August 28 marks the first anniversary of the death of Juan Gabriel, one of the most beloved and popular Mexican singer-songwriters of the Spanish-speaking world. He will be remembered for the countless songs in various musical genres that have become iconic standards, for the rags to riches journey of his life story and for the energetic performances that endeared him to audiences across the globe, particularly in Latin America.
But for many LGBTQ Latinos, Juan Gabriel’s flashy personality on the stage offered a level of visibility to feminine mannerisms that were, for the most part, shunned by a culture of strict gender roles and machismo. Juan Gabriel transcended the fear of ridicule and exposure and somehow, he was and is still cherished.
Juan Gabriel — or Juanga — never officially came out as a gay man. It was one of the longest open secrets in the entertainment industry — a don’t-ask-don’t-tell agreement in which his millions of fans were complicit. As a young performer, he evaded any insinuations about his sexual identity. But as he got older, he became coy with his response. “Lo que se ve no se pregunta,” he’d say to uncouth interviewers — what one sees doesn't have to be questioned.
Over the years, Juan Gabriel weathered a number of public scandals created by former employees or alleged lovers who were intent on outing him. But these efforts were short-lived, dismissed by his adoring fans as extortion efforts by opportunists. Juan Gabriel’s reputation was solid and unshakable.
By the time of his death at the age of 66, he had become comfortable in the image he had cultivated; he called out to his audience: “¿Quién se quiere casar conmigo?” Who wants to marry me? And both female and male voices from the crowd would yell out, “Yo!” It seemed that the times had caught up to his sexuality.
In the queer Latino community, there were differences of opinion about Juan Gabriel’s silence. Many pointed to Ricky Martin as a better example. When he came out in 2010, his career didn’t appear to suffer, and suddenly the word “gay,” which had rarely been uttered on Spanish radio or television, became audible and applauded by LGBT groups as a step forward in removing the stigma of gay identity, which was still palpable in the Latino and Latin American communities. Others accepted Juan Gabriel’s decision to keep his sexual identity unnamed as part of his personal journey, one that many were all too familiar with — to remain in the closet also had its complicated reasons.
When I discuss Juanga’s sexuality with non-LGBTQ fans, I usually get some pushback: What does it matter? My immediate answer is that it matters to me.
As a boy growing up in the 1970s, uncertain about my own sexuality, movies and television were unequivocal in their negative portrayals of queer desire and identity. Gay men were outcasts, clowns and predators. They were the punch lines of jokes. Their emotions were two-dimensional, almost non-human, and non-humans were easier to persecute.
I needed to see a role model for a way to exist in the world that was not fraught with danger, isolation, or heartbreak. I needed Juan Gabriel, who expressed merriment and delight.
To that end, I asked a number of other queer Latino writers what Juan Gabriel meant to them. Here are some notable responses, many echoing similar sentiments:
A constant presence
During my childhood, Juan Gabriel was a constant presence in my house. He was on the radio, on the television, on the lips of my relatives when they gossiped or raved about celebrities. I grew up surrounded by his flamboyance. Even before I came out to my family, queerness was already visible in our house. When I did come out to my mother in high school, she was worried what my father would think. Later that night, when he came home from the oil mill, my mother told my father. His response? “So is Juan Gabriel. And look at him. He’s successful and loved, no?” -- Eduardo C. Corral, Chicano poet, author of "Slow Lightning" (Yale University Press, 2012)
No shame, only pride
Juan Gabriel. To begin with, he was born in Juarez, had a home in Juarez and also had a home in El Paso. He loved the border as I love the border, understood the border as I understand the border, lived the people of the border as I live the people of the border. He was an open secret and the straight community adored him because he had the virtue that every Mexican man admires: he had courage. He moved Mexico through his songs, his queerness in every note. He defined his own manhood through a queerness that could not be hidden and could not be denied in a country where men like him were not considered men at all. Macho Mexico's response was simply to return the love he so freely offered in the songs he so passionately sang with every performance. Simply put, a queer became Mexico's voice and inexplicably, there was no shame. There was only pride. How lovely. How very lovely. -- Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Chicano writer and poet, author of numerous books, most recently "The Last Cigarette on Earth" (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017)
