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GREGORY MITCHELL

Northwestern University
TurboConsumers
TM
in paradise:
Tourism, civil rights, and Brazil’s gay sex industry
A B S T R A C T
In this article, I examine the contradictory ideals
and practices of North American gay sex tourists in
Brazil. Even as gay travel can be an edifying search
for broader community, gay tourists I met also
argued that their travel and spending encourage
local communities to become more tolerant of gay
subjectivities. Gay tourists were attracted by
“exotic” and “different” local models for same-sex
desire, but they simultaneously promoted the
universality of “gay identity” to sex workers as a
matter of modernity and gay rights, thereby
attempting to delegitimize the very sexual
difference that initially attracted them. Moreover,
tourists’ efforts to link consumer capability to sexual
identification and civil rights reflect a larger and
even more dangerous tendency to cede ethically
grounded claims for equal rights to market-based
ones. [sex tourism, gay identity, male prostitution,
Brazil, consumerism]
Taking its name from the Portuguese word for “whipping post,” the
Pelourinho in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, was once a site for the public
display, disciplining, and torture of commodified African bodies. These
days, Afro-Brazilian bodies are still displayed and their labor sold on
the very steps used historically, but the men involved make a calcu-
lated choice to enter the market. Buyers now include many gay African
American men, and those on display are not slaves but entrepreneurial
straight-identified male sex workers (michˆ es). In this market, where the
buyers are cultural heritage tourists in search of the African diaspora, it
is the darkest-skinned men who fetch the highest prices.
∗ ∗ ∗
Celebrating gay pride at “ecoresorts” and on cruise ships, mostly white
gay ecotourists visit the state of Amazonas intent on exploring ecologi-
cal diversity. They are also interested in Brazil’s famous racial diversity,
seeking out the largely indigenous michˆ es in the major urban hub of
Manaus, which serves as the jumping-off point for their jungle adven-
tures. Despite spending thousands of dollars to reach the remote jungle,
many nonetheless worry they are being overcharged by the michˆ es in
town and haggle, coaxing them to lower their price from $30 to $15.
∗ ∗ ∗
Seeking to stand out from the crowd, michˆ es working in Rio de
Janeiro’s saunas (bath houses) unwrap the bright blue towels that
distinguish them from clients and slowly massage their erect penises
whenever they catch a client glancing their way in what is called
“o jogo dos olhos” (the game of eyes). But on the saunas’ “no-
towel nights,” so dreaded by michˆ es and loved by clients, michˆ es
become bashful and try not to let their coworkers see their bared
backsides as they dance onstage and strut through a maze of bars,
theaters, jacuzzis, and steam rooms. There is a pecking order in
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 666–682, ISSN 0094-0496, online
ISSN 1548-1425. C
2011 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01329.x
TurboConsumers
TM
in paradise

American Ethnologist
the sauna that correlates highly with one’s skill at
performing masculinity, a performance that includes
never giving the slightest indication that your c´ u (ass)
might be available. But the truth is, most desires in the
sauna canbe satisfiedfor the right price once the michˆ e
takes the client upstairs, making this dance just one act
in an elaborate staging of masculinity.
A
s these three scenarios demonstrate, gay sex
tourism is widespread in Brazil, from the im-
poverished Northeast to the Amazon rain for-
est to the cosmopolitan Southeast. My research
found that young Brazilian men froma variety of
economic backgrounds and racial groups derived income
from formal and informal gay touristic sexual economies in
which they putatively limited their sexual function to be-
ing ativo (i.e., penetrative). North American gay sex tourists
were similarly diverse: Among their numbers could be
counted men from a range of races, ages, political affilia-
tions, and backgrounds. A few tourists fetishized wielding
economic advantage over straight-identified macho men,
presuming that every vender, waiter, and passerby was sex-
ually available for the right price (see also Altman 1999).
Most tourists, however, were well-intentioned men who
were passionate about Brazilian culture and who treated
their sex-worker companions (michˆ es) respectfully. No few
fell in love with michˆ es; attempted to “rescue” them from
prostitution; paid for their education, housing, or family ex-
penses; and even became “godparents” or “uncles” to their
children. They commonly took michˆ es on shopping sprees,
dined out with them at nice restaurants, gave them access
to trendy clubs, and took them on vacation in South Amer-
ica and Europe or helped them arrange visas to travel to the
United States.
In the present article, I examine gay sex tourists’ mo-
tivations, rationalizations, and explanations for their activ-
ities in Brazil as well as how they made sense of their re-
lationships with Brazilian michˆ es.
1
My primary interest is
in exploring the contradictions inherent in these encoun-
ters that made the missionizing activities of identity poli-
tics problematic. That is, even though tourists were drawn
to michˆ es for the men’s virtuoso performances of hetero-
sexual Latin machismo, they persisted in their beliefs that
the men were really gay “deep down” and simply in denial
or closeted. Many tourists wanted to imagine awakening
same-sex desires inthe michˆ es andto encourage the mento
accept these desires—and, moreover, that the desires were
congealing into a gay (or bisexual) identity framework, thus
negating the very performance of heterosexual masculinity
that was the tourists’ initial source of attraction.
Mission impossible
Many of the tourists I interviewed during my approximately
twelve months of data collection over a six-year period said
that gay travel is under attack (especially in Latin America
and the Caribbean), citing religious hostility by evangeli-
cal Christian leaders, protests against gay tour groups, in-
stances of gay bashing, port closures to gay cruise ships,
bans effected against gay couples by hotel owners, and
draconian local sodomy laws (see also Hughes 2006; Puar
2001).
2
Gay travel is a civil right, they explained. Restrict-
ing the mobility of someone who has the means to travel
solely on the basis of his or her sexual identity is discrim-
inatory. Tourism is doubly good, they reasoned, because
gay travelers promote greater tolerance of homosexuality
by local populations, who simply lack exposure to gays and
lesbians—at least, out and proud ones. Moreover, local peo-
ple received more than just a lesson in multiculturalism.
Tourists reasoned that serving the needs of gay and lesbian
travelers (or, better still, marketing to their niche specifi-
cally) provided much-needed economic growth, ensuring
that gay travel was good for tourists and the toured alike.
Thus, tourists in my study associated gay consumerism,
leisure travel and expenditures, and the acquisition of va-
cation property with both developing the underprivileged
communities they visited and fostering goodwill toward
gays.
Joseph Massad (2007) indexes Euro-American gays
who engage in “missionizing” as a sort of Weberian ideal
type that he calls the “International Global Gay.” Massad
imagines such people to be highly strategic members of
a politically focused lobby (e.g., the Human Rights Cam-
paign). However, tourists I knownever presented their com-
plex, self-reflexive framing of gay (sex) tourism as both civil
right and social activism as their primary motivation. In-
stead, it persistently manifested itself in my data most of-
ten as an afterthought or tangentially, and yet it came up
consistently in dozens of interviews over the years regard-
less of age, race, or political leaning. This was no coinci-
dence. The idea reflects a recent trend in the North Amer-
ican gay community and in gay lobbying groups and NGOs
to use the presumed economic privilege of gays or antic-
ipated economic benefits to a region to justify the benef-
icence of gay rights. Thus, straight people should not ac-
cept marriage equality laws on moral grounds but because
doing so will be good for state and local economies (see
Semuels 2008). Gay travel bans should be lifted and gay
tourists wooed because they have “disposable income.” Gay
men, who are seen as wealthier than others, are especially
valued because they are stereotyped as the bringers of gen-
trification and harbingers of rising property values (Giorgi
2002).
As scholars of political economy and cultural critics
alike have noted, the excruciating elegance of neoliberal-
ism is that the system appears so natural and inevitable
that people seldom notice when late capitalism is at work
in their lives. (Or, as Margaret Thatcher’s policy slogan fa-
mously put it, “There Is No Alternative.”) Consequently, gay
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Volume 38 Number 4 November 2011
rights activists today are replacing radical claims for inclu-
sion with appeals to the marketplace—in effect, ceding the
moral high ground in an attempt to purchase civil rights
without any indication that they understand just how sig-
nificant this rhetorical shift is or what its consequences are.
This line of reasoning is so common in gay advertising cam-
paigns, in social media, and in legal proceedings and court
cases that it has filtered down into leisure time, including
how one travels and how one interacts with others while
abroad.
My interlocutors were not just any gay travelers or
gay activists, of course. They were tourists who purchased
sex from michˆ es and who contributed substantial sums of
money to these men and their families. Many fetishized
having sex with masculine, heterosexual men, but those
who began long-termrelationships with their “kept” Brazil-
ian boyfriends often pressured the men to “come out” or at
least admit to feeling pleasure from, desire for, and attrac-
tion to their tourist clients. There was a segment of expe-
rienced travelers and expats living in Brazil who knew one
another personally or from online gay sex tourist forums
and who were grounded and realistic, offering many deep
insights about the complicated nature of transnational sex-
ualities and even mentoring gay tourists new to the scene.
