Interviews

Gay icon Gloria Estefan on why being accepting is not enough

Gay Icon, Gay Daughter

Conga queen Gloria Estefan on her daughter’s coming out, openly discussing it for Red Table Talk, and why being accepting is not enough

She admits it took several painful years, but gay icon and Latin pop trailblazer Gloria Estefan is now in a “really good place” with her 25-year-old daughter Emily, who is openly queer. After working on their relationship in therapy, they’re continuing those conversations during the Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk: The Estefans, which also features Gloria’s niece, Lili Estefan.

The show comes on the heels of Gloria’s latest album, Brazil305, which was released in June. The legendary singer-songwriter’s first album in seven years features re-recorded, Brazilian-inspired versions of her hits, including “Conga” (redone as “Samba”), “Cuts Both Ways” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Gloria collaborated with Emily, who graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and released her debut album in 2017, on several songs for the series, including its apt theme, “Let’s Talk About It.”

It’s true that Red Table Talk: The Estefans gets right to the heart of the matter, with the second episode focusing on Emily’s sexuality. The episode is an emotional bloodletting. Emily confronts the icon about her reaction when Emily came out to her: “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in love with this girl,'” Emily says to her mother about her relationship with partner Gemeny Hernandez. “The first thing you said was, ‘If you tell your grandma and she dies, her blood is on your hands.'”

During the episode, Gloria tells Emily she’s remembering the conversation “in a different way.”

“Did communications suffer for a bit there? Yeah, they did,” Gloria admits during our recent Zoom interview, where she appeared from her home library in Miami. “Then we had to give each other time and space, and still came back to the table, and back to the table, and back to the table. So I think it’s kind of fitting that we are literally at the table and sharing it with everyone.”

I have to say, with this second episode of Red Table Talk, there’s a lot to unpack here. You’re probably still unpacking it yourself.

Well, you only saw 30 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour conversation. I really would’ve been happy just continuing the conversation. Emily and I have spent a lot of time going to therapy together during these years just trying to learn how to talk to each other, and dealing with the loss of my mom, her grandmother, that was brutal. I studied psychology and up till now hadn’t needed therapy, but the hole I was in was really big when I lost my mom, so it was all the same time.

I’ve been trying to look at this from the perspective of a fan, and I’ve been kind of dissecting the fact that you’ve been a gay icon for decades. And this is surprising news to anybody who has revered you as such.

But surprising why?

Well, from Emily’s perspective and what was said from you to her regarding abuela.

Oh, well, like I said, in the show she’s remembering things from her pain and perspective; I did not tell her that. And that was definitely not said. I wanted people to listen to her music just as music, because I know how this world works and when I said that to her, what she heard was, “Hide, cover up,” and that’s why I had told her, “If you want to get on the (gay Pride) float, I’m there with you.”

Were you concerned knowing that if what Emily thought you said was made public, it could impact your relationship with the LGBTQ community?

Look, it’s always a concern when you put out your thoughts on anything, or on something personal, because there’s no way that anyone is ever going to see every conversation that Emily and I had, because that’s the only way that you can really judge.

It’s really interesting because today I saw one of my tweets – some woman saying that I was a “homophobe” – and that is the furthest thing from the truth. But when you put stuff out there, people are going to do with it what they will, and that’s just not the case. To us, it was a non-issue that Emily was gay. It was a non-issue. And the rest was me trying to protect both women that are the most important women in my life.

That’s the reason we’re having these conversations, because we know that people in their homes and families are going to put it in their own world and do with it what they will, but we decided that we were going to be honest. And you can’t fake real.

I have in my mind what I hope parents of LGBTQ kids hear and apply to their own relationships with their kids. But what do you hope that is?

I’m hoping that conversations get started. We know the importance of being supportive. I was incredibly supportive of Emily. But it’s a complex thing because our kids are going through so many things, they don’t know sometimes who they are or what they may be feeling.

