There's this magical elixir called "celebrity." We drink it in every time we watch the movies or read the gossip columns. It's intoxicating, this drink, making everyday people feel an emotional connection with the stars on the screen and in the papers.
Celebrity makes us feel these stars are close to us as if they are family or good friends. This sense of closeness causes their actions to matter to us in surprising ways. A high school friend--let's call her Lupita--messaged me on Facebook Tuesday night after Ricky Martin came out as a gay man. "I can't believe it! I am so happy for him," she said.
This was the same Lupita who, back in 1984, was so angry when Ricky Melendez was replaced in the pop group Menudo with "some other Ricky" that she screamed at me in homeroom: "Like Rickys are interchangeable!" The new Ricky, a 12 year-old Ricky Martin, grew on her so much so that she even tracked me down in the 1990s to catch up after years--just to tell me that "our Ricky" had been cast in General Hospital. And why not? We have to keep up with our family.
The response to Martin's coming out among gay advocates, mainstream reporters, and bloggers has varied from the disinterested to the cynical--from "so what?" to "it must be to promote his new book." To a one, they miss the real importance of Ricky Martin coming out to gay and lesbian Americans.
The most effective way for gay and lesbian people to reach full equality is to come out to friends and family. For many fans, especially Latinos, Ricky Martin coming out is like having a family friend come out. Gay is no longer an abstract idea, or worse, a stereotype. Now, it's the kid from Menudo you've known since you were a teenager.
Two weeks ago, iconic Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio, who has sold millions of records and whose songs are staples in Mexican jukeboxes, announced on Spanish-language television that she was unhappy with gay and lesbian couples marrying in Mexico City. But worse, she said, was that these gay couples were adopting children. In an interview, she declared that it was better for a child to "starve to death" than have two parents of the same gender.
When Senora la del Barrio uttered these words two weeks ago, there were few words, images or story lines in the Latino community to contradict her unfair assessment of gay families. The abstract concept of gay and the vile stereotypes of gay and lesbian parents perpetuated too often in the Spanish-language media prevailed.
Now, Paquita takes on this issue at her own risk: Ricky Martin, the father of twin boys and someone we've known since he was 12, is the face of all those people Senora la del Barrio was attacking. Her job isn't so easy anymore.
This is to say nothing of all the Latina mothers who might have teenage boys and girls who will be coming out to them in the future. They've known Ricky Martin since he was a teenager and have seen his successes, parenting skills, humanitarian efforts and even his placement on People's Most Beautiful People in the World list. They admire Ricky and now have a new way of understanding their children. Coming out for Latinos just got a whole lot easier.
His coming out will reverberate through Latin America more than in Anglophone nations. But it is meaningful, too, in the United States. In California, Latinos were 20% of the vote on election day in 2008--the day a majority of California voters took the right to marry away from gay and lesbian people. By 2012, Latinos will make up a hugely significant percentage of the voting public. For all the advocates looking to build support among those Latinos who voted for Proposition 8 in 2008, Ricky Martin puts a face on the gay community in a whole new way and will spark the types of conversations that build common ground.
Ricky Martin is the first major celebrity in Latin America to come out, but will not be the last. His success will pave the way for others who are now watching. Martin's has become the watershed moment in Spanish language media that Ellen DeGeneres was in mainstream U.S. media in 1997. Whatever chapter history may write for him in the coming years, one thing is certain: Ricky Martin is the new face of "gay" among Latinos--and his is a face well-loved since he first joined our family over two decades ago. In one small act of courage, he has made a world of difference across the globe.
The author is the president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and a former Massachusetts state senator.