March 2000

Gay Rio

Amid the nightlife that surrounded the monument to Brazil's first emperor, in the darkened theaters under flickering lights of newfangled cinematographs, and on the benches and among the shrubbery in the park, men who sought out other men for sexual escapades took advantage of the loosened morals in this part of the city to procure pleasure for themselves.

James N. Green

Pleasures in the Parks of Rio de Janeiro during the Brazilian Belle Époque, 1898-1914

As Brazil entered  the twentieth century, Rio de Janeiro, nestled among towering granite hills and surrounded by a broad bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, underwent remarkable transformations. For a decade after the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the declaration of the Republic a year later, the nation had been enveloped in political turmoil. According to one historian of this period, “[i]n 1898, with [President] Campos Salles’ assumption of power and the reassertion of a calm dominated by the regional elites, the Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) belle époque begins. That year there was a noticeable change in the air which soon affected the cultural and social milieu. The revolutionary days were over. The time for stability and urban life of elegance was at hand again.”

While the urban elite looked forward to political and social stability, impoverished Afro-Brazilians continued to pour into the capital from the surrounding countryside and other states in search of employment. Likewise, as a part of the tidal wave of European migration to the Americas in the late nineteenth century, foreign immigrants, especially Portuguese, contributed to the city’s dramatic growth. Between 1872 and 1890, Rio’s population almost doubled, jumping from 266.831 to 518.290. Sixteen year later, in 1906, it had increased to more than 800.000, and by 1920, the capital had 1.157.873 residents. During this period, men outnumbered women in Rio de Janeiro. In the 1890 census, the new republican government registered 238.667 males and 184.089 females residing in the nation’s capital. Among the native-born population, there was a relative gender balance of 159,393 men to 151,428 women. However, among foreign immigrants, men surpassed women 79,374 to 32,561. Amid the bustle of everyday life in Brazil’s largest urban center, thousands of young, single men roamed the streets in search of work, entertainment, company, and sex.

Rio’s demographic boom also placed enormous pressures on the city’s infrastructure, housing supply, and public health. In 1902, the federal capital’s mayor, Francisco Pereira Passos, with newly elected president Rodrigues Alves’s backing, ordered a radical urban renovation project that would transform much of the city center. Rio was to be heralded as a tropical version of modern Paris. Illuminated broad boulevards lined with fashionable beaux arts buildings replaced dark, narrow, crooked streets and modest structures. Public health officials campaigned to improve sanitation and eliminate yellow fever through a program that, among other requirements, involved the obligatory inoculating of the entire population. The municipal government condemned more than sixteen hundred buildings, including many tenement housing units, and forced almost twenty thousand poor and working-class residents of Rio, many of whom were Afro-Brazilian, to find new housing. Some moved close by, while many others were forced to relocate to outlying suburban districts to the north of the downtown area. Although protests and riots against new public health, sanitation, and residential removal programs revealed a deep resentment toward the government’s overall plan, officials carried on with determination. In 1906 they declared their project complete, and Rio de Janeiro soon became known as a cidade maravilhosa (the marvelous city). The press boasted that the nation’s capital had become a bourgeois urban public space comparable to any of Europe’s modernized cities.

The forced removal of poor inhabitants from some of the downtown districts and the new French-influenced architectural facades lining the city’s main new thoroughfare, Avenida Central (later renamed Avenida Rio Branco) produced an environment more pleasing to Rio’s elite. However, the renovation plan did not eliminate all overt evidence of chaos, poverty, and urban decay deemed inappropriate by Carioca high society. Prostitution continued in parts of the downtown area. Crime remained a threat to those who frequented the newly renovated areas of the city’s center. Poor men and women, especially people of color, still peddled their wares on the streets. And men who enjoyed sex with men tenaciously clung to several sites in the city center that they had appropriated as public places to find sexual partners and socialize with friends.