However, there were many more who told me quite plainly
that they hoped my research and eventual book would re-
veal michˆ es who did not come out to simply be “clos-
eted” or “repressed” men whose true sexuality was inhib-
ited by Brazil’s conservative society. In this way, the gay
sex tourists in my study sought to transform the very ob-
ject of their desire—the unattainable straight macho—into
a domestic partner. Not surprisingly, michˆ es I knew aban-
doned or minimized their use of local terms of sexual iden-
tity categories (e.g., normal [normal] and homem [man] to
roughly index “straight”) when dealing with their gringos.
Instead, they would use imported terms such as gay and
hetero and would often begin to self-identify as bi (bisex-
ual) when a client became a full-time boyfriend. (I detail the
particulars of so-called Latin homosexuality at length be-
low.) Thus, the tourists trapped themselves in a paradox in
which their missionizing in the name of gay identity and
transnational community actually requiredanendto the lo-
cal figure of the sexually available “Latin macho” that drew
them to Latin America in the first place.
To be clear, I am not arguing that gay tourism has
beena primary means of exporting andpopularizing Anglo-
European models of sexual identity in Latin America. As Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) affirms, conflicting models of sex-
ual identity can coexist and overlap, and subjects may move
between them. Instead of investigating this phenomenon
as a mode of transmission, I emphasize that these rela-
tionships reveal how sexuality influences larger economic
processes as the gay sex tourism industry continues to ex-
pand to an increasing number of Brazilian bath houses,
clubs, bars, and other venues that play host to a rapidly
rising number of male sex workers. Although still nowhere
near the value of the enormous heterosexual sex industry
in Brazil (see Silva and Blanchette 2005), the gay sex indus-
try is important to and highly visible in local economies.
Male prostitution and gay sex tourism are now so common
in major cities in Brazil that the family of a michˆ e almost al-
ways suspects the man’s true line of work, andrumors about
which young men in the neighborhood are selling sex now
abound in communities far away from red-light districts.
No longer unthinkable, male prostitution is increasingly a
viable and known path out of poverty, largely because the
industry’s growth has been so sharp.
But more important than showing that small interac-
tions are gaining economic and social importance, gringo–
michˆ e relationships also reveal how economic trends in-
fluence everyday sexual practices and processes of identi-
fication. As Brazil’s growth rate continues to soar, so too
are the ranks of the middle classes continuing to expand.
Brazilians have had bad experiences historically with infla-
tion and are therefore more accustomed to spending than
saving, but highly conspicuous consumption is on the rise
and a majority of Brazilians now officially qualify as mid-
dle class, according to the Brazilian government’s classifi-
cation system (Economist 2009). Many michˆ es who worked
in saunas reported that they did so primarily to earn extra
spending money, and others reported that prostitution had
lifted them out of poverty and allowed them to maintain a
comfortably middle-class lifestyle. These men, in turn, dis-
tinguished themselves from street michˆ es who sold sex to
survive and remained poor.
Michˆ es are quite conspicuous in their consumption
(especially of electronics, designer goods, and alcohol,
drugs, and services at clubs; see Mitchell 2011). Many of
the older michˆ es I know lament that they did not save dur-
ing their early days, when they made more money as “fresh
faces” in the saunas, instead, “wasting” all their income
(sometimes spending in a night what their parents made
in a month) on alcohol, parties, and gifts for girlfriends.
Similarly, Lucia Rabello de Castro (2006) studied consumer
culture among poor youth in urban Brazil and found an
intense desire on their part to consume as a “mode of in-
clusion” that achieves short-term gains. They wear fashion-
able knock-offs and trendy hairstyles, purchase items they
cannot really afford, and “imagine that by trying to imitate
the middle-class lifestyle they could become more equal”
(Rabello de Castro 2006:185). Thus, michˆ es are not trying
to copy the tourist’s consumer lifestyles but middle-class
Brazilian ones—that is, a refracted Brazilian dream shaped
only indirectly by Hollywood and the U.S. culture indus-
try. Yet the men also gain access to restaurants, clubs, and
bourgeois social spaces when they are with a gringo. They
are willing to offer racialized performances of masculin-
ity and to sell themselves as exemplars of straight Latin
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machismo to become consumers themselves. Many came
into the sex trade when they saw poor friends, brothers,
or cousins throwing around cash, getting bottle service at
clubs, and buying designer clothes. For them, prostitution
is not so much a job as a process of economic transforma-
tion.
3
Analyzing the role that market-based identity politics
plays for gringos and the ways inwhich michˆ es adapt to and
capitalize on these logics to gain access to opportunities for
consumerism reveals just how important economic trends
are in linking models of sexual identity with consumerism.
In critiquing the logics that motivate contemporary gay sex
tourism, I need to be clear that I am not condemning the
tourists or the michˆ es who graciously shared their experi-
ences and insights with me. I am not critiquing the buying
or selling of sex or advocating against gay tourism. Rather,
I am interested in the inherent contradictions of gay rights
claims that retreat from ethical grounding and take refuge,
instead, in market-based rhetoric. It is precisely because
the gay travel industry—which is an enormously power-
ful, if diffuse conglomeration—relies so heavily on coupling
blunt-force economics and identity politics that the rela-
tionships between gay gringos and michˆ es reflect this re-
treat on the microlevel of everyday, ethnographic interac-
tions. Companies produce marketing strategies aimed at
gay consumers (as in the titular “TurboConsumers
TM
” cam-
paign that I discuss at length below) that define sexual iden-
tity as a facet of a coveted consumer demographic. My case
study demonstrates the very real effects that the marketiza-
tion of gay identity politics is having at the level of individ-
ual relationships and how the imbrications of sexuality and
consumerism on the part of mobile and moneyed tourists
affect masculinity, gender, and even kinship in seemingly
far-flung places.
Tourist attractions
My tourist interlocutors’ sexual interests reflected the wider
gay community’s valorization of conventional masculinity
or “butchness.” The men I spoke with fantasized about hav-
ing sex with a masculine young man, often fetishizing the
man’s heterosexuality and relishing the idea that they were
awakening hidden desires and repressed passions in him.
“He’s at least bisexual,” they would say of a “boyfriend.” Or
as a fifty-something retiree fromChicago explained to me of
the michˆ e who had broken his heart, “That one was such a
closet case it’s no wonder he got married, but he’ll always be
a sauna boy . . . always go back to turn tricks because at the
end of the day he just loves dick.” Tourists were well versed
in sociological and anthropological views of “Latin homo-
sexuality,” in which one’s sexual identity is determined by
one’s role in sex as either active (ativo) or passive (passivo).
In much of Latin America, ostensibly normal men (i.e., het-
erosexual; literally normal) with wives and girlfriends are
free to have sex with homosexual men without compro-
mising their masculinity or sexual identity so long as they
are ativo. Tourists use their knowledge of this pattern to
avail themselves of the common fantasy of seducing het-
erosexual men (which is—not coincidentally—also a trope
in gay pornography, gay fiction, gay television shows, and
gay magazines in the United States).
Most of the tourists I met who visited Brazil on a reg-
ular basis had at least one experience trying to go on a
date with a sex worker outside of the strict confines of the
sauna, seeking a genuine emotional connection. But when-
ever a tourist grew attached enough to a michˆ e, he would
bid him stop turning tricks, usually offering to support the
man financially and visiting him a few times a year. Some-
times, tourists who had bought vacation homes even al-
lowed their boyfriends to live in them. These stories were
so common that experienced (and self-admittedly) jaded
tourists would warn neophytes that “these things never end
well” or “dating rentboys only ends in heartache,” bemoan-
ing the times that a michˆ e exploited themwithtales of hard-
ship only to leave them for women or a richer gringo. Upon
entering a long-term relationship, michˆ es almost always
begin to identify as “bisexual.” They know that they must
appear to reciprocate affection and desire, a phenomenon
that Elizabeth Bernstein (2007:174) calls (in the context of
female sex workers) manufacturing “bounded authentic-
ity.” The michˆ es’ gringo boyfriends and the gringos’ friends
encourage this transformation to supposed bisexuality in
subtle and obvious ways, joking with the men and prodding
them along. Despite this, the relationships tourists have
with michˆ es are not superficial, and emotional bonds are
strong, if complicated.
One michˆ e, Adilson, who was enormously proud of
having landed “his gringo,” described this complexity well.
We were sitting in a seedy bar where michˆ es hang out, and
he took a long drag off yet another cigarette, reflecting a mo-
ment before diving in:
It’s lucky to find your rich gringo. I’ve stayed with mine
six years and he comes once, twice a year. This year,
he stayed one week and that was all. This is the dream
of every boy [o sonho de todo boy] . . . They don’t want
to bother [encher o saco] with a Brazilian; they want a
gringo. He comes one time a year or two to three, okay.
But he’s not around here 24 hours a day like a Brazil-
ian would be. Cause if it’s a Brazilian, the boy is fucked
[fodido]. He has to see that faggot [viado] all day long.
