Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Golden Gays

Photographer captures the lost legacy of Justo Justo's Filipino Home of the Golden Gays


Queer aging and place -- this is what I thought reading this beautiful piece published by the The Independent.  By place, I mean not only our home, but also the idea of cultures and societies shaping the way we age and express our gender.

In the Seventies, Filipino activist Justo Justo opened a care home for elderly gay people in the city of Pasay. When he died in 2012, the home went with him. So what happened to its residents? 

In 1975, Justo Justo, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) spokesperson and columnist, founded the Home of the Golden Gays, a care facility for elderly homosexuals in the city of Pasay, the Philippines. A prominent voice in the promotion of equal rights and Aids awareness, Justo popularised the gay lingo 'Swardspeak' – a playful combination of Tagalog, Spanish and English littered with references to Mariah Carey, the playwright Noël Coward and items from the McDonald's menu. His optimistic campaign, characterised not just by this, but by his get-up too – the kiss-curl and the TV-friendly smile – attracted scores of ageing gay men to the refuge for over three decades. These included Walter J Dempsey, whose ordeal as a sex slave held by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War is retold in the Filipino film, Markova: Comfort Gay (2001).

Until Justo Justo's death in May 2012, the Home of the Golden Gays offered security, freedom of expression and a sense of community to the gay and poor elders of the Manila community, who are not subject to a real state pension scheme. Yet with the personal bond between its founder and landlord extinguished, residents were forced to disband, leaving Ramon Busa, a disciple of Justo's, to take the group's reigns.

Photographer Esther Theaker found herself working in the Philippines in 2012 and became interested in the lo-fi gay-bar scene, much less brash and explicit than she had experienced in Thailand. In April 2013, she made a return to Pasay to document the beauty pageant of the Golden Gays. Held at a local high-school, thanks to the support of its sympathetic principal, the pictures capture a culture indebted to American pop-culture, of playful one-upmanship and inner strength as members of the group, referred to as the 'Lolas', took to the stage to parade their looks.
 "Watching the Lolas transform into their characters was unlike anything I had ever seen," Theaker says. "There's a professional poise and precision with which they assemble their looks. They might not have a home but they have a shared aesthetic and attitude. At the pageant itself, the Lola's sing and dance to recent pop songs. Despite the adversity they face, the atmosphere is decidedly upbeat."

These gatherings take place every few months and are the sole opportunity for the wider community of the Golden Gays to meet, with clothes and make-up supplied by donors who are invited to serve on a panel of judges.

"We have five winners, because I could only afford five crowns from the shop," the group's leader Busa tells me, laughing. "For the non-winners, I don't want them to go home with tears in their eyes, so we give them a reasonable amount – around 300 peso [approximately £4] for their efforts, because in older age, putting on make-up and wearing high heels for three hours can be difficult."

That said, the Golden Gays' oldest member, 87-year-old Mother Leone, can still walk the ramp for three solid hours. Another of the group's oldest members, seen here in a white wedding-style dress and blue eyeshadow (who wished to remain anonymous) exemplifies for Theaker the dignity and poise of the whole community. The 148 members are now divided into two tiers of 'golden girls' (aged 61 upwards) and 'silver girls' (45 upwards), the former of which passes down knowledge in a mentoring capacity which Busa hopes will ensure the Golden Gays' legacy is carried forward into future generations.

'Resident giving the peace sign' (Esther Theaker) 
'Resident giving the peace sign' (Esther Theaker)

"All of the Golden Gays take strength from wearing these beautiful clothes and accessories," he explains. "It's a strength that helps them to survive. We are the only group to have lasted this long and remained this healthy. Disease does not hold us back, despite being given no attention by the government. We have survived all the worst odds in life. We are survivors and we achieve this through awareness. Our Facebook group and website is updated with news concerning health and LGBT rights, which is a great resource for our members, and means that we are now a leader for other groups."

Tenacity on the part of Busa following the loss of the Golden Gays' permanent facility has led to him harnessing modern technology and widening the group's reach to deliver important LGBT messaging to a bigger audience.

"It is important that people can see that we are still going," Busa explains. "We don't want to be cut off from the rest of the world, and for that we need to remain healthy and engaged. We are always bringing in new members for the sake of ensuring that our legacy lives on. We want to inspire young gay people to look after themselves – to show them that they can live and be beautiful far into old age."

Yet the necessity to replace the permanent facility and offer the elderly LGBT community in Pasay a place of shelter must not be downplayed. While the Philippines, as a Catholic and relatively matriarchal society compared to many neighbouring East Asian states, is relatively progressive in its attitude towards the gay community, it is by no means free of prejudice. Busa tells me that it is common for health attendants to ridicule the gay community who rely on their services, and for the LGBT community to encounter verbal and physical abuse in public bathrooms.

After they were forced to leave the permanent facility, many members of the Golden Gays returned to the streets of Pasay, where they sleep in doorways of malls or abandoned tower blocks.

"They find their own place under the Moon," Busa tells me. "Unless it is raining, then they must take refuge under a bridge."