The most noted urban space for male-to-male sexual encounters and socializing was Largo do Rossio, a square at the edge of traditional downtown Rio de Janeiro. The area received a facelift at the time of the Pereira Passos urban reforms and has remained a location of homoerotic sociability from the late nineteenth century until recent years. At the center of the Largo do Rossio stood a majestic statue of the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro I (1798-1834). His son, Dom Pedro II (1825-1891) had ordered its erection in 1862 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the declaration of Brazilian independence from Portugal. On March 30 of that year, amid fanfare and fireworks, the emperor and his entourage dedicated the sixteen-foot bronzed likeness of independent Brazil’s first ruler, mounted on a steed and clutching a raised scroll representing the nation’s constitution. The equestrian statute, which weighed sixty tons, rested on a massive thirty-foot pedestal decorated with bronze figures symbolizing Brazil’s major rivers and metal plaques inscribed with the names of the country’s provinces. The government subsequently ordered the landscaping of the square around the monument with trees, gardens, statutes, and benches, making it one of the downtown area’s pleasant open spaces, as well as a public representation of Brazilian nationalist sentiments. Located immediately off the plaza was the São Pedro Theater, which hosted major cultural events for Carioca high society throughout the nineteenth century and helped to draw other entertainment venues to the square).

Soon after the statue of Emperor Dom Pedro I was erected, the site fulfilled another “less patriotic” function as a venue for homosexual interactions. So much clandestine sexual activity took place in the praça that in 1870 a city administrator sent a communiqué to the head of local government operations about the situation. He complained that the municipal guard in charge of making the rounds in the plaza gardens had “abandoned those same gardens for most of the day to the perversity of boys and ill-intentioned people.” His complaint had little effect, however, and the area continued to attract men who sought each other out for socioerotic ends. As a result, in 1878, the secretary of the court police had to take more drastic actions, “seeing how there are individuals who go there at late hours to practice abuses against morality, forcing this Division to have patrols in those gardens, impairing the police from being in other places.” He directed the four entrances to the gardens in the plaza’s center to be closed every night at midnight. Two weeks later, in response to another complaint that, in fact, the square was not being closed down as ordered, a government official assured the chief of police that the gardens were, indeed, being sealed off at night. Moreover, the night patrols issued a whistle warning to guarantee that no one would remain in the area past closing time. Regardless of police surveillance and control of the area, men persisted in using the park as a venue for trysts with other men interested in sexual liaisons.

Legal but Not Legal

During the post-1889 republican regime, homosexuality per se was not illegal. This had not been the case in colonial Brazil under Portuguese rule, when the law had defined sodomy as the anal penetration of a man or woman. When two men were involved, the Office of the Holy Inquisition, which was installed in Portugal in 1553, as well as Portuguese legal codes, considered both the penetrator and the receptor to be sodomites. If found guilty of this offense, a person was subject to burning at the stake, and his or her property could be seized. Between 1587 and 1794, the Portuguese Inquisition registered 4,419 denunciations. These included both those suspected of having practiced sodomy and those who provided confessions attesting to the fact that they had committed the “abominable and perverted sin.” Of the total number, 394 went to trial. Thirty were eventually burned at the stake, 3 in the sixteenth century and 27 in the seventeenth century. Those not put to death could be sentenced to hard labor on the king’s galley ships or to temporary or perpetual exile in Africa, India, or Brazil. Often these harsh punishments were enacted after the condemned had already suffered seizure of property and endured a brutal public whipping.

In 1830, eight years after independence from Portugal, Dom Pedro I signed into law the Imperial Penal Code. Among other provisions, the new law eliminated all references to sodomy. The legislation was influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, the French Penal Code of 1791, the Neapolitan Code of 1819, and the Napoleonic Code of 1810, which decriminalized sexual relations between consenting adults. However, article 280 of the Brazilian code punished public acts of indecency with ten to forty days’ imprisonment and a fine corresponding to one half of the time served. This provision gave the police the discretion to determine what constituted a public act of indecency. It also gave them the power to extort money from those threatened with arrest or detention.

The 1889 republican government approved a new penal code in 1890 that maintained the decriminalization of sodomy. Although not explicitly punishing same-sex erotic activities, the new law sought to control such conduct through indirect means and restricted homosexual behavior in four distinct ways. Article 266 referred to “assaults on decency of a person of one or another sex through violence or threat with the goal of satiating lascivious passions or for moral depravation” and was punishable “by one to six years’ imprisonment.” This article was usually applied in cases involving sexual relationships between adults and minors, including men with young boys.