My dancing partner
I saw him once, not in concert, but at a McDonald’s right outside of Corpus Christi, Texas. I was too shy to ask him for his autograph but remember thinking Juan Gabriel might be the only musician I have danced to with both my mother and my lovers, men and women. In Mexican living rooms across the U.S., we danced and sang and laughed and cried together, holding each other tightly. His music taught me something about intimacy and joy, heartache and longing, about how to be queer and Mexican, how to love my mother, my lovers, and myself. -- Virginia Grise, Chicana writer and playwright, author of "blu" (Yale University Press, 2011)
'He meant everything to me'
As a closeted queer Latinx, Juanga meant everything to me. His charisma and flamboyance affirmed my own identity, and showed me that a shy brown boy could be artistic, gay, and powerfully influential. -- Alex Espinoza, Chicano writer, author of "Still Water Saints" (Random House, 2007) and "The Five Acts of Diego León" (Random House, 2013)
Not about gender, it's about love
Juan Gabriel broke barriers being himself. The joy that one felt when he began to record is incredible It was a new style that quickly developed as part of the music of Mexican Americans, who were winning the fight for their civil rights, so it was our music. For Chicanos, the art of creating with what you have, no matter how poor it is, and making it beautiful is rasquachi. It's an underdog perspective. This is what Juanga does in his music with incredible grace.
As far as his sexuality, personally, I believe Juanga comes from the lineage of the gay poet Salvador Novo, who was also the chronicler of the capital city life of Mexico City. If you listen carefully to his poetry, especially the work titled "La cuenta perdida," which became famous in the musical repertoire of Lola Beltrán, you can see that Juanga is the prodigy of Novo. His lyrics are poetic and romantic. Its opening line is very Juan Gabriel: "Nos volvimos a encontrar después de tanto.”
The unique quality about the singer/poet is that he doesn’t refer to the other person by gender, which means the relationship could be male-female, male-male or female-female. That is the beauty of Novo, and now Juan Gabriel has done it, to make beautiful music that is inclusive of all human experiences and emotions. As Juanga laments in his LGBT paean: “Pero qué necesidad.” --Gregg Barrios, Chicano poet, journalist and playwright, author of "I-DJ" (Hansen Publishing, 2015)
One day, it would be okay
Juan Gabriel was the kind of gay my mother could love and one I was not: a twirling sequined sensation who adored mothers and sang to them about their dead children. To her, he was that someone who told his lover to go to hell and al fin que ni te quería anyway, (in the end he didn't love you anyway), all of which were songs she could not sing herself.
For me, Juan Gabriel's millions of adoring mothers sent a signal to the quiet queer girl in me that one day, it would be okay to say, Mami, you know how you don't care that Juan Gabriel is gay? Can you love me like that too? I didn't have the language to identify as queer until I could buy my own Juan Gabriel Bellas Artes CDs. By then, I was singing his songs at gay bars, Esta Noche in San Francisco or Arena in LA, with all the rest of his queer fans who knew his songs by heart. --Vickie Vértiz, Chicana poet, author of "Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut" (University of Arizona Press, 2017)
He taught me I could be loved
Growing up, there were so many people that made me feel I had to hide the things about me that were different, but Juanga taught me those were the very things that made me special. He taught me I could glitter and be respected, admired, celebrated…even loved! --Roberto F. Santiago, Puerto Rican poet, author of "Angel Park" (Tincture/ Lethe Press, 2015)
An important connection to our homeland
When our artistic idols die, they leave us the lasting beauty of their work, which will continue to entertain and inspire. Juan Gabriel will certainly be one of those timeless talents, whose lyrics and music appealed to a range of identities. But for many of us who identify as immigrant and/or queer, he was also an important connection to a homeland, a language, and a cultural landscape that we reached for during our loneliest and most vulnerable moments, but also during moments of triumph and joy. Gracias, Juanga.