind of gay language using words from Tagalog, English and Spanish as well as celebrity names and trademark brands, which are given different meanings. It reminded me of palari, a similar codification of English used by gay men and others prior to the 1970's when it began to seriously decline. Palari had its peak of popular attention in the 1960's BBC radio series Round The Horne

When asked what their favourite songs were, Rikka said he likes to sing in Spanish whilst Ramon prefers to sing nostalgic songs in Tagalog. Ramon gave us a few lines from Tillie Moreno's Saan Ako Nagkamali (Where did I go wrong) whilst, encouraged by Rey, Rikka treated us to his version of Besame Mucho. Wonderful. Finishing with a flourish he announced "I come from the city of flowers. I can't help it. I was born beautiful". He was indeed. He still is.

You can see a short documentary about the Golden Gays here and read more about them here.

You might also like Picture Post 66 - Faces of the Philippines

You can see more pictures of the Philippines here and here.

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