Oh no. Nauseating! Gringos are best . . . And when [the
gringo] says, “What do you want as a present?” most
boys ask for sneakers, a phone, a computer, an expen-
sive thing. I asked mine to pay all my studies, both for
me to finish school and for English lessons . . . He even
took me to Switzerland once, but Switzerland is actu-
ally a terrible place. Horrivel! Swiss people are serious
and never laugh. Horrivel.
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We both laughed at his passionate assessment of how
“horrible” the Swiss are. Despite the negativity evinced by
his description of gringos as “nauseating” “faggots,” Adilson
did have some attachment to his gringo. He continued, “To-
day, my gringo and I are all good [numa boa] . . . he comes
when he misses me [fica com saudades], and I never lie to
him, never . . . I consider myself bi, because [my gringo] is
a guy that if I see that he needs something, and I can help
him, I’m always going to help him. Always . . . Because he’s
my friend. I like him. I like him a lot.” Notice that Adilson
does not frame his identity as bi as being about desire. It
is about his willingness to engage with the man emotion-
ally but practically. He “likes” him. He would “help” him.
WhenI asked himif, nowthat he is bi, he would date or have
noncommercial sex with men, he found the idea disgusting.
Bi, for michˆ es, does not translate as cleanly to bisexual, as
the gringo boyfriends would like. Later, when I pressed him
about whether he also has saudades for (loosely, whether
he missed) his gringo, Adilson hesitated a moment before
admitting he did. He typifies a certain ambivalence among
michˆ es in that, despite boasting about scamming or even
exploiting tourists, they also have complex relationships
with them. Like Adilson, many spoke derogatorily of but
also defended tourists as decent, hard-working, and loving
men or sometimes as deserving pity or sympathy, but they
rarely expressed contempt and certainly not hatred, as por-
trayed in films or media narratives in which male hustlers
attack or murder a client they secretly despise in a homo-
phobic rage.
Instead, michˆ e–gringo relationships are complex. Adil-
son moved from poverty to a lower-middle-class status as a
result of his relationship and his ability to enact a certain set
of character traits. In subsequent conversations, it became
clear that these traits included his partial command of En-
glish as well as his willingness to identify as bisexual and
express pleasure to his gringo in their sexual relationship. In
addition to being sexual labor, prostitution is also a form of
performative labor. His gringo allowed him to date women
but no other men, which suited Adilson just fine. The gringo
was also a status symbol for the rentboy, and other michˆ es
tired of hearing Adilsontalk about him. But Adilsonalso had
genuine affection for the man and no longer regarded him
as a client or saw himself as a sex worker, which highlights
how difficult it is to define the parameters of commercial
sex.
Sex pilgrims
Not all gay tourism is necessarily gay sex tourism. In fact,
sex tourismis itself a problematic and ill-defined termthat I
use rather reluctantly here to index a broad range of com-
mercial and quasi-commercial exchanges that can some-
times include “romance tourism,” “holiday flings,” “green-
card dating,” and even “sex on vacation” with lower- to
middle-class Brazilians who mainly date wealthy gringos
(see also Piscitelli 2004). Although very fewgay tourists self-
identified as “sex tourists” per se, they did frame sex as an
important component of their travel. Some academics sup-
port the position that, in the face of adversity, gay tourists
may best be viewed as “pilgrims” in search of community
and identity (see Howe 2001). This may be true for gay
men or lesbians visiting San Francisco’s historic Castro or
the site of the Stonewall riots in New York, but, when I ex-
amine the gay tourist and expat communities in Rio de
Janeiro and Bahia, it seems that this search for commu-
nity and shared sexual identity also includes buying beach
condos, starting gay bed-and-breakfasts, and frequenting
gay bars, clubs, and restaurants. Perhaps because affluent
gay men have already upscaled San Francisco’s Castro and
New York’s Village through intense gentrification, it may be
easier to see pilgrimage and searches for community there.
But in Brazil, the economic development and gentrification
accompanying the foreigner’s search for gay community is
still new. Describing the gratitude of elderly locals when
gay tourists produced the smooth transformation of a dan-
gerous neighborhood in Madrid into an idyllic community,
Gabriel Giorgi writes that the “gay community neutralizes
homophobia by playing the role of urban rescuer: gentrifi-
cation is the due gays pay to society” (2002:77 n. 26). Even
though global gay gentrification does not necessarily pre-
clude a larger sense of sexual community or pilgrimage, it
does serve as a kind of event horizon—the point at which
gay identity inescapably and permanently collapses sexual-
ity and consumerism into one another.
Gordon Waitt and Kevin Markwell insist that gay
tourism is not neocolonial because “the tourist is not pre-
scribed the role of dominator, imposing an expression of
sexuality on the host” and that “the rhetoric [used by aca-
demics] of neocolonialism silence[s] the subjectivity of the
‘host’” because hosts may have “erotic attraction and fan-
tasy that match the traveler’s gaze” (2006:79). Such state-
ments assume a low level of incentivization for locals to
pursue sex with tourists. They overlook the myriad ways
that sex between gay tourists and locals is, with few excep-
tions, infused with economic difference, even if this differ-
ence does not negate the potential for desire (or exploita-
tion) in either party. This is why determining what counts
as a “commercial” sexual encounter is also much more dif-
ficult than a lot of the literature on prostitution acknowl-
edges.
In my own work, this proved true when considering
long-term relationships such as Adilson’s. However, even
short-term relationships could be very complicated, espe-
cially among my subjects in Bahia. Most, but certainly not
all, of the African American gay tourists in Bahia were like
Derryl, a 50-year-old software engineer. They wanted to
find a local man—often a vender working on a gay beach—
and hire him for a series of dates that included shopping,
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eating, swimming, and dancing as well as sex. It was very
common for tourists to explain this as hiring a “guide” for
the duration of the vacation, with the implication that the
sex was incidental (see also Padilla 2007:38–40). In other
cases, tourists would negotiate prices for programas (i.e.,
dates, tricks) in advance, but Derryl preferred to give cash
as a “gift” instead of relying on fixed prices, thereby allowing
both the local man and himself to frame their relationship
in terms of Derryl’s benevolent patronage of his new, but
impoverished local “friend” and avoiding stigmatized roles
like “prostitute” and “sex tourist.” Although disidentifying
professionally, michˆ es specialized in working with tourists
and derived most of their income in this way. This model
is far from anomalous in Latin America and the Caribbean
and may constitute the norm in many locations (Fusco
1998; Hodge 2001; Phillips 1999; Wonders and Michalowski
2001).
Derryl, like many other African Americans in Bahia,
saw his tourism as pilgrimage, and he went with a michˆ e
named Carlinhos to visit museum exhibits on slavery, at-
tended Afro-Brazilian candombl´ e rituals, and participated
in demonstrations of the dancelike slave martial art of
capoeira. He argued that sex was just another way to ex-
perience local culture in Bahia, a site of rich and compli-
cated notions of blackness (see also Sansone 1995; Pinho
2010; on heterosexual black diasporic sex tourism in Brazil,
see Sharpley-Whiting 2007). Black gay tourists in Bahia had
very specific tastes, and this sharply influenced which men
could find work in the sexual labor market. Leandro, a
michˆ e, proudly explained why he was so successful: “I have
the perfect body for them because I am black. I have natu-
ral muscles, not like from a gym like a queer [bicha], and I
don’t have [body] hair, but I don’t shave myself like a queer
[bicha]. And I have a big dick [mala] . . . That’s the most im-
portant thing.” Light-skinned michˆ es in Bahia complained
that neither African American nor white European gay men
(two of the largest constituents of their customer bases) had
any interest in them. (This was a reversal from the pat-
tern in Rio, where black michˆ es complained that mostly
white clients rarely chose them over the brown and lighter-
skinned men, and when they did, it was because they were
fetishizing them.)
In valorizing hypermasculine straight-identified men
as sex partners, African American gay men relied on many
of the same images of exotic and overendowed dark-
skinned natives that they themselves were often subjected
to in the United States. The Bahian case study reveals the
ways that, although neocolonial in many respects, gay sex
tourism can also disrupt common assumptions about how
race, gender, and sexuality figure in the exchange. Similar
to others who see gay sex tourism as a question of civil
rights, Derryl rationalized his participation in the sex in-
dustry as part of a larger project of specifically black gay
pride. Travel promoters have even offered entirely black gay
tour packages in Bahia celebrating black gay pride (com-
plete withgogo-boys and clubs where michˆ es ply their trade
as well as cultural and philanthropic opportunities) such
as the “Bahian Heat” tour in 2006. Although tourists who
spoke of black gay pride as a motivating factor did, indeed,
participate in many more cultural and educational events
than their white counterparts in Bahia or in Rio, many also
tended to reify the same sexualized racial stereotypes that
the black civil rights movement and African American stud-
ies scholars have so ardently fought against.
Patricia de Santana Pinho has written extensively on
black nationalism and is critical of the racial and ethnic
essentialism of Bahians who subscribe to the myth of a
“Mama Africa” that bestows problematic and essentialist
traits of blackness (e.g., rhythm, strength, sexual prowess,
etc). She argues that even though such framings can pro-
mote productive forms of opposition and racial identity,
they also rely on reifications created in part by the tourist
industry and the government that are ultimately limiting
(Pinho 2010). In keeping with Pinho’s analysis, my own in-
terlocutors participated in this form of “roots” tourism, dis-
covering new facets of their blackness in Bahia by “appre-
hending and performing the myth of Mama Africa” (Pinho
2010:67).