Adults engaging in sexual activities with other adults in a public setting could be charged under article 282, “Public Affront to Decency” (atentado público ao pudor). The crime was described as “assaults on modesty, offending propriety with shameless exhibitions or obscene acts or gestures, practiced in public places or places frequented by the public, and which without offense to the individual honesty of the person, assaults and scandalizes society. It carried a prison sentence of one to six months. This provision, a revised carryover from the 1830 Imperial Penal Code, provided the legal basis for controlling any public manifestations of homoerotic or homosocial behavior. With catchall wording, the police or a judge could broadly define improper or indecent action and punish behavior that did not conform to heterocentric constructions.

Article 379, “On the Use of False Names, Fake Titles, or other Disguises,” outlawed cross-dressing by prohibiting “disguising one’s sex, wearing inappropriate clothes and doing so publicly to deceive. The law carried a penalty of fifteen to sixty days’ imprisonment. Although the police winked an eye at cross-dressing during Carnival, throughout the rest of the year, they could use this legal provision to arrest homosexuals who liked to wear clothes of the opposite sex.

The fourth method for regulating public manifestations of homosexuality was to arrest a person for vagrancy. Article 399 of the 1890 Penal Code defined vagrancy as “leaving the exercise of a profession, employment, or any service in which one earns a living; not possessing a means of support and a fixed domicile in which one is residing; earning a living in an occupation prohibited by law or manifestly offensive to morality and propriety. A penalty of fifteen to thirty days’ incarceration could be imposed on anyone who happened to be arrested without work papers or who was engaged in male prostitution. The person also had to find gainful employment within fifteen days of his release.

Together, these four provisions placed legal restraints on those who might congregate in public places in order to meet others interested in same-sex erotic activities. They gave the police the power to incarcerate arbitrarily those homosexuals who engaged in public displays of effeminacy, wore long hair, feminine clothing, or makeup, earned a living through prostitution, or took advantage of the cover of bushes or shrubs in shadowed parks to enjoy a nocturnal sexual liaison. Sodomy had been decriminalized in the early nineteenth century. However, criminal codes with vaguely defined notions of proper morality and public decency, as well as provisions that limited cross-dressing and strictly controlled vagrancy, provided a legal net that could readily entangle those who transgressed socially sanctioned sexual norms. Although homosexuality in and of itself was not technically illegal, the Brazilian police and courts had multiple mechanisms at their disposal to contain and control this behavior.

The Crossroads of Sin

On February 21, 1890, only three months after the overthrow of Emperor Dom Pedro II and the Brazilian monarchy, the new republican government changed the official name of the Largo do Rossio from Praça da Constituição (Constitution Plaza) to Praça Tiradentes in order to commemorate the upcoming centennial of the execution of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier commonly known as Tiradentes. This leader of a 1789 conspiracy against Portuguese imperial rule was tortured and executed near that site in 1792, and the rechristening of the plaza affirmed the antimonarchical sentiments of the new republican regime. In spite of the official name change, the square remained Largo do Rossio in the imagination and common parlance of turn-of-the-century Cariocas and was still associated in the public’s mind with same-sex sexual encounters.

Stately buildings, in the process of being remodeled in the latest French architectural style, surrounded Praça Tiradentes. Since the streets next to

the park were also the termini of the streetcar lines that serviced the northern neighborhoods of the city, including the areas where many former downtown residents had been relocated as a result of urban renewal, this public space bustled with movement. The plaza’s strategic location encouraged an eclectic combination of theaters, the brand-new motion picture houses, a concert hall hosting musical reviews and vaudeville performances, not to mention cabarets, popular cafés, and bars. Bourgeois Rio attended the elegant and spacious São Pedro Theater, while middle- and working-class customers had an array of cultural, culinary, libational, and sexual distractions close at hand.

At the turn of the century, Pascoal Segreto, an Italian immigrant turned entrepreneur, built his entertainment empire at Praça Tiradentes. Among his investments was the Maison Moderne. This urban amusement park featured a mini-roller coaster, carrousel, Ferris wheel, and shooting gallery, with a small, partially open theater in the back and a café that served beer to working-class customers. From this and several other modest entertainment establishments, Pascoal Segreto expanded his holdings by purchasing most of the public performance venues in the area around Praça Tiradentes. When he died in 1920, the humble immigrant, who had begun working as a shoeshine boy, owned most of the theaters and movie houses in the district, from the elegant São Pedro that billed top European talent to concert halls featuring the latest in risqué entertainment for the popular classes of Rio de Janeiro.

