Gay pride in a time of gloom: Barely surviving the pandemic
MANILA, Philippines—“Mamang sorbetero, tayo’y sumayaw, kalembang mong hawak, muling ikaway. Batang munti, sa‘yo’y naghihintay, bigyang ligaya ngayong tag-araw.”
(Ice cream vendor, let’s dance. Wave the bell you’re holding. This child is waiting, give him/her happiness this summer.)
These were part of the lyrics of Celeste Legaspi’s song, “Mamang Sorbetero” in 1979. For gay pageant contestants now reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it mirrors their hope and the reason they continue to strive in these dark days.
Odessa Jones, a 55-year-old gay pageant contestant from Manila, said he hoped things will return to how they were before the pandemic as he was “excited to perform again” to bring the “kind of happiness no one else could give.”
A pageant contestant since 1999, Jones, was able to take part in gay pageants across the Philippines, including one in Iriga, Albay, the farthest she had been to join a pageant.
He said contests helped him survive financially, especially because he was also helping his relatives. Joining pageants at least three times a week brings P3,000 to P10,000 in earnings.
“What I’ve been earning from pageants is enough. It has been my source of income and I used it to help my grandchildren, my nephews and nieces,” he said.
However, as the COVID-19 crisis stopped the celebration of fiestas, pageant contenders like Jones started feeling the impact of the catastrophe, prompting them to look for other ways to make ends meet.
He is now with other pageant contenders in a group called Enkangchaka—six people who once filled streets with colorful performances, stories, humor and inspiration.
To survive, the group does online comedy performances at least thrice a week. Viewers are asked to donate money for the performers to earn a living.
Also with Enkangchaka is 57-year-old Angelica Mapanganib who, like Jones, took part in It’s Showtime’s Ms. Q & A segment a few years back.
He started his stint as a pageant contender in 2008 and was able to support his two children—now 28 and 26—through his income from fiestas and as a comedian with a daily salary of P150 to P400.
READ: Miss Gay Manila promotes gender equality
“Pageants helped me a lot because when I perform at fiestas, I can bring home P400,” he said.
He said that COVID-19 made lives “harder”. To have “enough” for each day, he sells doormats, towels, and face masks, saying that as a parent, he needed to fight through the pandemic for his children.
“I am living alone, but I am still helping my children. They are my sons and it is my obligation to assist them. That is why even if they are not asking for any amount of money, I am still giving them help,” he said.
Jones told INQUIRER.net that the past year had been so hard for members of the group, saying, “We lost income, we did not know what to do. We did not know where to get food for each day, especially in the midst of the lockdown last year.”
‘Not that enough’
The pageant contenders said they were thankful that they were able to thrive through online shows since September 2020. From Manila City and Quezon City, they gather in Caloocan City several times a week to have live performances.
However, they said that the income they get from the Facebook-streamed shows are “not that enough” compared to what they earned from pageants and fiesta performances which, they said, gave them work daily, especially during May.
READ: Manila’s ‘Golden Gays’ sing for their supper
“Even if we are doing live performances, what we are earning is still not enough, especially because we also need to divide it among ourselves. It’s really hard to thrive because the income we have now is only for essential needs each day,” said Jones.
This was echoed by Mapanganib who said that the group strives to make ends meet through the P250 to P1,400 income they get from online performances.
READ: Such a drag: Lockdown takes toll on ‘Golden Gays’
Mapanganib said doing online performances does not give them the certainty that they will bring home an income. But there was “no choice”, he said.
“What we are earning in online shows is really small, but we need to persevere because we don’t have any other choice,” he said.
Recently, the group Bayan Muna launched a challenge for people to survive on P1,000 per day, the amount of ayuda, or cash aid, that the Duterte administration was giving individual beneficiaries during ECQ.
But the amount was not enough for 15 days, the duration of the lockdown.
“We are working, but we really don’t expect that we will have earnings immediately. We really need to fight and to try our luck. What we are doing now is really asking for help,” Mapanganib said.
But Jones, Mapanganib, and the rest of Enkangchaka – Izza Baldado, Nademonyo Lustre, Kaye Sementeryo and Papy – are suffering from something more hurting than just lack of income.
Discrimination is cutting them like a knife, the gays said. Even online, the hatred and mockery are attacking their very being.
Lustre said to earn P500, they sometimes have to endure the mockery that people throw their way.
Discrimination against gays in the Philippines is still common, according to 2017 data from Human Rights Watch (HRW). The New York-based group said only 15 percent of Filipinos reside in areas where there are local laws against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
A Fuller Project story by Corinne Redfern in January 2021 said that in the Philippines, since 2010, 50 transgenders had been murdered, “but the real death toll is likely much higher.”
READ: LGBTQ community members hold pride march in Quezon City
Last May 2021, the Commission on Human Rights pushed for passage of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression Equality (Sogie) bill “to provide legal mechanisms to hold to account perpetrators of gender-based discrimination.”
READ: Trans man found dead in QC; childhood friend, 2 others charged
Jones said that people “bashing” gays should realize that what performers do is “not easy.”
“The thing we’re doing is not easy – from putting on our make-up, wearing several costumes, and the most difficult is convincing those sad to be happy,” he said.
For Mapanganib, it is painful to know that most Filipinos still think that what they do is not “work” and that they still see them as “lazy people.”
“It’s really painful. Here, even fellow Filipinos can say hurtful words against us. It looks like they are not thinking of who we are and what we do. We are working not only for ourselves because we also have families to help,” he said.
He said there was a time a viewer told them, “You’re thick-faced and dead for food. Why don’t you work, you, gay assholes?”
‘No other choice’
Contrary to what other people think of gays, they are “hardworking” and this was evident in Mapanganib’s narrative – he worked as a street sweeper while taking part in pageants and fiesta performances.
However, no matter how hard they try to look for other ways to earn a living, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression always comes in the way.
Sementeryo told INQUIRER.net that he previously worked as a dishwasher as he wanted to make enough for his family’s needs, but “who he is” was not acceptable to the business owner who treated him badly.
A 2018 study by the United Nations on discrimination based on Sogie in China, Philippines, and Thailand, showed that 30 percent of respondents in the Philippines reported “being harassed, bullied or discriminated against by others at work.”
Likewise, the same study revealed that 21 percent of the respondents in the Philippines believed that they were “denied a job because of their Sogie.”
The struggle is even harder for Baldado who has been hit with polio since childhood. He previously worked at a parlor, but lost the only job he had when COVID-19 hit and lockdowns forced the closure of non-essential businesses that included parlors.
“Before, I strived hard to make ends meet through my earnings from salon work and pageantry because first of all, I am helping my family and I also need to buy my medicines,” he said.
However, despite the challenges in life, the pageant contenders know how to give back to those in need.
Lustre said, “We want to thank those helping us and we want to also give back to them by making them happy even if sometimes, what we’re doing is physically painful.”
In recent months, they also had relief drives in parts of Metro Manila to help those grappling with the impacts of the health crisis, especially the street dwellers.
For all of them, pageants and fiesta performances have been a “part of their lives,” especially because most gays, they said, have been engaged in more than 100 pageants since the beginning of their stints as pageant contenders.
Pageants helped them “a lot” but it brought them something no one could ever give – happiness in knowing that sadness briefly goes away among people amused by the gays.
Less than two years since the start of the pandemic, the gays continue to pray for one thing—for things to return to how they were when they are able to perform in streets again, wearing their bright clothes and displaying their talent.
The lyrics of “Mamang Sorbetero” inspire them. It’s a song the gays always play at their online shows, an inspiration and mirror of their lives.
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