Yet, even as these pilgrims awakened to the African
orix´ as of candombl´ e and connected with their diasporic
community by participating in capoeira, they continued to
figure Bahian men as sexual “Others.” In her famous es-
say, “Eating the Other: Desire or Resistance” (1992), black
feminist scholar bell hooks describes the intense curiosity
and sexual attentions of whites toward black people and
black culture, linking this tendency to colonial fantasies of
the primitive. White people feel more connected to the sen-
sual and sensuous world, and ultimately more sexually lib-
erated, when they sexually engage with black people, whom
they viewas categorically more in touch with their sexuality
and desires (hooks 1992). In my own work, this was a com-
mon refrain, especially among heterosexual sex tourists I
met, yet African American gay tourists I met in Bahia used
this same logic, simultaneously relying on essentialist no-
tions of a shared blackness with Brazilians even while cast-
ing the black michˆ es as sexually voracious Others. These
michˆ es, they reasoned, were so horny all the time that the
sex of their partner simply did not matter to them. And
even though michˆ es themselves often subscribed to the
idea that the blackness “in their blood” made them better
and more virile lovers, they were often resentful of African
Americans’ pretensions of a shared community. They ob-
served that many of the African American tourists were too
light skinned or so Caucasian in their physical features (or
“white” in their manner) that they would not necessarily be
considered black in Brazil, or at least in the men’s own com-
munities in Bahia. These michˆ es disliked the tourists’ naive
sense of community that also ignored their obvious class
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Volume 38 Number 4 November 2011
difference but would indulge the men in their talk of broth-
erhood because it was in their financial interest to do so. In
this way, African American gay tourists imposed black iden-
tity politics in much the same way they did gay identity pol-
itics, and to much the same effect.
Enter the TurboConsumer
TM
Most studies of sex tourism have ignored clients’ perspec-
tives and their motivations for travel. As global leisure travel
has increased over the past 30 years (Boissevain 2002), sex
tourismhas become its increasingly visible adjunct. Despite
this, when researchers do write about clients, they do so
with little meaningful face-to-face interaction with them or
rely on X-rated Internet message boards where a particu-
lar segment of the most dedicated sex tourists swap reviews
and sexually explicit stories. Consequently, researchers may
perpetuate unhelpful assumptions, arguing, for example,
that “prostitute users” are motivated by overt racism (see
Chew 2005; O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez-Taylor 1999;
Seabrook 1996:38–39). Even if one is ardently opposed to
the purchasing of sexual services, neglecting the inner life
of the consumer does not help one better understand the
nature of the phenomenon at hand.
Sometimes this decision to exclude or diminish tourist
voices is both political and well reasoned, as in the case of
Mark Padilla’s study of male sex workers and gay sex tourists
in the Dominican Republic. Padilla notes that he decided to
privilege the voices of male sex workers over clients to shift
academic focus away from the “symbolic being” known as
the “global queer consumer” (2007:24). Padilla’s position is
astute and admirable. Even as he provides rich analyses of
tourist perspectives inhis study, his concernrefers to anun-
fortunate development within queer theory circles wherein
the “global queer consumer” has become all too abstract,
literary, disembodied, and unvoiced—leaving anthropolo-
gists to ponder what suchanabstractionlooks like inethno-
graphic reality or even what such an analytic convention
has to offer scholars.
Gay print media, movies, television, memoirs, and
magazines in the United States and Europe are particu-
larly fond of the idea of a “global gay consumer.” They
portray foreign travel as part and parcel of “mainstream”
gay culture. In 2006, CMB and PNO Publishing released
the TurboConsumer
TM
Out MRI Custom Study for LPI Inc.,
which at that time also operated as PlanetOut Inc. and
published the Advocate, Out, and OutTraveler; ran websites
and a gay travel company; and had many other gay busi-
ness holdings. The 110-page media kit is devoted to selling
prospective advertisers and investors on the idea of gays as
“TurboConsumers
TM
.”
4
According to the study, an astonishing 70 percent of
readers of the gay magazine Out have valid U.S. passports
(LPI Media 2006). Meanwhile, the Economist (2005) esti-
mates the national average at (a generous) 34 percent. LPI
claims that nearly half of Out’s readers take at least one in-
ternational and one domestic leisure trip each year, and 11
percent took nine or more international vacations in the
three years prior to the study. Although these findings con-
tradict the realities of hiring and pay discrimination expe-
rienced by LGBT individuals and I stress that affluent gay
magazine readers certainly do not stand in for U.S. gays
on the whole, the study’s respondents do represent middle-
class gay male consumers with the means to travel and are
a significant enough substratum of the overall gay popu-
lation to allow Community Marketing Inc. (2008) to esti-
mate the domestic gay travel industry’s value at an incredi-
ble $70 billion per year, a figure that is larger than the GDP
of many countries.
5
The demographic profile also tends to
accurately reflect many (but not all) of the gay tourists with
whom I worked in Brazil.
Until now, I have argued that the use of economic in-
centive to promote a global gay identity based on that of the
Euro-American gay community constitutes a neocolonial
project that is riddled with contradictions. Heeding warn-
ings by the anthropologist Richard Parker, I do not wish
to overestimate the importance of gay tourism to chang-
ing Brazilian constructions of homosexuality (see Parker
1999:197). However, some tourists do make use of global-
ization and economic privilege to foist the politics of gay
identity onto primarily impoverished Latin Americans in
exchange for patronage, gifts, and payment for commercial
sex. Local Brazilian men willing to sufficiently recalibrate
their intimate performances of sexual identity may find
themselves able to sustain long-term or transnational rela-
tionships withtourists andexpats andgainthe considerable
advantages that having a wealthy boyfriend can afford them
(see Murray 1996:244). However, global gay sex tourism is
just one part of a larger “pink economy,” or markets shaped
by LGBT consumer culture. Appeals to the power of the
pink economy (also known as the “gay dollar” or the “pink
pound” in gay circles) rely on the idea that gay civil rights
can be won through purchasing power rather than the mer-
its of ethical claims, but the inevitable, if unintended, out-
come of making capital the means by which one pursues
equality is rampant consumerism.
Anthropologists have long argued that political eco-
nomic conditions (re)shape sexuality (e.g., Wilson 2004). Al-
though subcultures organized around same-sex desire long
preceded Fordism (e.g., Dynes and Donaldson 1992; Hag-
gerty 1999; Norton 2006), contemporary gay identity in the
United States owes a huge debt to transformations result-
ing from the Industrial Revolution, which allowed unmar-
ried young people (especially men) to leave families to
live and work in urban areas, affording them greater au-
tonomy and access to sexual partners and nascent com-
munities (D’Emilio 1993). This transformation dispropor-
tionately benefited white gay men who—in the ensuing
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TM
in paradise

American Ethnologist
decades—were able to consolidate their class interests
and turn “gay ghettos” into thriving upscale neighbor-
hoods. Such white, middle-class gay men (nicknamed
“guppies”) increasingly and problematically came to rep-
resent the “mainstream” gay community, and with sub-
sequent advances in legislative representation, media
visibility, and civil rights, they became known as recession-
proof tastemakers, gentrifiers, market mavens, and fash-
ionistas (Binnie 2004:142). No longer a sign that a neigh-
borhood or venue is a marginal neighborhood or “vice
zone,” the appearance of guppy property owners now sig-
nals the upscaling of a housing market, guppy diners show
the increasing trendiness of a restaurant, and guppy fans
mark the popularity of an emerging artist or celebrity (Nast
2002).
Class-based gay identity in the United States has co-
alesced into “a powerful economic niche through which a
range of consumer products and services are marketed on
a global scale. It is not surprising, then, that touristic expe-
riences have become increasingly important to the mean-
ings of gay in a contemporary world” (Padilla 2007:212).
Within this new pink economy, access to desirable hous-
ing, safe neighborhoods, good employment, and other well-
deserved rights are all secured through purchasing power.
In recent years, deploying this power has become an ex-
plicit strategy. In keeping with this logic, the Human Rights
Campaign (HRC), the largest and wealthiest gay rights ad-
vocacy group, began printing pocket-sized buying guides
that rate companies on the basis of their support for gay
issues so that readers can exert their political will through
their pocketbooks every time they go to the supermarket
or plan a vacation (HRC 2009). This strategy is deemed ef-
fective because spending money, according to market re-
search, is something guppies do well.
