Not far from the airport, Rey “Beyoncé” Ravago pays $120 a month to rent a rundown ground-floor apartment in which four people can sleep. He affords it by making in-calls for massages but still has to put money aside for his hyperthyroidism treatment, which is getting worse as he ages. The apartment is one of the transient shelters and meeting places used by the group, known as the Home for the Golden Gays (or Golden Gays for short).
These drag shows aren’t just for fun: They bring with them the promise of free lunch and two to three days’ worth of groceries from local sponsors, mostly big companies looking to make good on corporate social responsibility initiatives. Often, those companies are call centers—ubiquitous across the Philippines capital.
“We call ourselves lolas in Tagalog, and that’s equivalent to ‘grandma’ in English,” said Ramon Busa, the group organizer for the Golden Gays. “Many call us ‘butterflies in disguise’ at an event, because we’re in our best outfits.”
“Their families no longer want to care for them when they’re older,” Busa said. “When a gay older man cannot provide financial assistance to his family, they start treating him badly, and it comes to the point where they no longer talk to him. He has no option but to leave, and without a place to go, he stays on the street.”
Today, the Golden Gays perform on the third floor of a restaurant called Savor, overlooking a steamy, gridlocked corner of Metro Manila’s Pasay City. Their former performance venue, not far away, burned to the ground in February, along with many of their costumes and accessories. Their hope is to be booked for three performances a month—”a blessing,“ Busa said—but usually, it ends up being one or two.
“For elderly LGBTQ people, it’s all the more difficult to live independently because of workplace discrimination—for one, they’re discriminated against because they’re gay, and two, because they’re beyond the productive working age,” said Rosalie Quilicol, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Philippines-Diliman. “It’s a double whammy.”
Aging here, whether gay or not, can be difficult for the working class. “Here in the Philippines, we have this concept of the family system: The elderly basically depend on the earnings of family members. Of course, there are some who are abandoned by their own families, and some are even left to roam the streets,” said Quilicol.
For June “Maruja” Santos, drag also provides a glimmer of happiness in an otherwise difficult life. He lost his parents at the age of seven and has struggled to make money since. He told me his apartment doesn’t have a roof, and when he’s not working—offering haircuts and manicures to a few clients at their homes—he’ll try to spend the day under shelter at Ravago’s.
As the suffocating April heat sets in just past 3 PM, Santos is in and out of sleep. “I’m old, but I’m so very beautiful right now, and I like dancing because I feel pretty,” Santos said, standing up and showcasing his self-proclaimed 25-inch waist. “This is my new family.”