Fire razes Home for the Golden Gays

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By Cody Cepeda | Special to the BusinessMirror

IN one of the noisy street alleys of Pasay, just past Andres Bonifacio Elementary School (ABES), sits a burned, dilapidated house. There is a grim and despondent air to it, for what was once filled with singing, laughter and playful bickering is now deserted by its former tenants, only occupied by the handful of construction workers overhauling the property.

This empty shell of a house used to be a home—the home—of the Golden Gays, a refuge for vulnerable and elderly gays endearingly called the lolas.  An unforgiving fire ravaged last year the home of the Golden Gays on February 17, and took with it not just their makeup, wigs and gowns, but also their most treasured photo albums that curated years of precious, immeasurable memories.

Federico de los Santos Ramasamy, known to most as Lola Rica, sits on a plastic chair inside an abandoned barangay outpost just a stone’s throw away from the ABES, the makeshift evacuation center of those victimized by the neighborhood fire.

Lola Rica welcomingly gave a wrinkly smile.

“Bata pa lang ako nakikitaan na ako ng magulang ko, lalo ng nanay ko, na may pagkabading ako,” he began his story, recalling the early days of his childhood. “Nag-aral ako ng Grade 1 sa Zamboanga City High School. Sumasali ako sa mga children’s hour, at katunayan nga, eh, naging champion ako sa dance contest for eight weeks!”

Life had never been easy for Lola Rica. He has been working to support his family as early as Grade 4; he sold nutribun to his classmates, and he was a kargador in the wet market and pier. He gave his mother everything he earned. “’Di ako madamot sa pera. Hanggang ngayon, ganoon pa rin ako.”

Despite the responsibilities he had to take early on, he still has memories he loves to reminisce. “Noong Grade 6 na ako, kadalasan diyan tuwing Sunday may mga pasayawan ng mga babae’t lalaki. Nanunuood ako diyan. Nakikita ko ’yung mga babae naka-lipstick, mga nakasuot ng palda.”

He had an older sister, Ate Stella, and he remembers she only wore petticoats. “One time, sinubukan ko sukatin ’yung palda niya, tapos nag-lipstick ako. Nahuli kaya ako ng nanay ko. Alam niyo ba kung ano ginawa sa akin ng nanay ko?”

He was met with vicious profanities, and slaps and blows to the face. His mother was furious, so furious that when his father came home, she divulged her discovery to him.

“Wala akong kamalay-malay. Naramdaman ko na lang iyong hampas ng upuan sa likod ko.” He remembers running out of the house and seeking refuge in the nuns’ school, hiding behind the flag pole where he cried all afternoon until he was discovered by the security guard.

The security guard brought him to the Madre Superiora and, from there, they escorted him back home to talk to his parents. He thought the anger had ebbed away, but on his elementary graduation, he remembers wearing the same thing he wore to school every day: an old T-shirt, khaki pants and a pair of tsinelas—unlike his classmates, who wore brand-new, long-sleeved polos adorned with orchids given by their parents.

Lola Rica entered high school, and continued to moonlight despite being a full-time student. He worked as a shoeshine boy, a household helper and sold ice cream and newspapers until dark. But every night, after he packed up his wares, he would pass by the local bakery and buy, with his earnings, monggo ensaymada for his mother.

One day, his mother wrote a letter to his sisters who lived in Manila. They worked in clubs, Lola Rica said, and supported their family.

With a catch in his throat, Lola Rica said his mother preferred to send him away than watch him become gay. He paused to wipe his tears away, and took a sip from his giant water  bottle. “Ang diskriminasyon kasi sa akin nag-umpisa talaga sa loob ng bahay. Masakit man tanggapin, minsan naiiyak ako, kasi ’di ko nakamtan ang pagmamahal ng magulang.”

He was enrolled in Arellano University, near Taft, and recalls being very silent, because he didn’t know much Tagalog. On his senior year, he met a friend whom he refuses to name, because this particular friend comes from a rich family, and is now working as a professional.

This friend, Lola Rica said, is special to him. “Siya ang nagturo sa akin kung paano ipaglaban ang nararamdaman ko. Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Bakit ’di mo ipakita sa mundo kung ano ka? Bakit  kailangan mo pa itago?’ Siya ang nagbigay ng lakas ng loob sa akin.”

He realized his friend had a point. “Bakit hindi? Wala naman ang nanay ko dito. Takot na takot kasi ako sa nanay ko.”

They became best friends and would often explore different places together, to the point that they would skip school every day. “Naglalakwatsa kami diyan sa Manila Zoo, sa San Andres, lakad kami sa Boulevard papuntang Luneta.” They would attend parties wearing women’s clothes and makeup, and they would dance their worries away. Then, he would go home, pretending he came from school.

This became regular for the two of them until the school director sent a letter to his sisters because of his continued absence. “Iyon pala dropout na ako. Tinanggal na ako.”

His sisters were livid and made him do all the household work. Lola Rica’s curiosity for the great, wide world didn’t wane, however, for every time he’d finish cleaning the house, he would venture out and walk to his favorite places.

