It’s not easy being an 8-year-old boy in the suburbs of San Diego who skips around the neighborhood singing “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” at the top of your lungs.
But that was me. Vibrant, colorful, full of personality, loved to sing and dance — as an adult, we learn to define that as “gay,” but as a kid I was “different.”
Different, in this case, meant that I was a third-grader who loved Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. Gloria wasn’t my only great love. I also loved Madonna, George Michael, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Belinda Carlisle and, later, Paula Abdul, Karyn White, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey. Sensing a trend?
But Gloria was always my favorite. I remember, clearly, the day I fell in love with her: summer of 1988. All the kids are out of school, riding bikes, playing baseball, running through sprinklers.
I did my share of that. But mostly I spent time by myself. I didn’t fit in, as they say. And when I “didn’t fit in,” often that meant I’d gravitate toward my friend’s moms. They liked me — we could talk about movies, TV shows, clothing, and, of course, music.
Enter Laura, my friend Roberto’s mom. She was a young mom, a fun mom — a Miami mom who had just moved her family to San Diego the year before. I loved Laura. She wore colorful dresses, she was always laughing, and she was always listening to music.
The first time I heard Gloria Estefan, I had gone over to Roberto’s house to see if he wanted to ride bikes to the park. Roberto was in his room watching cartoons. Laura was cleaning the living room. Her soundtrack was Gloria. Specifically, Gloria singing “Conga.” The beat, the horns, the drums. I had to hear more. So Laura fished out all of her cassettes and I sat there that afternoon listening to every single song. And then I had to see the videos. You couldn’t hop online and play them on YouTube in the '80s. Thank God Laura had a VHS tape of Gloria’s videos. Her hair, those Bolero jeans, her hair.
I was in love. Gay boy in love, of course; somewhere between thinking she was fabulous, and pretty, and sort of wanting to be her.
I begged my mom to take me to Sam Goody so I could buy all of Gloria’s cassettes. I only had enough money in my piggy bank to buy two, so I went with the two newest. That summer I locked myself in my room and listened to those cassettes every chance I got. I bought one of those cheap unauthorized biographies on Gloria. I learned she had a son only a couple years younger than me. She and her husband Emilio were happily married. She actually wasn’t that much younger than my mom. She could have been my mom. And while I loved my parents, I didn’t feel like my they understood me. They were amazing parents and they always encouraged me to be myself, but I didn’t have a lot of friends, which worried them, so our relationship was strained.
When summer ended, I started fourth grade at a new school, which meant having to make new friends. Two weeks in, I was doing OK. This kid Andy invited me to his birthday party. I was in. And I knew exactly what I wanted to get Andy for his birthday.
It turned out most 8-year-old boys didn’t like Gloria Estefan the way I liked Gloria Estefan. I believe Andy’s exact words were “who’s this” when he opened his CD (oh yeah, I sprung for the CD) before he handed it to his mom and went back to playing with his Ninja Turtles. Andy’s mom loved Gloria. She unwrapped that CD and we sat in the living room listening to “1, 2, 3…”, “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and the rest of my favorite jams.
At school the following Monday, Andy didn’t talk to me. In fact, unless they were calling me nerd, or idiot, or loser, Andy and his friends never really talked to me again. That was the year I stopped having friends. When my birthday rolled around a few months later, I asked my mom if we could go to Disneyland.
“Wouldn’t you rather have a party, honey?” she asked me.
I remember exactly how I answered: “I don’t have anyone to invite.”
The next couple of years were really rough for me. I spent almost all of my spare time alone. I faked being sick at least once a week in the hopes my parents wouldn’t make me go to school. I stayed in the classroom at recess.
But at least I had my music. I had Gloria. She could always make me feel better. One afternoon, feeling particularly sad, I found the address for Gloria’s fan club in the back of Teen Beat or Big Bopper or one of those mags. I got a pen and paper and I wrote. I told Gloria why I loved her music — that the songs made me happy, that I liked the way she danced, that when I got older I wanted to be able to sing and dance just like her. And I told her I was lonely. That I was different. That my friends didn’t understand me. That her son was lucky to have a mom like her.
I sent the letter. I’d sent fan letters before and never heard anything back. I don’t know if I expected this time to be different, but I hoped. And every day for a few weeks I checked the mail, hoping I’d hear back from Gloria. One day, I did.
An autographed picture. It could have been signed by anyone, except this pic came with a note. “Ross — Stay strong. I believe in you. With love — Gloria.” It was so simple, but in a small way, it saved me.
The following year, two things happened. One to me, one to Gloria. My parents let me stop trying to be a baseball player and start taking theatre classes. I was good. I could kind of dance, I could really sing and I was funny. I started auditioning for plays. I got into plays. I started making new friends. Things turned around. And I like to think it all started with those few, special words from Gloria Estefan.
And then, suddenly, Gloria needed support. On March 20, 1990, her tour bus crashed into a speeding semi-truck and Gloria was critically injured with a fractured spine. The fear was that she’d be paralyzed. Ten months of intense physical therapy later, she launched a world tour. Gloria was a survivor. And as we all know, the gays love a survivor.
This weekend Gloria was the grand marshal of Miami Beach’s Gay Pride Parade. She may not have the same notoriety as a gay diva who fights for gay rights as, say, a Madonna or a Lady Gaga. But she is every inch as deserving of that accolade as they are. Gloria has always been an outspoken advocate for LGBT causes. In 1994, when she was pregnant with her daughter and unable to film a video for the song “Everlasting Love,” Gloria came up with the idea that the video should feature a number of drag queens performing as Gloria. She was so impressed with two of them, they went out on tour with her.
In 2000, when I went to Miami for the first time, I attended a drag competition show in South Beach. Six queens competed — four of them performed Gloria Estefan songs.
One of Gloria’s best friends is Rosie O’Donnell. If you haven’t seen videos of Gloria and Rosie showing Kathy Griffin around Miami on an episode of My Life On the D-List, YouTube them — now. It’s comic gold. Here, I’ll get you started:
Just a few years ago, when the It Gets Better Project was getting underway and celebrities were recording messages of support for LGBT youth, Gloria was one of the first to post a video. I was working for the project at the time and when I saw she’d posted a video, I closed my office door, put on my headphones and watched. “Each one of us is a gift on this Earth.” It was like she was talking to 8-year-old me. I’m not a crier. I like to joke I cried myself out as a kid so that I wouldn’t have to cry as an adult. Gloria broke that shield. I wept.
And then in 2012, Gloria cast Susan Lucci in her music video for the song "Hotel Nacional." I know that doesn’t trump drag queens, a lesbian bestie, and an It Gets Better video for most people, but Susan Lucci is the other person responsible for helping me survive 4th through 6th grade. It was like my 9-year-old gay mind exploded.
Gloria might not be cranking out hits like she used to — she doesn’t need to. She has plenty. She is, after all, the Queen of Latin Pop. And for me, a skinny white kid from the suburbs, she's still my “Queen,” my “friend,” my “champion” and my hero.
Kudos to you, Gloria. Miami Gay Pride couldn’t have asked for a more deserving grand marshal.
ROSS VON METZKE's work as a writer has appeared in The Advocate, Out, Entertainment Weekly, YM, and more. He is the former editor of Advocate.com and works in social media marketing for a number of nonprofit clients. Follow him at @RossWilliamvon