Nestled among these establishments of public distraction in the vicinity around the plaza, one could find brothels and boardinghouses in buildings that had once served as expansive dwellings for elite families. The city’s demographic imbalance in favor of single young men, especially immigrants, and the large number of poor women from the countryside and overseas favored this sexual traffic. Prostitutes ranged from high-class francesas, with the allure of their French origins, and recently arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, known as polacas, to light-skinned Afro-Brazilian mulatas. Middle- and upper-class men, engaging in fleeting bohemian forays in this demimonde, could mingle with prostitutes in popular establishments like the Stadt München bar and restaurant, and the Café Suiço, which were right off of the Plaza. If not satisfied with the crowd in these meeting places, Carioca males could also wander a few blocks away to seek camaraderie or carnal pleasures in another vibrant center of nightlife in the Lapa neighborhood. Store clerks, students, and modest public servants who were unable to pay for the sexual services of women who boasted a French birthright could still find lower-class polacas and mulatas working near Praça Tiradentes.

Although this was not the only prostitution zone in downtown Rio, the proximity of so many theaters, eating and drinking establishments, and popular entertainment venues provided plenty of customers for women in the sex trade, who serviced their clients in nearby bordellos or in the privacy of a rented room behind closed Venetian blinds. As has been noted, the Pereira Passos urban renovations of the century’s first decade had been designed to modernize downtown Rio de Janeiro and place it on equal footing with European capitals. In spite of popular resistance, the government successfully forced many poor people, especially Afro-Brazilians, out the downtown districts. However, regulation of prostitution in the area during the first two decades of the twentieth century remained sporadic. Too many journalists, intellectuals, artists, and politicians from well-connected families procured women around Praça Tiradentes and other downtown sites for the police to operate effectively to rid the area of female prostitution.

Amid the nightlife that surrounded the monument to Brazil’s first emperor, in the darkened theaters under flickering lights of newfangled cinematographs, and on the benches and among the shrubbery in the park, men who sought out other men for sexual escapades took advantage of the loosened morals in this part of the city to procure pleasure for themselves. The mounted monarch continued to be a reference point for male-to-male sexual and social encounters. Rio chronicler Luiz Edmundo recalled a typical scene of 1901: “After eight at night lads with feminine airs, who spoke in a falsetto voice, bit on cambric handkerchiefs and laid their sheepish eyes on the manly and handsome statue of Mr. Pedro.”

Both the public spaces and the varied entertainment options offered ample opportunities for men to congregate with others of like-minded sexual and social affinities. The half-dozen theaters, countless bars, cabarets, and music halls also employed some of these men as actors, dancers, singers, waiters, and service employees. A favorite meeting place for this crowd was the Café Criterium, located immediately across from the park, where “actors and young lads with high-pitched voices who wore rice powder makeup and rouge” socialized. One such painted youth who frequented the Largo do Rossio was José N., a nineteen-year-old Turkish-born street vendor. On April 13, 1905, his neighbor Baudilio G., a forty-five-year old Spanish barber, was arrested for calling José N. a puto do Largo do Rossio.

The police charged the barber with violating article 282 of the Penal Code, “Public Affront to Decency.” At the court hearing, Maria dos Anjos, a native of Portugal and washerwoman by profession, who lived across the street from the defendant, testified that at 10:30 that morning Baudilio G. had started fighting with the Turk, José N. She stated that the older man called him “a male whore, a depraved one, a male whore from the Largo do Rossio” and that these immoral words were heard by many people, including some young girls. Three other neighbors, both immigrants and Brazilian-born, repeated Maria dos Anjos’s testimony.

Then the young Turk, who lived in the same building as the defendant, was asked to speak. He also confirmed the Portuguese washerwoman’s version of events. Jose N. added that Baudilio G. had accused him of “taking his wife” and of “having makeup on his face.” The defendant, Baudilio G., provided a different version of the verbal exchange. According to the Spanish-born barber, he had been angry with José, “for reasons of honor.” He further testified that he had indeed called José a puto because the Turk had rouge on his face. He added that the young man even had to go into the house to wipe it off. The barber was eventually acquitted of the charges.