According to LPI Inc.’s 2002 market research, the an-
nual householdincome of the TurboConsumer
TM
is approx-
imately $105 thousand, over twice the national average. He
is 42 years old (and definitely a “he,” as 90 percent of mar-
ket research respondents were male). He has a 72 percent
chance of holding a college degree and a 33 percent chance
of holding a postgraduate degree. His investment portfolio
is worth over $230,000. He drives a luxury car or sport util-
ity vehicle, frequently dines out, and orders drinks by brand
when going out to bars or clubs, which is often. He shops
at Macy’s, the Gap, and Banana Republic, but Target is his
topstop(although, at present, there are gay boycotts against
Target for its support of antigay Tea Party candidates). He
votes inlocal, state, and national elections and writes letters
to elected officials. Despite his affluence, he is unhappy. Ap-
proximately one in four TurboConsumers
TM
is depressed,
one in five has anxiety, and one in six has insomnia. Gay
“lifestyle” magazine pages are filled with pharmaceutical
ads and ads for other ways to self-medicate, including al-
cohol, sex hookup sites, and travel.
Ironically, all this supposed purchasing power may im-
pede rather than promote civil rights. Ann Pellegrini points
out that Justice Antonin Scalia succumbed to the potent
myth that all gays are wealthy when he cited the “high
disposable income” of gays as a reason why they did not
deserve “special rights” (2002:128–129). Michael Warner
positions consumerism as inherent to gay identity when
he notes that “post-Stonewall urban gay men reek of the
commodity. We give off the smell of capitalism in rut”
(1993:xxxi). For Warner, queerness emerges as antithetical
to gay identity precisely in its radical rejection of late cap-
italist formations. Jeff Maskovsky adds to Warner’s critique
of the “mainstream” gay community: “Gay and lesbianbusi-
ness owners often exploit wider labor-market trends with
nary a second thought as to the effect on equality and
solidarity within ‘the community’ . . . In the name of gay
community, employers exercise entrepreneurial spirit on
the backs of their workers, thereby reinforcing race, class,
and gender divisions within sexual-minority communities”
(2002:269). Martin Manalansan (2003:68–69) concurs when
he notes that “Caucasian gay clones” fetishize working-
class clothing styles as well as gays of color even as they
participate in gay tourism and circuit parties and prac-
tice consumer lifestyle choices that exclude working-class
men and men of color, often relegating them to the role of
service personnel. Gay businesses (e.g., bars, realtors, re-
tailers) compete for the same clientele and may even try
to drive each other out of business. Gay developers price
low- to middle-income gays out of community areas. “This
strategy of capital accumulation. . . [has] the consequence
that the community [becomes] more stratified along class
lines” (Maskovsky 2002:271). And amidst this rampant con-
sumerism and capital accumulation, gay marketing com-
panies create consumer profiles to sell advertisements and
tour packages to gay consumers, encouraging themto leave
the stresses of this lifestyle behind and lose themselves in
exotic locales like Brazil.
TurboConsumers
TM
to the rescue
The TurboConsumer
TM
is an invention of marketing (as its
prominent trademark symbol constantly reminds readers
throughout LPI’s report; I have chosen to reproduce the
symbol throughout this article to different rhetorical ef-
fect). Tourists I know did not share this vision of them-
selves. Most did not identify as wealthy or upper class.
They complained constantly about the declining value of
the dollar, bemoaned the strength of the Brazilian real, and
the rising cost of purchasing sex. Several complained that
michˆ es treated them like “walking ATMs.” The tourists hag-
gled over prices and some refused to tip, reasoning that they
were already being overcharged because they were gringos.
But all of this changed when a michˆ e became a boyfriend.
Tourists who began seeing michˆ es outside of the sauna
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Volume 38 Number 4 November 2011
loved taking them to the Christ statue or Sugar Loaf Moun-
tain (which can be expensive for an impoverished person),
going to movies, dinner, dancing, and shopping. Many en-
joyed showing off their relative wealth but also genuinely
enjoyed providing opportunities and new experiences for
their Brazilian partners.
Tourists I interviewed (especially in Bahia, which is
poorer, has less infrastructure, and boasts a smaller gay
“scene” than Rio but is also much cheaper for tourists) be-
lieved that showcasing their purchasing power would not
only earn them acceptance, respect, and gratitude from lo-
cals (including their Brazilian boyfriends) but also make the
destination safer and more hospitable to “the gay commu-
nity” as a whole, paving the way for future travelers andalso,
they argued, for greater acceptance of local LGBT individ-
uals. Eating at restaurants or hiring local cleaning women
became acts of activism in their minds. One tourist pointed
to a laundromat in Bahia’s Porto da Barra neighborhood
with a rainbowflag as evidence that the gay tourist presence
was creating a gay-friendly community, which he assumed
was benefiting locals, althoughhe had difficulty articulating
how. Thus, gay travel was a matter of noblesse oblige.
The tendency of these particular gay tourists to mis-
sionize, then, is difficult to fully reconcile with con-
sumerism. Whereas CMB and PNO Publishing tries to tap
gay tourists as a community of consumers, the men see
themselves in more heroic and civilizing terms. This incom-
mensurability is a weakness of both marketing research and
identity politics. Although the marketing divisions of LPI
Inc., its consultants, and its subsidiaries understand facets
of gay men’s consumption patterns of which the men them-
selves are likely unaware, they fail to understand the impor-
tance of gay rights and sexual community in the men’s lives.
Yet the gay tourists in my study were rarely aware of just
how much marketing and consumerism had seeped into
their travel experience, sullying their romanticized visions
of their travels and their relationships with michˆ es.
Althoughthe realities of both gay consumerismand the
rhetoric of gay uplift do cast a shadow on these relation-
ships, this certainly does not negate their value to those in
them. For example, John, a 45-year-old highly skilled fac-
tory worker was able to afford to visit Brazil two to three
times a year to see his boyfriend, Agostino, to whomhe sent
money every few months on the condition that he not sell
sex anymore. When Agostino’s mother needed surgery and
Agostino became desperate, John worked overtime to pay
the medical costs. As a result of his sacrifices, John could
not afford to make his next visit to see Agostino.
John’s story is not unique. Padilla (2007:141–167) has
collected extensive documentation of similar relationships
between male sex workers in the Dominican Republic and
their “Western Union Daddies.” Such relationships can ap-
pear relatively harmless, particularly when compared to
other forms of sex tourism. They can even appear benev-
olent and romantic. Most long-term tourists and michˆ es,
however, are pretty cynical about such relationships, and I
became similarly jaded over the years. Yet I also found John
and Agostino’s story quite touching. But when I asked John
what he got out of traveling to Brazil in the first place, he
spoke of broadening his horizons and loving Brazilian cul-
ture. Then he talked about how “hot” the men were. Some-
time later he explained, “Plus, I think tourismis good for the
economy. It’s good for the local people . . . and it helps them
become more tolerant and accepting. So it’s basically just
good for everybody, for us and them. . . It’s a win-win.”
This rhetoric of economic uplift is common to both gay
and straight sex tourists, especially when the sex workers
are young or have children. It is not, as I note above, the pri-
mary motivationfor gay travel. Yet there is anelement of pa-
ternalism undergirding many of the stories I heard over the
years—which, at its most visible, involved gay Northerners
assuming a global gay identity and prefiguring a global gay
community that they are obligated to protect, defend, and
foster. Joseph Massad’s controversial Desiring Arabs (2007)
is a polemical but secular screed against the “Gay Inter-
national,” an abstraction based mainly on Amnesty Inter-
national, Human Rights Watch, the International Lesbian
and Gay Association, and the International Gay and Les-
bianHumanRights Commission. The Gay International un-
fairly makes special moral judgment against Muslim coun-
tries for crimes against gays (a sexual identity that Massad
argues is fundamentally Western), pinning assessments of
those countries’ “development” to their treatment of LGBT
individuals (see also Puar 2007). He argues that in bring-
ing all of this “incitement to discourse” (Massad 2007:188)
about homosexuality, the Gay International is actually cre-
ating homophobia andinciting violent backlashby Muslims
against supposed “gays.”
I agree with his assessment of the importance of recog-
nizing culturally specific models of sexual identity (as well
as sexual practices that do not conform to Eurocentric no-
tions of identity) and I have already drawn heavily on his
critique of the “missionizing” nature of gay identity politics.
However, Massad does little to concretize the Gay Interna-
tional. I amsimilarly critical of the gay TurboConsumer
TM
(a
relative of the Gay International, to be sure), but I am inter-
ested in critiquing this category by examining the ambigu-
ous andsometimes contradictory actions andideas of those
who fall under that rubric. Massad allows the Gay Interna-
tional to function so monolithically that he has conjured up
a vast occidental conspiracy of human rights organizations
guided by a similarly monolithic “orientalist impulse.” He
also fails to account for or ascribe adequate agency to Arabs
and Muslims who fully identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or
transgendered. The gay genie is out of the bottle, as it were,
regardless of whether it was human rights groups, global
media, or grassroots activists who rubbed the lamp. So, al-
though my own argument parallels Massad’s inasmuch as
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TM
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American Ethnologist
I am critical of European and U.S. gay rights rhetoric that
ethnocentrically places its version of identity politics at the
heart of its mission, I am more interested in how individ-
ual gay consumers operationalize rights rhetoric. When one
turns to the actual, ethnographic details of how conflict-
ing models of sexual identity coexist and how people move
strategically between them, one can see that transforma-
tions of identity happen through complicated micro- and
macroeconomic processes rather than through the collec-
tive will of conspiring gay rights lobbyists, which under-
scores the continued importance of political economy in
struggles over identity.
