The Many Faces of Rio de Janeiro: Bright Colors, Exposed Flesh, LGBTs Fighting the System

The Many Faces of Rio de Janeiro: Bright Colors, Exposed Flesh, LGBTs Fighting the System

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For over 50 years, worldwide fantasies about Rio de Janeiro have sprung out of one song: “The Girl from Ipanema,” the bossa-nova hit about a nymph who strolls each day to Rio’s most idyllic beach. Her seductive sway drives men crazy. To Kiko Guarabyra, a dancer and choreographer who lives nearby, that rhythm is in the local blood.

“We carry a swing, a Brazilliance, as if it were a melody. We walk with the whole body,” he says.

Over time, another symbol of Rio has entered the public consciousness. The bronze muscle boy from Ipanema, like the girl, is no mirage; every summer he lures countless tourists to gay Rio de Janeiro, filling them with dreams of exposed flesh for the taking.

From December through February, when it’s summer in Brazil, the small gay stretch of Ipanema beach becomes a jaw-dropping runway. Many of the same adonises walk the streets of Zona Sul (the South Zone, Rio’s fashionable beachside district) in sungas (the Brazilian equivalent of the Speedo), or turn up at a pricy sauna (Rio G Spa) just off the gay beach.

Gabriel de Monteynard, a French teacher and gay party promoter, traded his hometown of Paris for Rio in 2009. “I found gay people here so lively and funny, much more sensual. Really enjoying a party, cruising in a way that does not exist in Paris,” he says. “They look at you in the eyes with a big smile.” He admits he isn’t getting much action, though. Nor can he find a boyfriend in a town where “it’s complicated” can’t begin to describe the social and sexual vagaries of gay Rio de Janeiro life.

Frank Sonnek, a former accountant from Los Angeles who moved to Rio at 50, got a hint of what lay in store as he took his first taxi ride from the airport. “The driver was swearing out the window at all the people who were cutting in front of him, and he was shouting, ‘Viado! Viado!’ [faggot]. I thought, ‘Wow, this could be heaven. Everyone he’s encountering on the freeway is a faggot.’ Yeah, there are a lot of hot men down here, they’re exotic and mysterious, but it’s not long before you realize the scene is trouble with a capitol T.”

Gay equality has come a long way in Brazil, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2013 and where HIV/AIDS treatment is easy to obtain. Just this month, after much skepticism and resistance, PreP was finally made available. Last month, Rio’s 22nd annual LGBT Pride Parade, held in Copacabana, drew over 800,000 attendees.

Looking down upon the city from Corcovado mountain is Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched. Ostensibly it symbolizes protection and inclusiveness, but that 98-foot monument is rife with irony. Racism has plagued Brazil ever since slavery reigned from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Catholicism is the country’s prevailing faith, but nearly one in four Brazilians (by various estimates) has turned to evangelical Christianity, an organized religion of immense wealth, conservatism, political clout and homophobia.

According to a recent statistic, one member of the LGBT community is murdered in Brazil every 25 hours. Rio itself is now buckling under one of the worst scourges of violence in its history, as exposed government corruption, a floundering economy and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and have-nots have boiled up into a lethal brew.

Photo by James Gavin

The city’s reputation as a bonanza of debauchery persists, and it isn’t unearned. But talk to both locals and visitors and you’ll hear no end of stories about the bumpy comedy of errors that defines the city’s same-sex relations.

“Brazil doesn’t attract gay Americans who are interested in going to the theater or learning the language or the culture,” says Sonnek. “It attracts ones who are looking for sex, and maybe some delusional relationship with somebody who’s 22 with a big dick who’s gonna fall in love with them.”

In that famously live-for-the-moment society, flirting is the norm, but even big shows of interest can fade in seconds. “We are more sociable than sincere,” admits the Rio-based music writer Rodrigo Faour. “We exchange phone numbers but don’t call. We just do it because it’s polite.”

Caution is essential. “I live in a bubble, the gay neighborhood,” says documentary producer João Fernando, an Ipanema resident. “If you go north, or into the favelas, it’s really different. Gay people get murdered, attacked.”

Gay apps are highly popular in Brazil, but instant trysts, according to de Monteynard, are a no-no, even in Zona Sul. “Never, ever invite someone directly back to your home. You exchange phone numbers, you meet in a café or on the beach, the guy has to pay for his own drinks,” he says.