Racial and national rivalries between immigrants and recently freed slaves in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro constituted a conflict-laden backdrop to working-class social interactions. This particular dispute, carried out in the public arena of a working-class neighborhood and involving Afro-Brazilians as well as Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish immigrants, indicates that the accusation of being a puto could unite diverse groups against a common moral social enemy—the feminized man who allegedly worked as a prostitute. The record does not indicate definitely whether or not José, a recent immigrant who still signed his last name in the script of his native country in the police record, was in fact a puto, that is to say, that he earned money at the Largo do Rossio by having sex with other men. However, while Baudilio G. was formally charged with the offense of uttering the “indecent” word puto, the young street vendor was actually the one on trial. José’s personal grooming and possible secondary source of income became the subject of public scrutiny. His use of rouge and other feminine markings represented inappropriate and immoral behavior that merited social condemnation. The resolution of the altercation exonerated Baudilio even though several witnesses, including the defendant himself, admitted that the barber had uttered the “indecent” expression. While using the word puto scandalized the neighborhood, being a puto was a much worse offense.

The term puto, the masculinized version of puta, or female prostitute, was used in colonial Brazil and in Portugal to refer to “a boy who prostituted himself with the vice of sodomy or masturbation.” It was a popular version of the older term, sodomita, with its biblical origins, that was the standard religious and legal way of describing persons who had anal sex with persons of either sex in colonial Brazil. During the Brazilian belle époque, the pervasive stereotype for men who had sex with other men emphasized their link to prostitution. Physicians, politicians, lawyers, intellectuals, and artists portrayed modern sodomites as effeminate men who engaged in anal sex as passive partners and supported themselves as streetwalkers. As we shall see throughout this work, the connection between prostitution, effeminacy in men, and homosexuality remained a powerful representation of same-sex erotic behavior well into the second half of the twentieth century, when alternative notions of sexual identity emerged that challenged this dominant paradigm.

At some point in late-nineteenth-century Brazil, a new pejorative expression, fresco (fairy, faggot), which literally means someone (or thing) that is fresh, came into popular use. Francisco José Viveiros de Castro, a professor of criminal law at Rio de Janeiro’s law school and a judge of the High Court of Appeals of the Federal District, used the term in an 1894 volume entitled Assaults on Modesty: Studies on Sexual Aberrations. In his chapter “Pederasty,” he described Rio de Janeiro’s frescos, referring to the men who in the 1880s, during the last years of the empire, invaded the masked Carnival balls at the São Pedro Theater in the Largo do Rossio: “One of these frescos, as they are known in popular slang, became famous using the name Panela de Bronze (Bronze Buttocks). He dressed admirably as a woman, to the point of fooling even the most perceptive. They say that he was able to acquire a fortune through his vile industry and that he had so many visitors, people of high social position, that they had to request an appointment beforehand.”

In turn-of-the-century Brazil, fresco, with the dual meaning of a fairy or faggot and something fresh, became a common double entendre used to poke fun at effeminate men or those assumed to engage in “passive” anal sexual encounters with other men. Moreover, frescos were intimately associated with the Largo do Rossio. The term’s multiple uses appeared in the Dicionário Moderno, a slim tongue-in-cheek compilation of erotic and pornographic slang, published in 1903: “Fresco—adjective meaning cool weather, depraved due to modernization. Almost cold, mild, agreeable, that which is not hot nor warm. That which is whimsical and breezy. One finds them in the hills and in the Largo do Rossio.” Not only is a space associated with the fresco, but the figure evokes a relationship between social degeneration and modernization, as if the process of urbanization and the transformation of traditional ways were to blame for same-sex erotic behavior. As we shall see, medical and legal professionals commenting on the subject during this period drew similar parallels between homosexuality and modernization.

