By Kelli Korducki
When one mentions “the Ethnic” in the same breath as anything related to “the gays,” there are certain things we (as in, the royal, reading-this-right-now “we”) tend to expect. Attitudes influenced by religious and cultural conservatism, for instance. I’m not going to get into that, though. Instead, I’m going to talk about Juan Gabriel.
Juan Gabriel is the longtime darling of Mexican balladry and is, as my friend Bill would say, queer as a two dollar bill. At least, unofficially.
“Lo que se ve no se pregunta,” says Gabriel whenever questioned over his sexual orientation. Translation: “You don’t ask what is obvious.” From that, one might deduce a further translation along the lines of: “Mind your own business, asshole.”
Juan Gabriel began his career over 40 years ago singing primarily in the Ranchera and Mariachi styles—genres that, despite a predominance of men in shiny outfits crooning about their feelings, rely on a pretty thick patina of old timey machismo. The incongruity of the effeminate Gabriel, not only accepted but universally beloved within a realm of puffed chests and unironic moustaches, has always fascinated me. This, considering that “gay” was something that didn’t exist in the public sphere of Latin American pop consciousness until very recently.
To gain a better understanding of Juan Gabriel’s public sexuality, from a cultural and historical perspective, I called upon years of studied knowledge from a veritable subject expert in Latino pop culture.
My mother was more than pleased to receive my call.
But my dad was also on the phone (they do that parent thing with the two receivers). He’s a subject expert too, I guess. A Gringo-Latino pop culture ambassador of sorts, Rick Korducki was eager to give his own two–okay, 20–cents on the matter.
“I’ve been having this conversation for 30 years!” said Rick.
Rick launched into an anecdote about his friend Pepe, a Puerto Rican dude who, like everyone else in the Latin world, couldn’t get enough Juan Gabriel back in the 1980s. “We would talk about Juan Gabriel, and Pepe was like, ‘Yes, he’s gay. But he’s not gay. Okay?’”
“But they call him Juanga!” interrupted my mother, pointing out an apparently common colloquial feminizing of the artist’s name. “Google about him, and you’ll find lots of things.”
“Now you’ll hear that.” Rick again. “Attitudes are changing. There’s especially more acceptence about people being gay in the celebrity community among Latinos. [But in the past] people knew, and would acknowledge, that Juan Gabriel was gay. There was kind of like this agreement, ‘Let’s all pretend that he’s not. Let’s give him a pass.’” He addressed my mother. “Verdad, Mamita?”
“He’s a great artist. He writes great songs, he sings great songs, and the people love him.” This was my mother’s way of agreeing.
“Juan Gabriel is the Johnny Mathis of the Latino world. I mean, Johnny Mathis–people kinda knew what was going on with him even if they didn’t say it outright.”
Get out of here, Rick. Mama, what do you think? If Juan Gabriel had started his career today, would he be public about his sexuality?
“I think so.” She paused. “Yes. Everybody knows about his romances with other men anyway. Times have changed.”
And they have, somewhat. Ricky Martin came out last year, which was a really big deal. There are regularly gay characters on telenovelas now and, even though they are almost exclusively draggy excuses for wardrobe department fun, they do exist. It’s getting easier to forget about the deeply entrenched Catholic values and leftover hacienda patriarchy that, as I said earlier, I’d rather not get into. Then again, there’s also queer, Toronto-based Nicaraguan artist Alvaro Orozco, who just narrowly avoided deportation from Canada on the grounds of humanitarian claims because being out in Latin America still carries major threats. It’s a sticky subject. Not everyone is so fortunate to get a pass.
While writing this, I YouTubed some Juan Gabriel to get into the right headspace. There’s a lot of him on there, if you’re curious, but I was drawn to a familiar recording of his Mariachi classic Inocente Pobre Amigo. The top comment below the video box reads: “Los que critican su sexualidad no tienen ni derecho limpiarle los zapatos a este gran canta autor.” ‘Those who criticize this great artist’s sexuality aren’t even fit to clean his shoes.’ It’s gotten 91 thumbs up.