Theaker explains that, in lieu of a physical headquarters, the distinctive look of the Golden Gays is tantamount to keeping their community together – but it is small compensation. Without the requisite financial support, the bright flame of the Golden Gays could soon be reduced to little more than an ember.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Old Dogs & New Tricks

This TV series is marketed as a comedy about the (sex) and life of middle aged gay men. I wanted to like it and gave it a two full seasons try. Then I stopped. I couldn’t waste more of time watching this failed attempt of gay humor.

The premise of the show is that in gay culture there is no sex or life after middle age. The series, then, provides a view (humorous, supposedly) at the lives of four gay men aged 50 and older. The characters are a poor copy of those in Sex and the City. 

These four gay men live in West Hollywood and somehow magically they have a middle class life. And what we see in their lives (hence, the lives of older gay men) is quite predictable: sex, penis obsession, Viagra, plastic surgery, Botox, drugs and alcohol, and night clubs. I am sure these could be excellent elements for comedy, but not in Old Dogs & New Tricks. The dialog is campy, clichéd, and old.
One scene I found amusing: Greg Louganis doing somersault dive. That’s all. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Old Age Trumps Gay

My husband and I went to the movies on a Saturday night. We went to see Love is Strange, which is being sold as the Hollywood “old gay couple” movie of the summer.

We walk into the theater about fifteen minutes before the start of the show. In the tiny audience, we spot older male/female couples (whom we assume are heterosexual) and a lonely middle age man sitting apart –whom we label a gay man. “Hum, interesting,” we wonder. We sit with our popcorn and drinks on hand. More people walk in as the previews roll: one middle age or senior heterosexual couple after the other. We become curious, checking out every soul in the theater. “Are we the only gay couple?” My husband is freaking out. “Yes, honey, we have become irrelevant.”

Time passes and we get nervous. The movie will start soon and there only three gay people in the theater. My husband gets up: “Let’s make sure we are in the right theater.” I open my Fandango app in my iPhone to double check. This is not a mistake. The lights dim. Then we see two guys (pretty sure they are gay, but perhaps not a couple) walk in. We want to wave at them: “C’mon boys, sit here, this is the gay row!” Another two guys walk in soon after; that’s it.

In a strange cinematic-like twist, we were the minority (again, or still). The gay-themed movie was a product of heterosexual culture – for the pleasure of mainstream audiences. I remembered a similar, but lesser, effect with Brokeback Mountain (2005): heterosexual audiences filling up movie theaters. We, gay people, in Hollywood movies, are not threatening. We are likeable and even lovable – especially if we are the loving-couple-type or the vulnerable-asexual-senior-citizen-type. And Hollywood movies at times mirror reality.

This wasn’t the movie my husband and I came to watch, in more than one way. Maybe we were naïve. We left wondering what was “gay” about the movie.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

John D'Emilio: A Voice from the Stonewall Generation

“Think about what happens when gay means white. It makes gay a form of wealth and privilege.”

 John D’Emilio, in his latest book, In a New Century: Essays on Queer History, Politics, and Community Life, is more critical, reflective, provocative, and personal than his previous work. He passionately points to the limitations and unintended consequences of the LGBT movement – as illustrated in the above quote. The claims of rights and the fight for acceptance has consolidated  the whiteness of being LGBT by ignoring the profound inequalities based on social class and race and neglecting the diversity of expression of same sex love and desire within and outside LGBT communities. 

In one of the best executed and most passionate essays in this collection, he makes a solid argument against same-sex marriage. “Marriage simply confirms and extends [middle and upper classes] already privileged status,” D’Emilio concludes. He brings history, demography, politics, and economics to make his case. His voice is deeply personal, scholarly, and persuasive. I, a married and a father gay man, am on this side of the argument. Marriage does not open up possibilities for all of us to pursue justice, happiness, and well-being, rather, it reduces them. To be clear, I married the love of my life, but the institution of marriage has little or nothing to do with our love.

D’Emilio also critically reflects on the history and story we, LGBT scholars, have created and told. The work we have produced around the lives of LGBT folks, he proposes, has remained outside the large history of the US. While perhaps that was needed in the 1960s and 1970s, we now need to bring in the national (and, I would argue, transnational) forces that have shaped the LGBT movement: “If we embed queer stories in a larger political economy, a larger national political history, they will become lees separated and less self-ghettoized, and instead become seen as integral to, more connected to, and more essential for understanding broader narratives of US history.”

In A New Century, I discovered D’Emilio’s trajectory as a scholar and as a gay person-- both of which are entangled. His writing is personal and insightful. As an academic and gay person myself, I found in this book an inspiring colleague, mentor, and leader. Students of history will see the inner and behind-the-scenes work of a historian.

I was surprised to read much of what D’Emilio writes about as “history.” The moments that once were beyond my imagination and those in which I was living have become history: AIDS and same-sex marriage. I was reminded of the marvelous potential meaning of our present. Our daily lives, work and queerness in the world and in our communities, in the center and in the margins, all becomes part of history, our history.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The AIDS Generation

“I think oh thank God, there’s other people who are there, who saw it, who know it, who lived through because we are few and between.” (Kerry, p. 121).

Mr. Kerry is one of the participants interviewed for The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience, by Perry N. Halkitis (Oxford University Press, 2014). I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to those of you interested in AIDS, gay men's health, gerontology, psychology, and social work. You can read my full review published by AIDS Education and Prevention.