Finding Rio: A Traveler’s Tale

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For fifty years, the worldwide fantasy of Rio de Janeiro has sprung out of one song: “The Girl from Ipanema,” the bossa nova hit about a dreamlike nymph who strolls each day to Rio’s most idyllic beach. Her seductive sway sets a man’s imagination on fire. To Kiko Guarabyra, a dancer and choreographer who lives in Copacabana, that rhythm is in the local blood. As he says, “We carry a ‘swing,’ a ‘Brazilliance,’ as if it were a melody. We walk with the whole body.”

Over time, another heavenly Carioca symbol has entered the public consciousness. The bronze muscle boy from Ipanema, like the girl, is no mirage; every summer he lures countless gay tourists to Rio, filling them with dreams of exposed flesh for the taking. From December through February, the small gay stretch of Ipanema beach becomes a jaw-dropping runway. Many of the same Adonises walk the streets of Zona Sul (Rio’s fashionable beachside district) in Speedos or turn up at a pricy sauna (Rio G Spa) just off the gay beach. In 2013 Rio’s eighteenth annual LGBT Pride Parade drew more than 700,000 people.

Gabriel, a French-born screenwriter who moved to Rio in 2009, remains dazzled. “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. They look at you in the eyes with a big smile. They’re crazy about sex here. They love to fuck.”

He admits he isn’t getting much, however. 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 life. Frank Sonnek, a former accountant from Los Angeles who moved to Rio at age fifty, got a hint of what lay in store as he rode his first taxi 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! Faggot!]. I thought, ‘Wow, this could be heaven. Everyone he’s encountering on the freeway is a faggot,’” he says. “Yeah, the men are hot down here and exotic and mysterious, but it’s not long before you realize the scene is trouble with a capital T.”

Gay equality has come far in Brazil, where same-sex marriage became legal nationally in 2013 and HIV/AIDS treatment is widely accessible. But just as the Christ statue looks down upon Rio with arms outstretched, so does religious repression hover over all. That, combined with lingering homophobia and old-school machismo, has made Rio a tricky place for gays to navigate. 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 man-on-man relations, both in and out of the sack.

“Brazil doesn’t attract Americans who are interested in going to the theater or learning the language or the culture,” Sonnek says. “It attracts people who are looking for sex, and maybe some fantasy relationship, with somebody who’s twenty-two with a big dick who’s gonna fall in love with them. There’s no reality to it.” In a society where few people seem to think in the long term, casual flirting is the norm, and 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 because it’s polite, but we don’t call each other.”

Danger of all sorts hangs in the Rio air. With a huge chasm between the haves and have-nots and corruption that infects every level of society, crime is a fact of life. Instant hookups, especially those initiated on sites like Grindr or Disponível (Available), are a no-no. “Never, ever invite someone directly back to your home,” Gabriel warns. “You exchange phone numbers. You meet in a café or on the beach. The guy has to pay for his own drinks.” The safest option is a sex hotel—Brazil is full of them—where guests have to show ID.

Men accustomed to pay-at-the-door, all-you-can-eat bathhouses can walk into certain ones in Rio and find themselves surrounded by rent boys. “The vast majority are straight,” says an American showbiz 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.” Hustlers’ 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, particularly with regard to sex and romance, is what it seems. Bisexuality is common in Brazil, but it’s hard to tell whether it reflects an uncontainable sex drive or the pressure to appear at least partly straight. According to Vagner de Almeida, a fiery HIV/AIDS activist, filmmaker, and educator for three decades, 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 transgenders or guys. 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.”

Out celebrities are few, even in Brazilian music—a field of such aggressive sexuality that Rodrigo Faour wrote a hefty book about it called História Sexual da MPB (Sexual History of Brazilian Popular Music). Many prominent performers are known or assumed to be gay or lesbian, but except for a small handful (notably Ângela Rô Rô and Leci Brandão), hardly any will admit to anything more than bisexuality. According to Faour, that includes Ney Matogrosso, the wildly flamboyant, gender-bending king of Brazilian glitter pop rock and onetime lover of the pop superstar Cazuza, who died of AIDS in 1990.

In the fall of 2013, however, singer Daniela Mercury married her female lover in avowed protest of a reviled development in Brazil’s government. Months earlier, the country’s House of Representatives chose evangelical pastor Marco Feliciano—an outspoken racist and homophobe—to head the government’s Human Rights and Minorities Commission. About two-thirds of Brazilians identify as Catholic, but nearly one in four has turned to evangelical Christianity, a stiflingly conservative religion of enormous wealth and political clout. Government evangelicals, notes Vagner de Almeida, keep postponing the vote for PL 122, a long-proposed law that would make anti-gay attacks punishable as hate crimes.

After a tide of angry opposition to Feliciano, the left-wing Workers’ Party—to which Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, belongs—managed to unseat him in December. But many still blame Rousseff for having allowed the appointment. “She needed the evangelical votes for the next election,” de Almeida says. (It takes place on October 5.) Recently, she passed a law that criminalizes discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS, but de Almeida remains suspicious. He writes from Rio, “I still don’t like Dilma and her henchmen, but I endorse the positive things that she is doing to gain votes.”

But politics are far from the mind of the typical gay in Rio de Janeiro, a town where having fun trumps all, especially during Carnaval. Thousands of men cruise at a largely gay bloco (street party), the Banda de Ipanema. Gay Carnaval balls take place throughout town, one of them at Gafieira Elite, a downtown club whose wooden floor creaks and buckles with the heaving of the crowd. A samba band plays in the corner, while a few feet above their heads is a balcony packed with men with their pants around their knees.

Surprisingly, in that live-for-the-moment culture, safe sex prevails. But Gabriel warns against other risks. “Watch your wallet,” he says. “You can’t imagine how many times me and my gringo friends have been robbed in clubs. Put everything in those pockets that are tied around your waist. Always carry only what’s necessary. Only take a copy of your passport.”

None of that scares him from Rio’s profusion of circuit parties—B.I.T.C.H., Revolution, All Right, Everybody Shake, Jukebox, and Enjoy. The body fascism rivals that at any A-gay dance event in the States; the open drug use goes much further. These current festas have pushed aside Copacabana’s long-reigning Le Boy, a hustler-ridden gay complex that includes a disco, sauna, gym, and strip shows. (“So out, so boring,” Gabriel says.)

Political unity occurs once a year in October, when much of gay Rio comes out of the shadows and into the Copacabana sunlight for the LGBT Pride Parade. The main organizer is Grupo Arco-Íris de Cidadania LGBT (Rainbow Group for LGBT Citizenship). Arco-Íris works alongside Rio Sem Homofobia (Rio Without Homophobia), a state-appointed organization that, like Arco-Íris, provides education and support to the LGBT community. But for all its good intentions, the group, according to Vagner de Almeida, is stuck beneath the thumb of a largely homophobic and corrupt government. “People in Rio Sem Homofobia can’t talk against the system because it is paying their salaries,” he says. “In our movement, you need to be free; you can’t live inside this system.” (Neither RSH nor Arco-Íris responded to requests for interviews.)

Tourists, of course, are untouched by these issues; they go to Rio to lick the icing off the cake—and the vagueness, secrecy, and mixed messaging they encounter only add to Rio’s mystique. “We Americans have to put labels on things,” says Frank Sonnek. “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 says much about the frequently cagey Brazilian psyche. “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 … We can deceive without anyone knowing.” The song, explains Faour, “could be a gay national anthem in Brazil,” even as gays step slowly forward. As the photographer and HIV/AIDS activist Marcelo Maia observes, “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.”

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