Role playing
In the three vignettes that began this article, all of the
michˆ es—regardless of race and economic background—
had in common that they identified as heterosexual, or nor-
mal (normal). Only a few michˆ es admit to ever being pas-
sivo, or “the bottom” in anal sex, although it is a poorly kept
secret that the majority will bottom for the right price and
most of those who have gringo boyfriends are versatile. As I
mentioned above, these claims to heterosexuality are based
on“Latinhomosexuality,” inwhichbeing passivo is synony-
mous with homosexuality, whereas men who anally pene-
trate other men are not thought of as gay or homosexual
and can even be considered more manly or virile for do-
ing so (Carrier 1995; Lancaster 1992:241). Many tourists also
spoke in various ways about Latin homosexuality, an aca-
demic discourse that is also circulated in and cited by main-
stream gay travel guides and travel writing (e.g., Ebensten
1993; Girman 2004). (That the social sciences intervene so
directly is a reminder of our own ability to profoundly influ-
ence our objects of study not only while in the field but even
in our analyses.)
Some scholars maintain that encounters within this
model between passive homosexuals and macho straight
menare nonemotional or lacking inphysically intimate acts
like kissing (Prieur 1996, 1998:192–194). This formof homo-
sex can also take the formof adolescent boys training them-
selves for the “real thing” (i.e., sex with women). For exam-
ple, Brazilianboys may play a variety of versions of the game
troca-troca (turn-taking) in which slightly older boys pen-
etrate younger ones (Goldstein 2003:245; Parker 1991:127–
131; Trevisan 1986:158). In one variation, when adolescents
move on to penetrating girls and women, the younger boys
are expected to move on to penetrating the next crop of
boys. Any boy who does not want to penetrate other boys
risks being cast as a homosexual, who—when he matures—
might then be visited by men and teenage boys and thus in-
corporated into the community as providing a socially ap-
propriate sexual outlet (see Lancaster 1992:249). In Brazil,
candombl´ e priests (pais-de-santo) are rather famously as-
sociated with this tradition and are nonetheless venerated
as community leaders (Wafer 1991). Latin homosexuality
also holds that homosexuals are mortified at the thought of
having sex with other homosexuals and are only interested
in having sex with “normal” men (see also Green 1999).
Not surprisingly, homosexuality in Latin America is
not a monolithic form consistent across all classes, coun-
tries, and people (Carrillo 2002; Gutmann 2003; Murray
1995). In fact, the discourse of “Latin homosexuality” is a
deeply problematic formulation. Sex roles of penetrator–
penetrated are nearly always a matter of (frequently wrong)
assumption (Kulick 1998). Straight-identified men can and
do have intimate, affectionate sex with their homosexual
partners, sometimes in relationships lasting many years
(Carrier 1995; Lancaster 1992:239). Passive homosexuality
among pais-de-santo in candombl´ e has been vastly over-
estimated by foreign observers and may amount to a com-
mon stereotype (Matory 2005). (Moreover, I knew of gay-
identified pais using online sex-hookup sites, suggesting
their sexuality is nothing if not “modern.”) There is also
considerable debate over whether menwho penetrate other
men are, in fact, free from stigma (see Carrier 1995; Prieur
1998). And there are questions about whether the increased
visibility of the Anglo-European “gay identity” model, in
which sexual orientation is seen as an identity dictated by
the gender of one’s object choice (alternately and prob-
lematically known as “egalitarian homosexuality”), may
be responsible for shifting views and actually increasing
stigma and persecution of men who have sex with men (see
Altman 1997; Massad 2007). Variations on the Latin model
are still common among the Brazilian lower classes, and the
“egalitarian” model does thrive among middle-class Brazil-
ian gays. However, michˆ es—like other Brazilians—are well
aware of both models and can strategically shift between
them as needed.
Latin homosexuality has become a point of contention
in Latin American gay activist circles. As gay activists be-
gan organizing in the 1970s, they looked largely to the
United States for their models (Parker 1991:86–87; Trevisan
1986:134–154). Over time, Brazilian gay activism looked in-
creasingly middle class, and sexual identity models sim-
ilarly reflect disparity in education, wealth, and social
position. Thus, travesti sex workers may disidentify as
transg´ eneros (transgender), seeing male-to-female trans-
gendered people as not only bourgeois but also disturbed
for their apparent discontent with their genitals and likely
to become insane as a result of sex-reassignment surgeries
(Kulick 1998:86–89). Similarly, middle-class gay-identified
Brazilian men I talked to tended to be ambivalent about
michˆ es, frequently insisting that michˆ es were just closeted
gay men who used sex work as a pretense to have the ho-
mosex they secretly desired. They saw the men’s failure to
be out as gay (assumido) as uncosmopolitan and socially
backward and ascribed it to the homophobia produced by
poverty and poor education.
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Volume 38 Number 4 November 2011
This narrative of the “deep-down gay” (see Altman
1999) also appears implicitly in anthropological literature
about michˆ es and their corollaries in other Latin Ameri-
can countries. Patrick Larvie, although not going so far as to
make any explicit claims about the nature of identity, notes
that the michˆ es he interviewed inRio inthe early 1990s gen-
erated almost no profit from their street hustling. “The pay-
ment of money for sex is not the chief objective, but . . . [it]
provides symbolic insulation from the homosexual desires
of his client and the attendant loss of a ‘straight’ identity”
(Larvie 1999:171). Elsewhere, he writes that “michˆ es may go
to such great pains to display their virility that their perfor-
mances cast doubt upon that very attribute . . . The perfor-
mance of straightness can reach a level which clearly iden-
tifies the performer as something of animposter, as anactor
who is clearly not-straight” (Larvie 1997:152).
Further complicating the implications of michetagem
(hustling) for sexual identity, Paulo Longo (1998b:235), a
Brazilian social worker and activist, claimed that some
michˆ es have sex with each other, a phenomenon that I
never encountered (unless at the request of a paying client).
There is evidence, however, that gangs of Brazilian street
children—from which some michˆ es inevitably come—use
gang rape to initiate new boys, which may potentially
complicate michˆ es’ feelings about anal sex and passivity
(Richards 2005). Moreover, Parker’s (1999:68–69) gay in-
terlocutors insist that michˆ es may gradually take on gay
friends, move in gay social circles, and eventually become
gay themselves. Clients in Padilla’s study express their hope
that his research on straight-identified male sex workers
will reveal what they “already know” about the men: that
“they’re all closet cases” (2007:33).
6
Researchers also de-
scribe straight male sex workers who attempted to seduce
male researchers, saying they would have sex with them for
free (Liguori and Aggleton 1999; Longo 1998b).
7
In Costa
Rica, Jacobo Schifter (1998:63–64) notes that there is a veri-
table trove of urban legends among male sex workers about
colleagues who enjoyed the sex too much or hung out too
much in the gay community and became gay as a result.
In Bahia, michˆ es who were active in candombl´ e warned
me that Pomba Gira, a particularly powerful spiritual en-
tity known for her lustful and vice-ridden ways, could turn
michˆ es into homosexuals if they did not honor her and
keep her shrines. Finally, inPerverts inParadise, the popular
Brazilian gay columnist, author, and activist Jo˜ ao Trevisan
describes penetrating a brothel michˆ e in Rio and cites the
man’s “beautiful orgasm” as evidence that the money was a
pretense allowing the young man “to express his desire out-
side the sexual role which his cultural level had imposed on
him” (1986:163).
Tourist attitudes about the “real” sexual identity of
rentboys and the role of pleasure in their encounters re-
flect the ambiguity found in academic and popular sources.
One reason for this parallel may be that tourists read a fair
amount of academic and crossover literature and some-
times act as amateur historians and ethnographers. (Sev-
eral sex tourists made bibliographic recommendations to
me, most commonly books by Richard Parker and James
Green.) Those intheir fifties andabove (i.e., those who came
of age before homosexuality was explicit inmainstreamme-
dia) were particularly familiar with anthropological studies
on such issues as Latin homosexuality, various “berdache”
and “Two-Spirit” texts, volumes of gay U.S. history, and a
variety of histories that detail homosexual practices around
the world in lay terms. Tourists were highly educated, and
several of the younger ones (i.e., those in their thirties) had
taken LGBT-oriented courses in college. I have also met a
surprising number of academics at conferences who have
“come out” to me as sex tourists, eventually become inter-
locutors in their own right, and are also eager to discuss
the anthropological literature on cross-cultural homosexu-
alities.
Gay tourists found Latin homosexuality quaint but tit-
illating. For some, the emphasis on masculine, macho,
straight men reminded them of their own experiences pur-
suing straight, married, or closeted meninthe United States
(i.e., “rough trade”). There was a whiff of danger to hav-
ing sex with michˆ es, as male hustlers are often associ-
ated with violence and Brazil is no exception in this regard
(Longo 1998a; Perlongher 1987; see also Trevisan 1986:37–
38). Some older tourists said that Latin machismo made
them nostalgic for the halcyon 1970s, when gay culture val-
orized a more rugged brand of masculinity that was more
appealing than that of the present.