The safest option is a sex motel — Rio is full of them — where guests have to show ID. Men accustomed to pay-at-the-door, all-you-can-eat saunas can walk into certain ones and find themselves surrounded by rent boys.

“The vast majority are straight,” declares an American film executive who retired to Rio. “But Brazilians aren’t easily classified in a culture where anything goes, and where guilt and remorse aren’t part of human nature.” Escorts’ backgrounds, he says, “are generally low- or lower-middle-class, where making a bit of quick cash overshadows any reluctance to indulge in intimacy with another male. If it means money to pay the rent or buy food for the family, the wives are often resigned to letting it happen, or they pretend not to know.”

So it goes in a country where very little of a sexual nature is what it seems. Bisexuality is common in Brazil, but it’s hard to tell whether it reflects an uncontainable libido or the desire to appear at least partly straight. Vagner de Almeida — a fiery LGBT activist, filmmaker and educator — feels many Brazilian gays lead double lives. “A lot of guys, before they go home to their families at the end of the day, have sex with trans people or guys,” he says. “If you go out with a man and you fuck him, or if he sucks you, this is more acceptable in our society than if you are passive.”

Considerations like these are far from the minds of Rio’s typical gay tourists, who just want to have fun. Gay Rio de Janeiro has a profusion of circuit parties, including B.I.T.C.H. (Barbies in Total Control Here), R:Evolution, Pool Party and The Week. The body fascism can rival that of any A-gay dance event in the States; according to de Monteynard, the open drug use goes further.

As for the four days per year that comprise Carnaval, virtually anything goes, without judgment, for all strands of society. The straightest of men can crossdress without fear or shame, as they do at a famous bloco (street party) Banda de Ipanema, a series of three costumed parades.

Gafieira Elite, a downtown dance hall, holds gay nights at Carnaval time. The wooden floor creaks and buckles with the heaving of the crowd as a samba band plays in the corner. A few feet above the musicians’ heads is a balcony packed with men, pants around their knees.

But there are risks, outlined by de Monteynard: “Watch your wallet! You can’t imagine how many times me and my gringo friends have been robbed in clubs,” he says. “Put everything in those pockets that are tied around your waist. Always carry only what’s necessary.”

Photo by James Gavin

Outside in the cold light of day, the LGBT community has much bigger problems than that, as evangelicals and right-wing politicians mount an ever-growing campaign of hate. Federal deputy Marco Feliciano is a star evangelical pastor who has written best-selling religious books, such as Wine of Hell, and produced a series of inspirational DVDs.

“We love homosexuals,” he has said, “but we abhor their promiscuous practices. I don’t want my daughters to go out on the streets and see men with shaved legs kissing each other.” He called AIDS “gay cancer,” said Africans are cursed and has opposed equal rights for women. For most of 2013, Feliciano headed Brazil’s Human Rights and Minorities Commission.

Jair Bolsonaro — a proudly racist, misogynistic and homophobic congressman — is riding a wave of popularity that may make him a contender for the 2018 presidential race. A born-again Christian loved by evangelicals, Bolsonaro has made many notorious statements — notably his remark that he would rather have a son die in an accident than be gay.

“We Brazilian people don’t like homosexuals,” Bolsonaro declared. He particularly hates openly gay congressman Jean Wyllys, one of the LGBT community’s only political champions in the country. Wyllys’s fervent defense of minority and women’s reproductive rights has triggered death threats and a social-media smear campaign.

Wyllys’s hometown is now run by a member of the extreme right. In 2016, Marcelo Crivella, the bishop of a scandal-ridden evangelical megachurch, won Rio’s mayoral race by an approximately 20% lead. Previously Crivella had spoken of the “terrible evil” of homosexuality; while seeking election he apologized, explaining that gays deserve sympathy, for most of them are surely the products of failed abortions or physical trauma to their mothers during gestation.

Crivella canceled city funding for the 2017 Gay Pride Parade, claiming budgetary restrictions. The parade’s organizers, the Grupo Arco-Íris de Cidadania LGBT (Rainbow Group of LGBT Citizenship), saved the day by finding private sponsors. The event went on, drawing record numbers.