I was the grand marshal of the gay Pride parade! So I’m thinking, like, “Absolutely she would tell me (she’s gay) if she were; why wouldn’t she?” I just hope they realize there’s only love here. Only acceptance. But honestly that word “acceptance” to me is rough because I don’t have to “accept” that Emily is gay.

When Emily first came out or there was talk of her being queer, my first thought was, “Oh my god, to be the child of a gay icon.”

Exactly.

I just thought, “How easy.” But after seeing this, it completely changed my perception of that because I was fascinated by what it’s like to be the queer daughter of a gay icon and how even then it’s a struggle to come out. And that’s not necessarily because of you or your husband, Emilio. What do you think it says about society that you, Gloria Estefan, longtime gay icon who did a video for the It Gets Better campaign, wasn’t the safe place her daughter needed her to be, or that her daughter didn’t perceive her to be?

It killed me, because I was a safe place for her. I just think that she was really in a lot of pain. But listen, she felt that just because she’s a celebrity’s kid too. Because it’s only recently that I found out that she was bullied in school, like most people I guess are, which is terrible because I was never bullied in school. And just because you’re a celebrity’s kid… they bully you just because of that. They want to knock you down a few pegs.

Cher struggled with Chaz being transgender, and she’s been very open about that struggle. Like that relationship, your struggles with Emily really do shatter the illusion of what it’s like to be the child of a celebrity.

They put that on themselves also. Just as a musician – forget as a gay person – Emily didn’t even sing until she was 18, even though she is the most amazing singer. She didn’t want to go there, because at 2 years old she was with me on tour and saw me doing what I did – and she was an amazing drummer, guitarist, everything else – but she wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole because she thought, “Oh god, people are going to expect (me) to sound like (her), to look like her.” There were a lot of expectations that she really had a rough time just being herself and all I would tell her was, “Mama, just be yourself.”

As parents, you hope to think you know your kids, but sometimes, like when I did the It Gets Better campaign, so many kids that committed suicide, the first reaction was, “The last person we thought would do that was them,” because of the way they presented to the world, where inside they had all these things going on. That’s why, to us, it’s important to start these conversations because we don’t really know unless we talk about it, unless we ask, and unless we’re willing to take the risk of putting who we are out there.

You know, I hope that the LGBTQ community understands it for the way that it’s intended. And I didn’t have to “accept” Emily because Emily is my daughter. I love her.

I’m interested in exploring this dichotomy of what it was like to feel all this love from the LGBTQ community but not from your daughter when you were experiencing so much tension with her, and a lot of it was regarding her sexuality.

Well, for me, it was just hard to understand. And that was the main reason that we went into therapy, because I kept saying, “But I don’t understand what the issue is.” We opened our arms to Gem and to Gem’s family. But every human being is a world unto themselves, and even through therapy when I would try to communicate my feelings, I think she had prepared herself for battle. It was hard for both of us to correctly find a way around the emotion. That was the hard thing. And on top of that, we’re Cuban. So that’s even harder. Because oh my god, for Cubans to get around an emotion is very tough. (Laughs.)

You’ve been surrounded by the LGBTQ community for decades, but have you learned anything new about the queer experience through Emily?

I learned what I already knew: that regardless of how things change and how it may be legal to get married, it’s still difficult for our kids because there’s pressure, there’s bullying, and now the web and social media. People spew hatred so easily behind an anonymous name. So even though society has become more open and more accepting about everything, now there’s a whole other angle where people can get to you and spew their hatred right at you. That kills me. I mean, she takes it better than I do. I see someone comment on her page, and she goes, “Mom, chill out,” and I’ll, like, answer them or get upset and she goes, “Mom, relax.” I go, “But mama, block them!”

I’m interested in knowing what the music that you’ve worked on with Emily sounds like, and what that kind of collaborative process is like working with her?

You mean the theme song that we wrote together?

And you also perform some songs during the show.

Oh yeah, that was so incredibly special. To me, any time I can sing anything with Emily, it’s incredible. Funny enough, when we were in the studio listening to the takes, sometimes we ourselves couldn’t tell who was singing what line because when we sing together (the) textures of our voices are very similar, even though she’s got – I wish on a good day I could do 10 percent of what she can do musically. But it was wonderful, and we chose songs that went with the subject matter of the episodes.

