Al Enriquez sheds his threadbare street vendor clothes like dead skin and develops a voguish, winking air once he slips into a gauzy gown and wig of tight blond curls.
He is 82 years old and is one of the stars in a beauty pageant for elderly and poor gay men that is about to start in a banquet hall on a rundown Manila street.
However, this is not a rowdy, hooting drag show for tourists — instead it is part of the decades-long work of a collective of men like him to take care of their own.
They call themselves the Golden Gays and they mean it.
“When I’m dressed like this I feel ecstatic and I feel that I don’t have any sadness in me,” Enriquez told reporters. “I’m gay and I’m not embarrassed that I’m gay.”
The Philippines has a reputation of openness toward homosexuality, but experts said that legal protections are lacking and the nation’s weak social safety net especially fails older gay people.
That is why the Golden Gays have recruited corporate and private sponsors, who pay for their members to get a decent lunch and a few days’ worth of groceries after the pageants, which they hold at least once a month.
“The show is just our way of saying thank you,” said Ramon Busa, the group’s 68-year-old organizer, known as Monique de la Rue once in heels and makeup.
Most of the 48 members are in their 60s and are among the millions of Filipinos who survive on less than US$5 per day. In everyday life they are dishwashers, street hawkers or scavengers, but for the afternoon, the door will be closed on reality.
Ahead of the performance, the air in the room smells of perfume and the fried food that is to be served for lunch. The men tug their dresses into place and scrutinize themselves in handheld mirrors.
The show starts with music firing at distortion volume from battered speakers as the 18 performers shimmy down the catwalk and strike poses — or land on the laps of the dozen or so friends and supporters in the audience.
The shows have been going on for years, but the Golden Gays’ roots are even deeper.
Back in the mid-1970s, they got their start in Manila’s urban sprawl as the Home for the Golden Gays — a house where homeless or poor older gay men could spend the night.
However, the home belonged to their founder, activist and columnist Justo Justo, and when he died in 2012, his family evicted the group within days.
This setback did not break up the group, which serves as the family that many of its members do not have.
Federico Ramasamy, a long-time Golden Gay, was rejected by his parents once they learned of his sexuality. He made his way to Manila and never looked back.
“I was born in the late ’50s, so family values were very high,” he said. “My mother was very, very angry at me when she learned that I was a gay. She sent me away.”
The Golden Gays became his family and a refuge from the real life in which he makes about two US dollars a day for a 15-hour shift as a dishwasher.
“But I feel good, especially when it comes to what happened today, the Golden Gays. We all get together,” Ramasamy, 60, said after the pageant.
The age and precarious lives of the Golden Gays mean that the group has lost more than a few members to death. The most recent loss was 71-year-old George Fernandez, who died last month of a blood infection.
Anthropologist Michael Tan said life is a struggle for elderly Filipinos in general, because social safety nets like pensions and healthcare are quite weak compared to those in more developed nations.
However, “it is worse for gay men because of heightened vulnerabilities: not having children to turn to — although many do support nephews and nieces or have adopted children — and again being vulnerable to violence,” he said.
Busa shrugged at the challenges of life, saying that what the group really needs is a permanent new home — preferably paid for by a generous benefactor.
With or without a house of their own, the Golden Gays will survive, he said.
“That’s how we live — hand to mouth — but we have to maintain our poise, our will to live,” Busa said. “It’s truly difficult, but there’s no choice.”
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