Drag queen community resists in the Philippines, and ‘golden gays’ return to the stage

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On weekdays in Manila, capital of the Philippines, Al Enriquez, 86, pushes an old wooden cart, under a rainbow umbrella stuck in the worn wood. He sells sweets and cigarettes outside a busy supermarket, where every now and then a smoker or a child with a few coins buys something. On these crowded, chaotic streets, Enriquez — clad in a T-shirt and loose basketball shorts on his small, aging body — often goes unnoticed by the crowd.

On weekends, however, he goes by the stage name Carmen de la Rue and transforms into a Manila dancer, wearing a long dress, elaborate makeup, high-heeled shoes and a wig.

Enriquez belongs to a community of older gay men who call themselves the Golden Gays. They have lived together in the Philippines for decades, putting on concerts and parades on weekends to make ends meet. The community was founded in the 1970s by Justo, a Manila city legislator, AIDS activist and columnist. He opened his house to house the famous “lolas”, or grandparents, an affectionate term that the group adopted to refer to its members.

When Justo founded the Golden Gays, he wanted to create a retirement home for gay men who lived on the streets of Manila, rejected by their families and society. The community evolved into a place where residents were also encouraged to assume their gender identity. Some members, like Enriquez, embody both male and female personalities. Others choose to maintain the female stage identity in everyday life.

Justo sheltered the Golden Gays in his own home until his death in 2012. Without Justo as a patron, the group, which now numbers around 20 people, returned to the streets. “Many have had to go back to where they came from,” said Ramon Busa, current president of the Golden Gays, who goes by Lola Mon or by the stage name Monique de la Rue.

One of the members, Federico Ramasamy, better known as Lola Rica, got a job as a street sweeper and was given a room in a favela. Lola Rica piled up her belongings and costumes in the little room and welcomed other Golden Gays who didn’t have a place to live. Tragically, a fire burned down the apartment. Everyone was saved, but Lola Rica’s shoes, dresses, wigs and photos were burned.

“Time is limited. Our philosophy – because we are dancers – is that the show must go on. The course of life must keep flowing,” said Lola Mon, 72.

It wasn’t until 2018 that the group finally earned enough money to rent a small house to share in Manila. “We consider ourselves orphans, although maybe that doesn’t apply because we’re old,” laughed Lola Mon. “We protect each other because we don’t have caregivers to support us.”

In the Philippines there are few support systems other than the traditional family. More than half of citizens aged 60 and over live without a pension, which automatically classifies them as living in poverty, according to government data. The country’s predominantly Catholic society has long discriminated against the LGBTQIA+ community, meaning many Golden Gays were unable to find jobs when they were younger. Pensions were out of reach.

“They were kicked out of the house by Justo’s family, and I think that kind of story has triggered in the community the common experience of being rejected, of being kicked out of a house where you want to live,” said Mela Habijan, beauty queen and organizer of the LGBT community.

“That shared experience will always be the anchor” of the community, Habijan said. “We know what it’s like to be rejected. We know what it’s like to have nothing. We know the fear of being thrown out of our own homes.”

After being evicted from Justo’s home, some members of the Golden Gays went to homeless shelters, but said they felt unsafe in male dormitories and uncomfortable with the expectation that they would perform religious rituals, as many shelters in the Philippines are run by church-related organizations. In the absence of a traditional family structure, Golden Gays have had to create their own support systems.

During the pandemic, the government banned older Filipinos, who are considered more vulnerable to Covid infection, from leaving their homes. The government also banned large gatherings to prevent further outbreaks, resulting in the suspension of Golden Gays performances.

“The parties ended. There were no more shows. The bars were closed. Where would the money come from? The dancers were the first to be hit by the pandemic,” said Robert Pangilinan, another member of the group, who goes by the stage name of Odessa Jones .

The group survived the pandemic on donations from fans and supporters. “We were loved. The community has not abandoned us,” said Odessa Jones, 55.

The Golden Gays’ house is painted green, the door festooned with rainbow tassels welcoming those who enter. Photographs from concerts decorate the walls. Residents share tasks such as cleaning, cooking and caring for others. Becoming a resident is a very informal process that has changed over the years. People can be referred by other residents, and the door is open for artists who are aging and ask or need shelter.

On a recent afternoon, laughter filled the house along with the bubbling of stew on the stove. Enriquez joined hands with Odessa Jones. A small marble urn sat on a shelf. It contains the ashes of Lola Rica, the resident who generously shared her apartment after the Golden Gays were evicted from Justo’s house in 2021. Lola Rica died during the pandemic.

Because of Covid restrictions, Golden Gays were unable to hold a proper funeral for Lola Rica. One day, when they have money, they dream of going to the beach –perhaps on vacation– dressed in black lace and scattering Lola Rica’s ashes in the sea.

Now that Covid rules have been eased in the Philippines, the Golden Gays have returned to the stage. On a recent humid Sunday, in an unassuming Manila shopping mall, they prepared for a concert, wearing elaborate makeup and glittering dresses. Nowadays, these preparations require a little more effort. Enriquez can’t bend down to put on high heels. Lola Mon sometimes needs support to get on stage. A new generation –the Silver Gays– became central to the show.

Golden Gay performances are usually contests during which each lola displays a talent, such as doing somersaults in high heels or lip-synching to songs. Mall-goers stop by to have a look. Your eyes shine. The shows are reminiscent of Filipino fiesta culture, where each neighborhood celebrates the festivities of a patron saint.

“It’s cheerful,” said Odessa Jones. “I missed the applause and screams from the audience. I have boundless energy because I want to show people that we’re still alive.”

As the show ended that Sunday, the Golden Gays held hands as they sang “If We Hold on Together” by Diana Ross. After the show, they went home to celebrate the performance with beer. “Our home is beautiful because it is where complete love exists,” said Lola Mon. “Love flows between us. Our camaraderie is total, and since we’re together all the time, our companionship is solid.”

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