Such feelings about Latin homosexuality also allowed
tourists tosort themselves intodistinct camps. Specialists in
Brazil or Latin America adamantly insisted that “you go East
for boys, and South for men” or that “only pedophiles go
to Bangkok.” They felt having sex with masculine “straight”
men—especially if the michˆ e was doing the penetrating—
was inherently unexploitative (cf. Piscitelli 2006). Another
class of tourist included generalists who valued having ex-
perienced sex all over the globe, framing this practice in
terms of their worldliness, as cultural edification, and used
tropes reminiscent of both colonial exploration and anthro-
pological research.
Despite their fascination with various expressions of
same-sex desire, gay tourists often subscribed to teleo-
logical conceptions of development and modernity that
were predicated on a Euro-American model of gay iden-
tity. By combining informationfromacademic and lay stud-
ies with that of gay travel guides and travelogues, gay sex
tourists were able to use their advanced knowledge of local
models of homosexuality and their economic status to in-
crease their access to potential sex partners while simulta-
neously looking down on the men as somehow unevolved
or unsophisticated. Jaspir Puar accurately describes this
situation, in which tourists “operate within a missionary
676
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framework of sameness and difference, assuming some
rubric of queerness that is similar enough to create solidar-
ity around but is different from and, as such, not quite on
par with metropolitan queerness” (2002:124).
In keeping with this framework, when tourists hired an
escort for a longer period of time or took on a boyfriend,
they often took on a very pedantic role. They taught the
michˆ es English, especially gay slang vocabulary. In Bahia,
African American gay tourists also enjoyed teaching Afro-
Brazilian michˆ es urban vernacular as well as vocabulary
from the black gay argot. Tourists often showed off cam-
eras and other gadgetry in an effort to impress, prompting
one middle-class michˆ e to roll his eyes and conspiratori-
ally whisper to me, “This queer [bicha] acts like I’ve never
a seen a camera before. I have one in my cell phone, you
know.” Tourists also sometimes lectured escorts, michˆ es
with whom they did repeat business, and michˆ es who had
evolvedinto boyfriends onthe importance of coming out, of
being true to one’s heart, of admitting that they found their
partners desirable andenjoyedthe sex. They citedthe men’s
erections, orgasms, moans, and any hint of affection, plea-
sure, or intimacy as evidence. Thus, tourists enjoyed their
own obsession with Latin homosexuality, using it not only
for pleasure but also to validate themselves, while simul-
taneously seeking to educate men out of it as a matter of
modernity and civil rights.
This missionizing is particularly problematic when it
comes to the importance of sex roles in Latin homosexu-
ality. Most michˆ es did not want to be passive in anal sex,
perform fellatio, or be affectionate with clients. The more
professionalizedones whoworkedinsaunas oftenadmitted
to me (usually in strict confidence) they had done or regu-
larly did these things. Rumors and speculation abounded
about most of the other seasonal, temporary, and less pro-
fessionalized michˆ es, however. Tourists generally accepted
this arrangement. However, michˆ es willing to indulge those
tourists who wanted to top or who were willing to kiss and
cuddle became highly sought after and found providing
these services quite lucrative and a potential ticket into a
long-term relationship. A few sex tourists—often those who
considered themselves very experienced connoisseurs—
made a conquest out of convincing a michˆ e to bottom, in-
dulging their fantasy of taking a straight man’s “anal virgin-
ity.” These particular tourists were also, perhaps not sur-
prisingly, far more likely to solicit sex from local straight
men who were not sex workers.
Occasionally, experienced michˆ es could turn this to
their advantage, and I met one such man in Bahia, Gilberto,
who regularly bottomed but who would feign his anal vir-
ginity when he met a connoisseur—thereby dragging the
programa out into many days of shopping, eating, and sex
in which Gilberto was ativo. As the tourist’s departure grew
closer, he knew the man would pay almost anything to seal
the deal before leaving. He explained to me that if he “gave
his ass” early on, the tourist would quickly lose interest in
him. Thus, in an ironic reversal, Gilberto used his advanced
knowledge of Euro-American homosexuality to maximize
his own profits.
When asked why they preferred to traffic in straight
Brazilians, tourists complained that gay-identified Brazil-
ian men were too much like themselves. One explained,
“You go to the Week [an expensive nightclub fran-
chise in Rio and S˜ ao Paulo] and they have DJs who
work in New York. They wear the same clothes, same
hair . . . they play Madonna . . . and a lot of them are hot,
but also. . . you know, flame-on [effeminate] . . . I came
here [to Brazil] to get away from that.” Such gay Brazil-
ian men, being middle-class, were also much harder for
tourists to attract or impress. Instead, the tourists were
caught in the conundrum of wanting to coax a straight-
identified man into the familiar social script of “com-
ing out” as gay or bi—or at least admitting to feeling a
desire that would betray an inner gay or bi identity—
while also being turned off by the commodities, signifiers,
and lifestyle associated with global gay identity. This
contradiction does more than just throw the practices and
rationalizations of gay tourists into question, however. It ac-
tually reveals a good deal about how sexual identity and
consumerismare beginning to functiontransnationally and
how accounting for them helps explain the increasing futil-
ity of personal politically based “authentic” identities.
Conclusion
The most famous and enduring (if often criticized) socio-
logical theory of tourists and their motivations for travel is
that of the sociologist Dean MacCannell (1976), who argued
that the main reason people travel is that we lead such su-
perficial lives that we must seek “authenticity” elsewhere.
We global consumers may enjoy modern conveniences and
our fast-paced lives, but sometimes we need a piece of what
we see as easy, tropical life—only to end up buying (mass-
produced) souvenirs of this simpler time and place to take
home and show to our friends. MacCannell’s argument was
ahead of its time insomuch as it foresaw the ennui now so
closely associated with rampant consumerism, crass com-
modification, reality television, product placement, and the
corporatization of popular culture.
The superficiality that the gay tourists I met in Brazil
are so eager to escape from is, rather ironically, the con-
sumerism of the “mainstream” gay community itself. But
their newfound object choice is revealing. They go in search
of “authentically” heterosexual, working-class, masculine,
Latin machismo as an antidote. However, the gay tourist’s
very presence—which is only possible as a result of his eco-
nomic privilege—imbues his interactions with his chosen
sexual partners with economic difference and incentivizes
particular performances of masculinity and sexuality to suit
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Volume 38 Number 4 November 2011
the tourist’s desires. The longer these relationships last, the
greater the incentivization, including the adoption of new
nomenclature, vocabulary, and identity models (at least su-
perficially). When such a fantasy fails to turn into a last-
ing relationship, the tourist becomes increasingly frustrated
and begins his search for the “real thing” all over again.
These relationships often fail to live up to expectations pre-
cisely because the gay tourist is not successfully missioniz-
ing gay identity politics—awakening latent, true desires or
coaxing his partner out of the closet—but, rather, contribut-
ing to the young man’s own consumerism through gifts of
phones, clothes, and electronics and increasing his access
to trendy clubs, restaurants, and the like. But tourists re-
ject middle-class gay-identified Brazilians as too much like
themselves to be appropriate objects of their affection and
therefore not as authentic as the ruggedmichˆ es. Inso doing,
they consign themselves to the realm of shifting, conflict-
ing, unstable relationships with “straight” men whom such
a relationship effectively turns into precisely the middle-
class, consumer-oriented, gay or bisexual man the tourist
eschews.
This case study offers a cautionary warning not only
about the contradictions and ambiguity of the individual
identity-making practices within the relationships I have
described but also about the overarching rhetorical frame-
works housing them. The great liberal dilemma for us in
U.S. society is that we understand consumption is politi-
cal, yet we are powerless to change the futility of marke-
tization. Even as we become attuned to “buying green” or
“organic,” for example, we see these terms co-opted by un-
scrupulous marketers and advertisers who collapse polit-
ical identities into marketing demographics and political
choices into consumer behaviors. Like the tourists in this
study, many progressives may relate to the temptations and
perils of mixing identity and consumerism. The gay tourists
in my study perceived their travel as an exercise of their civil
rights through purchasing power, describing it as a matter
of economic uplift for local communities and as promot-
ing tolerance of diversity. This rhetoric parallels not only
that of major gay advertising, marketing, and media cam-
paigns that promote the image of a global gay consumer
but also the efforts of major gay rights groups that privilege
economic arguments for gay rights over ethical, moral, and
social ones. It is precisely because of their choice to em-
brace universalizing gay identity frameworks amidst wide
economic difference that gay tourists so often find their
relationships unsatisfying. And this combination of con-
sumerism and identity politics is a dangerous brew.
In making this critique of the marketization of civil
rights, I want to be clear that I am distinguishing between
appeals that valorize consumerism and those that do not.
