Sticks and Stones
Courtesy of Jane Morse
Jane took this photo of her friend Lindsay Duval between two of Brazil's cross-dressers. Transvestites are an accepted part of Brazil's culture.
By ROY PETER CLARK
When Christiaan Oyens first heard the rumor that Mick Morse had AIDS, he didn't believe the cover story that his former high school principal had gotten it from a blood transfusion. "I knew right away," says Christiaan.
He doesn't use the Brazilian word viado to describe Mick. Christiaan is too respectful. But others used it when they were angry with Mick. Students used it. A secretary, known for the crudeness of her language, used it. Viado is the word for "faggot."
It literally means "deer" because homosexuals supposedly prance around. A Brazilian synonym is bicha, a word that denotes the female form of any animal, but also means "worm."
Christiaan knows the gay scene in Rio. He is a 30-year-old musician and composer, one of Brazil's most talented. He has played the clubs along Copocabana and seen it all. He is straight himself, married to Mariana. But he offers a lecture on gay life in Brazil.
He says that in a macho Latino culture, homosexuality is both despised and accepted, licentious and licensed. Unlike in the United States, police never hassle gay men here. At 1 a.m., just a few blocks behind the most elegant hotels in the city, Christiaan drives his car down a street called Duvivier. He says that gays congregate at the American Bar, the Lido Bar and the Pussycat Disco Club.
He drives past the Copocabana Palace to a theater that is playing The Leopards. This show, popular with women in the city, features a cast of gay men who perform nude. As the curtain rises, the actors sport erections, sustain them for hilarious lengths of time, and employ them for slapstick humor.
Christiaan explains that viado is the most common insult in the country. It is an all-purpose invective, not exclusively cast at gay men. Your teacher gives you a bad grade, you call him viado. Someone cuts you off in traffic, you call him viado.
He explains that in a macho culture, "acts that mimic gayness come to the surface." Men commonly say goodbye with a kiss or a hug. They call each other viado, even as they grab each other by the crotch or the butt.
To understand the complexities of gay culture in Brazil, you must understand the status of transvestites, says Christiaan, who drives now to their hangout. Rio's world-famous queens can be found where else but on Queen Elizabeth Street. He points to what appears to be a gorgeous woman sitting on a car fender resplendent in a tight gold party dress.
He cites a recent newspaper article on how married men, who won't go to gay bars, seek out the transvestites. The theory is that the cross-dressers provide a "transitional experience" for men who may be conflicted about their sexual identity. They seek men who look like women, but prefer to receive sex in the "passive" role.
In this, and other ways, homosexual life in Latin countries differs from the United States.
Frederick L. Whitam, who has studied gay life in several cultures, tells the story of a Brazilian taxi driver "with strong heterosexual interests who was induced by three loucas or queens to perform anal intercourse with them in exchange for money. This was considered of so little importance that the taxi driver good-humoredly told his wife about the incident at dinner the same evening."
The pecking order goes like this:
Who is penetrated and who penetrates is a matter of great curiosity among Brazilian gays, Whitam says, even as it is "private and unimportant" among their American counterparts. In America, "active" and "passive" are more likely to define verb forms than sexual postures.
It is curious that Western democracies, such as the United States and Great Britain, have a tradition of legal intolerance for homosexuality, political and cultural oppression that spawned the countercultural gay rights movement. Yet, in most Latin countries, homosexuality is widely tolerated, despite the traditions of military dictatorship or other forms of authoritarian government.
In other words, gays feel less free in The Land of the Free than in places like Brazil.
Because of their outcast status in most societies, gay men have created places where they can meet and mingle, including clubs, bathhouses, bars and restaurants. These are listed in a book called The Spartacus International Gay Guide. The 1979 edition lists homosexual gathering places in 113 countries. It lists 187 places for Brazil.
In 1969, the year after Mick married Jane, a group of transvestites in New York City battled police in the Stonewall riots, named after the club where the trouble took place. This event is considered the Lexington and Concord of the gay liberation movement in America. It led many gay men to move to large cities, such as San Francisco, where gay life and an erotic culture were more tolerated.
Gay men met in bathhouses for frequent and anonymous sex. No holds were barred. And those who used the word "promiscuity" or questioned the effects of gay sexual practice on public health were dismissed as "fascists."
Where Mick Morse grew up, the Michigan of the 1950s, gay men were mocked as queers, homos, faggots and fairies. Yes, Brazil in the 1980s was much more open. But words could still hurt. Words like viado and bicha.
When someone at the American School used the insult behind Mick's back, it would provoke a macho argument. How could Mick be a viado, someone would say, when he is married to a beautiful woman like Jane?
THE SERIES: This is the 10th installment of a 29-part story.