We only did three in this first series of eight, but for me to sing with my daughter, you gotta realize I have a piano in my house and the song that she wrote for On Your Feet! (the jukebox musical based on Gloria’s life), her and I wrote it together. But listen to how it came about: She wrote that song when she was a freshman in high school. She said, “Mom, I have a homework assignment that I have to do, and I have to write a pop song and I wrote this and I want you to tell me what you think.” So she plays me the song and I said, “You wrote a hit song, that’s a hit song.”

Cut to senior year in high school: I’m elbow-deep in the letters from my fans after the accident (Gloria was injured in a 1990 bus crash) in the warehouse trying to put (them) together for Alex Dinelaris, who wrote the book, and he calls me and he said, “I’ve got the scene that’s gonna be the original song.” He tells me what the scene is and all I could hear in my head was a song Emily played me twice three years before. So I texted her and I go, “Mama, when you come home today, we’re gonna write this song.” She came home, and within 15, 20 minutes we wrote this song (“If I Never Got to Tell You”).

To end, I’d like to ask you something completely unrelated to Red Table Talk. I’m curious about something that has recently resurfaced after Mariah Carey wrote about it in her new memoir. And Carole King has talked about this too: how Celine Dion moved to the front of the stage to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” with Aretha Franklin during the inaugural VH1 Divas Live in 1998. And in Mariah’s recent memoir, she wrote about “one diva’s” attempt to “come for the queen a little bit during the song.” What’s your version of the story?

Listen, I was with these people who have chops from hell. The funny thing that I was noticing was that we all knew Carole was supposed to start the song, and Aretha started it. Maybe just out of sheer habit (laughs) because it was her hit that she had done and had taken to this amazing level that Carole had written. I think she just came in and – boom! – she started. But Carole was supposed to start it off, so I was already thinking, “Uh-oh, are things going to change now?” I was thinking technically about how we were going to sort the parts if all of a sudden someone switched parts at the top of the song. If you look at Divas Live, you see Carole going for the mic to start singing and the cameras there because that’s what’s supposed to happen.

And everybody stood in the back, but Celine was like, “OK, I’m gonna come forward and I’m gonna see if I can have it out with Aretha.”

She was definitely the Queen of Soul. You know what, though? Celine, that’s not her personality. Celine sings amazingly well and beautifully and all of them are amazing. But she’s a very down to earth and chill person. I didn’t feel that, honestly.

I think she probably was just feeling the song.

Yeah! Listen, she was excited. We were all super excited. I was more excited to be sitting at the piano with my idol Carole King because that woman got me through my teenage years. I wore out I don’t know how many copies of Tapestry, and I was in awe to be singing with the legendary singer-songwriter Carole King because I’m a songwriter, so that to me was like, “Oh my god, it’s Carole, this woman that I pored over every liner note, every credit, every piece, wondering who the cat was on the cover of the album.” I was just thrilled to be there. And also my scarf got stuck on my heel in my performance.

Did that make it on tape? I don’t remember seeing that.

Oh yeah, it did. And you know the funny part is: I don’t like a lot of paraphernalia and stuff, but the stylists are always, “Oh, it’s gonna be fabulous, you gotta wear this scarf! And come out with the scarf!” And I go, “Something’s gonna happen, I’m telling you.” I go out and my shoes were brand new, so the scarf was long and it got hooked on the heel of my shoe and then it was like, “How do I take this damn scarf off my shoe?!” And I think I finally threw it at some point during the performance. I think I had to pull it off my shoe! So there you go. All the things that happened behind the scenes.

And then they cut me out of the People magazine picture! They put all the divas in except me. I remember because I was hosting The Rosie Show and I did a whole song, a little parody about it, to “I’m a Believer.” I did, “I’m not a diva, I couldn’t be one if I tried.”

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

Photo of Chris Azzopardi

Chris Azzopardi

As editor of Q Syndicate, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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