Photo by James Gavin

Arco-Íris, which was founded in 1993, has gone far in mobilizing LGBT society and giving it a sense of strength in numbers, but the embattled group struggles to survive. Its brother organization, Rio sem Homofobia (Rio Without Homophobia), is on even shakier ground. Founded in 2007 and financed by the state, it has now had its subsidies slashed. But neither RSH nor Arco-Íris intends to go down without a fight. “If we exist, in some way it is a resistance,” says Arco-Íris president Almir França.

The country is short on high-profile, out-of-the-closet role models. There’s scarcely an openly gay actor or sports figure, although in recent years, diver Ian Matos and female judo athlete Rafaela Silva have come out publicly. Scores of prominent musical artists are known or assumed to be gay or lesbian; they work in a field of such aggressive sexuality that Rodrigo Faour wrote a hefty book about it, História Sexual da MPB (Sexual History of Brazilian Popular Music).

Starting in the ’80s, a handful of prominent female singers — Ângela Ro Ro, Cássia Eller, Adriana Calcanhotto, Leci Brandão — pronounced themselves lesbians at no apparent cost to their popularity. But few of their colleagues have admitted to more than bisexuality — not even Ney Matogrosso (born in 1941), Brazil’s wildly flamboyant, gender-bending pioneer of glitter pop-rock. Matogrosso, who lives in Rio, was once the lover of gay pop superstar Cazuza, who died of AIDS. But labels, insists Matogrosso, don’t interest him. “I am a human being,” he declared this year just before he turned 76.

Now, though, Brazil has a few young singers who, having walked through a door Matogrosso helped open, have come out loud and proud. “I’m totally gay. I don’t have to hide,” says Johnny Hooker, a modern glam-rock star born in 1987. At the 2017 edition of Rock in Rio, one of the most popular music festivals in the world, Hooker joined hands with Liniker, a boldly gay, black soul singer, to perform their single, “Flutua” (It Floats). “No one will be able to tell us how to love,” they sang; at the end, they kissed on the lips.

Brazil has at least two openly gay rappers, Rico Dalasam and Linn da Quebrada. Born in 1990, da Quebrada identifies as “faggot, trans, black and peripheral, neither actor nor actress, atrocious performer and gender terrorist.”

An older singer has stepped into the front line of battle. One of the headliners at Rio’s 2017 Gay Pride Parade was Daniela Mercury, one of Brazil’s biggest stars since the ’90s. In 2013, after two marriages to men, Mercury controversially proclaimed her love for Malu Verçosa, a female journalist, whom she later married. The couple have adopted three children.

At the United Nations headquarters in New York, Mercury — who was named UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and UN Equality Champion — spoke out in 2015, accompanied by Verçosa. “This fight is more important than our privacy,” announced the singer. “I am a powerful lesbian. I say this with a lot of pride.” That year she released a new album, Vinil Virtual; on its cover, a nude Mercury lies wrapped around Verçosa in the style of a famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “I’m using my naked body to make a peaceful political manifesto in the war against homophobia,” she explained.

Photo by James Gavin

Such determined openness is a threat to many Brazilian gays and lesbians who would rather stay safely low-key. But to Frank Sonnek, vagueness, secrecy and mixed messaging are key to the country’s enticement, especially in Rio.

“We Americans have to put labels on things,” he says. “You are gay or you are straight, you are this or you are that. We’re a very literal, intentional culture, and Brazil is a poetic, indeterminate culture. That drives us crazy, but it’s also very attractive, because we sense that there’s a certain reality to it that’s beautiful and forgiving. But at the same time we feel we’re being lied to.”

Rodrigo Faour cites a song that addresses the matter. “Por Debaixo dos Panos” (Undercover) was popularized by Ney Matogrosso in the ’80s. “What we do is undercover for no one to know / It’s undercover that we have no fear,” go the words. “It could be a gay national anthem in Brazil,” explains Faour, even as the LGBT community inches its way out of the shadows.

Marcelo Maia, a photographer and HIV/AIDS activist from Bahia, sums up the still-prevailing attitude: “When you’re in a homophobic society you have to be discreet, but that doesn’t stop you from doing whatever you want to do.”


James Gavin‘s books include biographies of Peggy Lee, Lena Horne and Chet Baker. He is a two-time winner of ASCAP’s Deems Taylor-Virgil Thomson Award for excellence in music journalism, and a 25-year contributor to The New York Times.

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