Disco is a genre of dance music containing elements of funk, soul, pop, and salsa. It achieved popularity during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. It was popular with both men and women, from many different backgrounds.
With his glittery capes, slinky dance moves and ultra-romantic lyrics, Mexican superstar Juan Gabriel was an unlikely king in a country known for its machismo. He never spoke about his sexuality, yet was widely assumed to be gay. It’s no surprise that the singer was an icon in Mexico’s gay subculture.
Having sold over 100 million copies worldwide, Gabriel is among Latin America’s best-selling singer-songwriters. His eighteenth studio album, Recuerdos, Vol. II, holds the distinction of being the best-selling album of all-time in Mexico, with over eight million copies sold.
During his career, Gabriel wrote around 1,800 songs. Releasing 35 albums over the course of his45-year career, he became beloved by multiple generations of fans in Latin America, Spain and the United States. His genres varied widely, from mariachi to salsa to disco.
In 2002, a few years before Mexico City legalized gay marriage, the famously effeminate singer shut down a journalist who asked if he was gay. “You don’t ask about what can be seen,” he said.
Although Gabriel never publicly claimed the gay community, that community certainly claimed him, with his romantic Spanish-language ballads belted late into the night in drag bars on both sides of the border.
Many have credited Juan Gabriel with opening the door to greater expression of gender and sexuality, even if he never explicitly called for it. Like Prince, or David Bowie, Juan Gabriel was known for his gender-bending clothing and occasional touch of eye makeup.
“I think he made a deep cultural change not by talking about his sexuality but by living it out on stage,” said Alejandro Madrazo, a law professor in Mexico who is an expert on the legal battle for same-sex marriage in the country. “Juan Gabriel taught us how to be feminine.”
Madrazo recalled seeing Juan Gabriel perform before a large crowd at a cockfight, a sport that exemplifies Mexico’s machismo culture.
“He would dance in a way that was sexy and provocative in front of all these stereotypes of a Mexican man,” Madrazo said. “He would literally shake … in their faces, and they would go crazy.”
In an homage to Juan Gabriel published on the website of Mexico’s Millenio newspaper, journalist Alvaro Cueva recalled friends making fun of Juan Gabriel for his effeminate stage presence. At some schools, his name was used as an anti-gay slur.
Cueva called Juan Gabriel subversive. “You … became an idol in a country of macho men,” he wrote. “You made homophobic people sing and dance.”
Eduardo C. Corral, the gay Chicano poet, shared a story on Twitter about how it was easier for his parents to accept him after he came out to them because of Juan Gabriel. “In high school, I came out first to my mom. She told my dad when he got off work at midnight. She was nervous. Afraid of his reaction. My dad’s response? He said, in Spanish, ‘So what? So is Juan Gabriel,’” Corral wrote.
The poet relayed an experience that was common for LGBT Latinos and their families. “Over the years, Juan Gabriel became part of many Mexican families. Yes, he was mocked. But there he was. In our homes. Familiar & strange. Queerness, then, became a presence in Mexican homes. In my home. This familiarity with queerness helped my father to keep loving his son,” tweeted the poet.
In all his glory, Juan Gabriel was an incredible performer and singer-songwriter, but it is his impact on the LGBT Latino community that must not be erased from the narrative of his legacy.