By this time, he had made friends with other gays and would attend beauty contests for gays in Pasig, Bulacan, Taguig and even Cavite. He rarely went home and slept in the houses of friends.

“Umuwi ako isang araw. Nagpalipas lang ako ng ilang araw sa bahay. Dumating ang nanay ko,” Lola Rica said. It was 10 a.m. on a Sunday, and he was cleaning upstairs when he heard his mother’s voice. “Tuwang-tuwa ako kasi makikita ko na ulit iyong nanay ko!”

His mother didn’t share the same sentiments, though. “Pinagmumura ako ng nanay ko. Pinagsasampal. Tinulak ako palabas ng bahay. Sabi niya, ‘Lumayas ka! Umalis ka!’” His sisters sat in silence, while his mother threw his clothes out of the house.

“Isinara niya iyong pinto. Ginawa ko, umiyak ako nang umiyak. Tapos naglakad-lakad ako sa Luneta. Doon ako pumunta; bitbit ko mga damit ko sa isang plastic bag.”

Lola Rica then spent the next seven years in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) living under a tree. This stint ended when police officers conducted a saturation drive around the area; out of his immense fear for authorities, Lola Rica ran, leaving his makeshift home behind.

He thought of going back home the next day, but as he crossed the San Isidro church, he bumped into a stranger who called out to him, “Hoy, bakla! Saan ka umuuwi?”

 “Sabi ko, wala naman ako inuuwian. Wala akong bahay,” Lola Rica said, but the stranger was persistent. “Sabi niya, ‘Meron, may bahay ka. Sumama ka sa akin.’”

The stranger was Councilor Justo Justo (JJ), who brought Lola Rica to the Home of the Golden Gays. Once he was washed, clothed and fed, he was sent to Councilor JJ’s office.

“Kinausap niya ako. Tinanong niya ako kung ano’ng pangalan ko,” Lola Rica said. It was at that moment when Councilor JJ told him he would be called Rica from now on.

“Nabago ang buong mundo ko dahil diyan sa founder namin. Tinuruan niya ako magdasal, kung paano maging malapit sa Diyos.” Lola Rica also learned from Councilor JJ how to always think of doing the right thing, and to never put hatred in his heart.

Life in the Home for the Golden Gays was filled with happy memories; they would often get local and international sponsors, and hold beauty contests for all the lola to participate in. But happiness, it seemed, had no favorites, and wasn’t always on their side.

While commuting one day, Councilor JJ fell from the jeepney and damaged his spinal column; this left him bedridden for the remainder of his life, with Lola Rica acting as his caregiver until his demise in 2012.

“That time noong nakaburol siya, na-interview kami lahat ng TV and radio stations. Marami rin kaming naging documentaries sa ibang bansa,” Lola Rica said.

During the wake, Councilor JJ’s family was interviewed by GMA 7. When asked of their plans after the burial, Councilor JJ’s family said they would be closing the doors of the Home for the Golden Gays.

“No choice kami. Kinabukasan, larga kami,” Lola Rica said sadly, but there was no bitterness in his voice.

Lola Rica was offered by the barangay captain to be a sweeper. For P1,000 a month, he would sweep the neighborhood. Time passed and he was allowed to sleep in the dilapidated house that stored the equipment of the barangay and—eventually—became the meeting place for the Golden Gays.

This, again, was short-lived when the fire engulfed the house last month. They were, once again, homeless. While Lola Rica was given the old outpost by the baranggay captain to sleep in, the other lola were forced to move back home to their families, while some went back to living in the streets.

“Kaya ngayon, heto ako, ang lola niyo,” Lola Rica laughed, his whole face wrinkling as he did. He sat with his legs crossed, wearing a plain shirt, Hawaiian shorts and a pair of tsinelas. The outpost was dim, cramped and far too tiny; the small amount of sunlight through the grilled windows cast a shadow on his face.

Lola Rica’s voice was suddenly firm and serious, “Kailangan life must go on, no matter what. Kahit anong mangyari sa buhay mo, you have to move on.”

He then broke out of character, going back to his normal self—full and comical, his voice with that familiar, endearing twang. “Kahit ganoon ang naranasan ko sa buhay ko, I am still strong, young and beautiful!”

Life never owed Lola Rica and the Golden Gays anything, but they seemed to have withstood every curveball that came their way. This, Lola Rica ends with finality, is out of their respect and immense love for each other. “Kailangan magmahalan kami dahil walang ibang tutulong sa amin kundi tayo-tayo rin. Alam naman ninyo na iba ang pagtingin sa amin ng mga tao.”

The future of the Golden Gays remains on tender ground, and they live with no certainty for what else is to come, but if there is anything that is a sure-tell sign of how they would handle this adversity, it would be the times they carried themselves—and each other—through their darkest hours. They never cursed at the wind and at the Man Above, never demanded more from the world despite being shortchanged and discriminated most of their lives. In their darkest hours, they choose to look for beauty—beauty, in this life.

Perhaps, there is one thing certain, after all: There is no storm the Golden Gays cannot weather.

 

 

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