On the sweltering streets of Metro Manila, where about a third of the population lives in poverty and the average salary is less than $10 a day, some of the toughest Filipinos you'll find are a close group of gay men, aged 60 and older, who perform in drag.
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."
The Home for the Golden Gays used to be an actual home. First established in 1975 by Justo Justo, a well-known LGBTQ rights activist in the Philippines, it was a retirement home for gay senior citizens with little money and nowhere else to turn. These days, the "home" in their name is an ironic designation—just a day after Justo passed away in 2012, his family evicted the Golden Gays.
Today, they scrape by and live in transient shelters paid for by members like Ravago. "Many stay on the streets, too," Busa told me.
To supplement their performances, many of the 48 current members take up jobs as junk collectors, street sweepers, or roadside cigarette hawkers. As they struggle in old age to make enough money to survive, many share similar stories of how they came to live amid serious economic difficulty.
"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.
An estimated 1.3 million senior citizens live in poverty in the Philippines. Quilicol added that while many comprehensive studies in the Philippines have focused on marginalization and poverty among the elderly there, few to none have specifically studied elderly LGBTQ Filipinos.
Sweating over an electric hot plate in Ravago's apartment, Federico "Rikka" Ramasamy told me his family threw him out when he was just a teenager. Despite what little money he makes as a street sweeper, he prepares us a large pasta meal to show his hospitality.
"I came [to Manila] for education, but I was busy looking for a good guy instead," Ramasamy said. "I left my studies, so my parents got angry, and they threw me away: 'Go away, go on your own.'"
Despite a lifetime of economic hardship, Ramasamy said he finds happiness in the Golden Gays' drag performances. He's a singer and especially enjoys memorizing lyrics in Spanish and different Asian languages. Though faced with the reality of sweeping streets for the remainder of his twilight years, Ramasamy, a devout Catholic, isn't fazed.
"All that matters in my life I put in the hands of God. He created me, so has the right to kill me," Ramasamy said. "I'm not afraid of getting older every day—although we don't have a home, still, we survive."
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."
Professor Quilicol isn't optimistic the situation will improve for Filipinos like the Golden Gays, who need to independently support themselves. With millions of working-age citizens pouring out of the country to find employment, she doesn't believe the government will focus on domestic job creation for those already in their twilight years—let alone the elderly LGBTQ population in a largely Catholic, conservative country.
"It's the responsibility of the government to create jobs and make them inclusive—of age, gender, sexuality—but for now that's far fetched," Quilicol said. "With the current government, that's not a priority—Philippines society is very much conservative and unfortunately most of our lawmakers in Congress are male and traditional."
The Golden Gays hope that a good Samaritan like Justo will eventually donate a new permanent home to the group. For now, the Golden Gays take comfort in booking drag shows—both for the food and the chance to express their sexuality to applause, rather than ostracism.
"When the lolas are in their beautiful gowns, they feel the world has stopped—they feel aging has stopped," said Busa. "It brings a lot of goodness to the grandmas."