The renovation of the Largo do Rossio during the urban renewal project at the beginning of the twentieth century provided one cartoonist the opportunity to link frescos to the plaza. An ink drawing and a sardonic poem entitled “Fresca Theoria (Requerimento)” (Fresh idea [or fairy’s idea] [petition]) appeared in a 1904 issue of the magazine O Malho, which specialized in humor and political satire. In the cartoon, a man in a fashionable straw hat, flowery bow tie, short tight jacket, and busy closefitting pants stands with a buttock protruding, lending his figure an S-shape, the classical pose of women in turn-of-the-century drawings. His index finger is resting pensively on his chin as he ponders his new idea and the request that he is going to make to the city government. Behind him is a garden with the statute of Dom Pedro I in the background, an obvious reference to the Largo do Rossio. Since the recent relandscaping of the park had temporarily diminished access to the grounds for cruising and courting, the protagonist, represented by the artist as a male prostitute, has found himself out of work. The poem reads: “Given the cruel destruction / Of the Rossio of my dreams / The unemployed Muse, / Although in gloomy verses, / Will take a risk. / It is a rather hard shock / That constrains one’s freedom / In this ungrateful profession, /And from the mayor of the city / I require compensation.”

Not unlike the Spanish barber who accused José N. of wearing makeup and being a “puto do Rossio,” the author of this poem associates the square with male effeminacy and streetwalking, as if sex between men could only take place if an exchange of money occurred. In the cartoon, the fop even considers petitioning the government for some type of financial support because of the temporary unavailability of the plaza. The stereotyped welldressed dandy, who lacks manly comportment and entertains foolish ideas, is quickly identified with homosexual prostitution. Just as the working-class neighbors of José N. linked his use of makeup to the Largo do Rossio and male prostitution, one can assume that the middle-class readership of O Malho understood the constellation of markers pointing to the ridiculed figure of the fresco.

The conflation of particular forms of dress, prostitution, exaggerated unmanly behavior, the term fresco, and the specificity of the Largo do Rossio as a privileged space for same-sex erotic adventures occurs in another cartoon from the same period also published in O Malho). The drawing, entitled “Escabroso” (Unseemly) captures two men in conversation. One is a mature male, quite large, almost monstrous in size, with a goatee, walking cane, and a rough masculine appearance. The other figure, a man with a much smaller frame and a hint of a pencil mustache, is stylishly dressed with a flower in his lapel. He coyly looks downward and holds a Japanese fan in his left hand. A curled pinkie suggests effeminacy. His other hand caresses the edge of the fan. The more delicate man comments: “It’s so hot. Neither cashew juice nor any other refreshment is enough, sir. I think that I go out every night in search of some place fresh [or cool].” To which his burly companion replies: “Won’t the Largo do Rossio do?”

Once again a play on words allows the cartoonist to portray common held social notions about the fresco and his territory. The corpulent, masculine gentlemen is capable of classifying his shy and demurring friend and relegating him to an appropriate urban territory where he can cool down while warming up with some sexual adventure. The artist operates on the assumption that the average reader will know the slang term for an effeminate man and thus understand the double meaning of his remark. Interestingly, this cartoon provoked comment in the pages of Rio Nu (Nude Rio), an erotic publication founded in 1898 that featured seminude women, piquant cartoons, short stories, and gossip columns. Referring to the cartoon, the editor of the magazine commented: “Last Saturday O Malho carried a drawing showing an old man talking with a small elegantly dressed man with the airs of a little missy (of that kind from the Largo do Rossio) After repeating the printed dialogue between the two figures, the editor sarcastically noted: “Well, Malho, you, who try to be a serious journal and say you are read by families, publish innocent items like this? If it were in Rio Nu, it would be pornographic, but in Malho it is humor.”

According to Cristiana Sunetinni Pereira, who has studied turn-of-the century Brazilian pornography, Rio Nu’s editor used the cartoon to delineate the character of the journal in comparison to its competitors. By imputing a hypocritical attitude to the editors of O Malho for publishing the drawing with its overt references to same-sex erotic behavior, Rio Nu effectively drew the limits between acceptable and unacceptable middle-class morality. In doing so, Rio Nu established its preeminence in the area of piquant journalism, and ridiculed its competitors for their middle-class moralism. Jokes about frescos, while appropriate in a magazine dedicated to pornographic humor, transgressed the boundaries of respectability when found in the pages of publications with a family audience, or at least so the editors of Rio Nu argued.

Excerpted from Beyond Carnival by James N. Green, The University of Chicago Press, 1999, 408 pp. Green is assistant professor of history at California State University, Long Beach.

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