Undeterred by violence and discrimination, a record number of gay tourists are descending on Rio de Janeiro to participate in its annual Carnival bash. Despite the a week-long bout of gang-related violence this week, Rio's tourism authorities expect the five days of bacchanalia to draw a record 388,000 visitors, including 40,000 foreign tourists. More than ever, many of them are gay. "There are more gay visitors than ever," said Claudio Nascimento, president of the Rio-based Rainbow Group, a gay rights organization.
Travel agents in Rio say gay carnival bookings are up more than 20% following a marketing campaign in the United States by Riotur, the city's official tourist agency, promoting the "marvelous city." One of Brazil's leading gay and lesbian travel agencies says international demand for Carnival trips, mainly from the United States, has risen sharply. "The number of foreign homosexuals, mainly North American, taking our Rio carnival package is up 30% this year," said Franco Reinaudo, director of Alibi Turismo.
This year's party has been marred by gang violence that has already claimed at least 10 lives since Monday. To ensure the public's safety, thousands of army troops wearing flack jackets and bearing machine guns have been positioned throughout the city. It is the first time the military has had to help safeguard Carnival. Nascimento of the Rainbow Group says gays are now more than ever exposed to violence. "We're fighting against increased violence and discrimination against gays and want increased police protection," he said. Nascimento said gay parades had been attacked in the past week and there were cases of discrimination against gays in hotels and restaurants.
But other activists say Carnival's free-for-all atmosphere, where people tend to dress up, drink heavily, and dance the night away, tends to lessen gay-related crime. "Carnival is for everyone and without discrimination," said Horacio Barros, deputy editor of the Grito G, a monthly gay newspaper. Interviewed in a Copacabana sauna club he helps manage, Barros added, "The carnival is essentially fun and a great opportunity to liberate pent-up feelings."
On Saturday the gay Banda de Ipanema, Rio's oldest carnival street band, will lead thousands of singing and samba-swaying fans through the swinging Rio beachfront district famed for its beautiful girls and bossa nova music. "It's time to forget and enjoy," said Gerhard, a garishly dressed fairy godmother perched in a tree, waving a peace banner last month during the Banda's first parade. After Saturday, it will parade again on Tuesday. The Banda de Ipanema sprang up in the mid 1960s to poke fun at the military dictatorship that then ruled Latin America's largest country. It now criticizes corruption and the warmongering of democratic governments. "For the past 10 years I've climbed the same tree in Ipanema to spread peace," added Gerhard, a fashion designer, who migrated to Rio from the Amazon.
The Banda's parade traditionally starts when a mini-skirted policeman clears traffic, bystanders, and hoards of street vendors blocking the main street with a piercing whistle. Backed by tubas, trombones, and trumpets, drag queens and transvestites prance toward the sea promenade, wearing little more than perilously high platforms shoes, net stockings, G-strings, masses of makeup, and turquoise feathered hairdos. Samba-swaying fans in flip-flops and tight trunks follow behind.
Gay groups, which also include the Banda de Carmem Miranda, Banda das Quengas, and Banda das Piranhas, compete to be the most colorful and outrageous among the dozens of street processions that attract huge numbers as the carnival returns to its street party roots. Along Copacabana's ritzy seafront, the Banda da Carmem Miranda, Rio's largest gay procession, earlier oozed through a thick crowd of admirers rippling their glittering bodies on a series of floats. "It's awesome, there's nothing like it," said green-masked Igor, alias Frankenstein Gay, sporting a Japanese topknot.