Past glory: Revisiting Malate’s unapologetically queer spaces

The streets of Malate once brought belongingness to the marginalized LGBTQ+ Community—but this vibrancy has been lost through time.

The intersection of Ma. Orosa St. and Juan F. Nakpil St. was once decorated with queer establishments brimming with life.

Today, the Malate district is known for hosting popular tourist spots and for holding a portion of the City of Manila’s university belt. Yet, unbeknown to many, what this bustling business district hides behind its winding roads and busy restaurants is the valuable history of “Gay Malate”. As an area where the LGBTQ+ flocked to, it was once a place where they flourished and sought belongingness.

The Malate area was known for its vibrant nightlife, but the intersection of Ma. Orosa St. and Juan F. Nakpil St. was a spot where queer individuals could be themselves. This landmark queer space piqued the interest of WanderManila, a tour company showcasing the niche cultures of the metro, which led to the establishment of a tour highlighting Gay Malate’s history.

WanderManila head tour guide Benjamin Canapi describes Gay Malate as a “lived experience,” explaining that he felt the sense of community and freedom, even as a cisgender straight male. Their architectural consultant Ysabelle Paula Peñas—whose body of work the Malate tour was based on—furthers that Malate was the “first hotbed, or rather the first center of safe spaces that allowed the queer community to exist.”

While the lively environment has already vanished in the area, filled in by drab concrete, there are those who choose to remember its colorful past and work hard to relive the majesty that once existed in the rugged streets of Gay Malate.

Revelry and refuge

Malate’s roots as a queer space can be traced back to the American colonial period, when soldiers stationed in Intramuros attracted brothel businesses. “They had a roundup of prostitutes in the area…they gave their names, identities, and whatnot,” Peñas narrates. The first narratives of queer activity came with documentation of male sex workers who presented themselves as women.

Eventually, the establishment of businesses such as the sought-after openly gay club Coco Banana caused Malate to flourish in the 1970s. There was also an array of drag performances—the most popular being Queens of the Night where popular drag performers in the metro brought great joy, life, and inspiration to the openness of expression. Interestingly enough, even under the implementation of Martial Law, Gay Malate kept its lights on. Apart from the exhilarating entertainment it offered, it made its way into becoming a safe haven and place of refuge to avoid being caught during the strict periods of curfew.

By the time the 1980s and 1990s rolled around, the district’s heart remained beating. Gay Malate became the place to be, even for those outside the LGBTQ+ community. “I was a college student in the ‘90s, and when I studied in UP (University of the Philippines), I would go to Malate every other Friday even with no money so I could just feel the vibe,” Canapi recalls.

Queer fashion designer Santi Obcena, who used to frequent the area, reminisces his experiences. “Malate was a combination of different places that exist currently in different capacities. It had so many things to offer you in one place,” he explains in Filipino. “Anything that would shock a college mind… it was just there. No shame or anything—that’s what [made] it fun.”

More importantly, Gay Malate became a sanctuary for queer individuals, tucked in the cover of night and away from discriminating eyes. “It was the first center of safe spaces that allowed the queer community to exist,” Peñas notes. “By giving that umbrella of safe spaces, it was the first established queer-coded zone.”

Malate has seen its share of Pride Marches, one of which queer fashion designer Louis Claparols got to live through firsthand. “The one thing I would never forget about my Malate life was my very first gay pride experience,” he recalls, describing how the street of Nakpil was packed with people and featured different stage performances in celebration of Pride. “It was like a moment of acceptance for me. [I was] like, ‘This is who I am,’ ‘this is my tribe.’”

For Obcena, the haven of Malate was more personal—it was where he would go on dates with his first boyfriend. “Malate, for me, was the place where we walked around and knew we weren’t going to see people from his side of the world,” Obcena reminisces. “We would be happy to hold each other’s hand. We [knew] that people…wouldn’t judge us.”

End of an era

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years, the number of hangouts along the legendary streets of Orosa-Nakpil dwindled. By the early 2010s, many of the queer community’s old haunts in Malate like O-Bar, Red Banana, and The Blue Room had either closed or moved to other locations. “I don’t know how it died, it just died quietly,” Obcena reminisces.

Some say the death of Gay Malate is due to the appearance of newer, shinier lounges like those in Bonifacio Global City and Makati. “The emergence of new space, new attractive spaces, [and] the failure of the city government to make adjustments from a business perspective and private consumerism basically killed off Malate as I knew it,” Canapi ventures.

But Peñas outlines other potential causes, saying, “There were a lot of bright queer minds lost to the AIDS pandemic. That also caused fear, stigma within the community.” She also points to an article written by DLSU literature professor Dr. Ronald Baytan on the death of Gay Malate, which argued that the rise of Planet Romeo, a gay dating site, presented gay individuals with a way to safely connect with others online. By 2011, Planet Romeo had around 97,000 members from the Philippines, diminishing the need for Malate’s safe haven.

Still, Malate’s queer spaces remain in the hearts of those who cherished it. Obcena discloses, “Wala namang cautionary tale. Wala namang, ‘we could’ve done this.’ We have no regrets.” But Obcena still yearns for one more night out in the rugged yet magical Malate streets that epitomized freedom and queerness.

(There is no cautionary tale. There is no, ‘we could’ve done this.’)

Walk of pride

The remnants of its past glory are still an object of fascination at the Orosa-Nakpil intersection. Canapi’s tour explores these areas to make the history of Malate tangible. “There’s no beating that from walking along the old quarters and the old cities. [We make] the people touch the wall or smell what’s in there. [We engage] the senses,” he expounds. It makes one appreciate the Filipino queer community’s rich and checkered past. “They (queer people) lived this way. They had these struggles,” Peñas narrates.

More than anything, Gay Malate represents the need for the queer community to have their own spaces. “We need a place to be ourselves, a venue where we know we [are] safe… where we don’t have to worry about being discriminated [against] or abused,” Claparols stresses. Having a place where you, along with many others, can be yourself empowers a budding queer person.

Gay Malate was a welcome break from the world’s indifference toward the queer community. However, Peñas stresses that the LGBTQ+ community is more than just “going to parties [or] going on dates, [as it also] has a purpose.” Obcena chooses to be optimistic, saying, “We [will] get to find each other at the end of the rainbow every time.” The liberating chaos of Gay Malate may have vanished, but its spirit lives on—in the burning resistance of every queer person who fights for their acceptance and their right to be their most authentic selves.

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