For example, the Montgomery bus boycott used the eco-
nomic leverage of poor blacks to press for civil rights, but
it did not assert that they deserved equal treatment be-
cause of disposable income. It was not an attempt to pur-
chase rights but to drawattention to moral arguments. This
is wholly different than the missionizing rhetoric and no-
blesse oblige that I have described. I do not argue that LGBT
people should purchase goods from antigay companies or
that they should not support gay-friendly businesses but,
rather, that they should not abandon moral claims for rad-
ical inclusivity by arguing that they deserve rights because
they are valuable consumers. To do so too intimately links
identity with consumerism—making the latter a condition
for the former and, thus, a prerequisite for equal rights that
consolidates racial and class privilege of the elite within the
gay community.
Ceding logical arguments for social inclusivity to the
marketplace is more than just a poorly chosen strategy. It
is a retreat into and an embrace of the Right’s neoliberal
worldview, in which the market ultimately yields the so-
cial reality that is meant to be. And yet this blend of con-
sumerism and identity politics can easily creep into other
causes. Much like the HRC’s aforementioned book for gay
consumers that ranks major brands by how gay friendly
they are (a ranking based also on companies’ advertising
andmarketing campaigns, not only ontheir political contri-
butions and employee benefits), there are now several edi-
tions of the popular Blue Pages, an ostensibly democratic–
progressive buyer’s guide. Amazon.comoffers titles like The
Feminist Dollar: The Wise Woman’s Buying Guide (Katz and
Katz 1997). Much like LPI Inc. with its Turboconsumer
TM
Study, the Nielson Company issues marketing reports on
tapping into African American buying power. Anthropol-
ogists have long been ahead of the academy in explor-
ing the overlap between racial, sexual, gender, and class-
based identities. But consumer behavior is becoming so
uncritically entangled in racial, sexual, and gender iden-
tity that people ignore that overlap at their peril. When gay
tourists independently and consistently rationalize their
sexual activities as economically beneficial to their part-
ners and the local community and their travel as a boon
to the gay community, they illustrate how entrenched this
rhetorical framework is. Yet I do not think they are alone.
As anthropologists and scholars who often work with and
among marginalized communities, we need to be vigilant
about examining instances in which individuals or organi-
zations operationalize human rights discourses using ne-
oliberal rhetoric. Identity frameworks, be they sexual or eth-
nic, that hinge on (even benign) consumerism ultimately
serve to exclude by conflating purchasing power and mar-
ket potential with essentialist notions of authentic and im-
mutable identity.
Notes
Acknowledgments. I collected ethnographic data in this ongo-
ing research project over a period of approximately twelve months
between 2006 and 2011, primarily in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador
678
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American Ethnologist
da Bahia but also during short periods in S˜ ao Paulo and Manaus.
During summer 2008, I also studied Brazilian male sex-worker mi-
gration to the Netherlands and Spain. My special thanks to Mary
Weismantel, who read many drafts and without whom this arti-
cle would not exist. Thanks also to my advisor, E. Patrick Johnson,
and to D. Soyini Madison, Ram´ on Rivera-Servera, Pavithra Prasad,
Dawn Pankonien, H´ ector Carrillo, and Steve Epstein at Northwest-
ern; Don Kulick, Stephan Palmi´ e, and Anwen Tormey at the Univer-
sity of Chicago; Thaddeus Blanchette at the Universidade Federal
do Rio de Janeiro; Ana Paula da Silva at the Universidade de S˜ ao
Paulo; and my research assistant, “Stavo,” who wishes to remain
anonymous. Thanks also to Bill Leap, Ellen Lewin, and the Associ-
ation for Queer Anthropology, through whose panels and Kenneth
Payne Prize competition early versions of this article were devel-
oped. My sincere thanks also go to Don Donham and the anony-
mous reviewers at AE for their depthof insight andtoLinda Forman
for her editing prowess. This research was made possible through
the generous support of the Roberta Buffett Center for Interna-
tional and Comparative Studies, the Mellon Graduate Cluster Fel-
lowship, the Graduate School, the School of Communication, and
the Sexualities Project at Northwestern.
1. I use michˆ e somewhat reluctantly because of its standard us-
age in what little literature exists on male prostitutes in Brazil, al-
though many men preferred other terms, such as garoto de pro-
grama (rentboy), because they felt michˆ e had a low-class or street
connotation. Also, I use sex worker and prostitute interchangeably
despite their different genealogies, largely because prostitutes in
Brazil’s sex-worker rights movement are reclaiming the word pros-
titute and many explicitly reject sex worker, even as the global sex-
worker rights movement often finds prostitute disparaging.
2. The history of homoerotic travel is mired in colonialism, com-
mercial sex, and also legitimate fears of travelers. In the 18th
century, northern European men with same-sex desires left their
prohibitive homelands to tour the Mediterranean to have (often
commercial) same-sex encounters (Clift et al. 2002:18). By the late
19th century, locations like Capri, Naples, and Sicily had earned
considerable reputations for male–male sex tourism, with perhaps
the most famous tourist being Lord Byron, who had affairs with
Eustanthius Giorgiu and Nicolo Giraud in Greece (the latter be-
coming his heir), even while receiving secret messages warning
him, should he wish to return to England, of homosexual perse-
cutions there (Crompton 1985). Another famous prototype for the
gay tourist was E. M. Forster, who lost his virginity to an Egyp-
tian soldier on a beach and took a married policeman as his long-
time lover (Kermode 2009). Nascent gay tourism also went hand in
hand with colonialism, most notably in Tangiers (Waitt and Mark-
well 2006:44–48). Colonial accounts of the unchecked licentious-
ness and rampant sodomy among “primitive” people further en-
couraged the idea that one could easily find sexual partners in
new lands (Bleys 1995). In fact, Brazil was an early destination for
foreign men with same-sex desires. As early as 1550, Portuguese
men convicted of sodomy were exiled to Brazil (Waitt and Mark-
well 2006:53). Nineteenth- and 20th-century urban Brazilians de-
veloped their own homosexual subcultures on par with those of
other cities (Green 1999). Brazil was also a favorite destination for
celebrities and gay icons like Rock Hudson and Liza Minelli, mak-
ing it a premier destination for early gay travel (Waitt and Mark-
well 2006:54). Brazil’s complicated gay history is the subject of Jo˜ ao
Silv´ erio Trevisan’s classic book Perverts in Paradise (1986), which
the present article’s title references.
3. Sex workers are not the only people to find themselves per-
forming for tourists. Restaurateurs, hotel staff, and others in the
service industry are well aware that tourists come to Brazil look-
ing for particular identity formations—not only sexual ones, as in
the case of gay sex tourists seeking out Latin homosexuality, but
also national and racial identities. This is best illustrated in Bahia’s
historical center, the Pelourinho, where residents found their daily
lived practices being packaged by the government as patrimony
(Collins 2008). Venders and other “micro-entrepreneurs” (Collins
2008:240) were removed along with many residents (through emi-
nent domain) so the center could become a UNESCO World Her-
itage site. Women selling Bahian food on its streets must now pur-
chase traditional baiana costumes. Withmany residents forcedout,
the historical city center became a complicated site of blackness
(Sansone 1995). Its history as the center of Brazil’s slave capital,
ironically, led to the eventual banishing of black bodies to make
way for tourists, many of them African American, who are seeking
a particular iteration of diasporic black identity (see Pinho 2010;
Selka 2009).
4. In 2009, Regent Entertainment Media bought a majority in
PlanetOut Inc. A long and quite complicated series of business
dealings involving various media holdings and buyouts links LPI
to PlanetOut, Regent, and Here Media Inc., and investigations are
now underway into crimes hiding the poor financial shape of the
company. What is relevant to my point here is that the demo-
graphic targeted in the marketing materials (and also visible in
magazine ads) has remained more or less consistent regardless
of who happens to control the holdings or what the company’s
finances are like at any given moment.
5. The statistics are probably inflated, and the sample likely
does not represent the magazine’s actual readership. I am less in-
terested in the “fact” of the TurboConsumer
TM
than I am in the
TurboConsumer
TM
as a marketing construct. Moreover, gay mag-
azines in general are a poor barometer of the consumer interests of
the “mainstream” gay community because they have been plagued
with flagging readership and circulation as readers turn to the
Internet for content. I do not believe they represent a majority of
gay men (and they certainly do not speak for or to lesbians, bisexu-
als, transgendered or queer people), but they do reflect a very pow-
erful subset of affluent gay consumers for whom gay tourism is an
important undertaking.
6. Both the clients and male sex workers in Padilla’s study are
strikingly similar to those in my own, but Padilla does not describe
the clients making the leap between believing that the straight-
identified male sex workers are gay and actually inducing them
to “come out” as a matter of civil rights. Although we are both
concerned with sexual political economy and gay consumerism,
Padilla’s study is much more expert in issues of public health than
my own and he rounds out his ethnographic data with substantial
quantitative evidence. In contrast, I devote a great deal of my time
with tourists to explicitly asking them to be reflexive about their
own motivations for travel, which is not an overt focus of Padilla’s
work.
7. My own experience corroborates other researchers’ reports
that it is common for male sex workers to press for sex with re-
searchers. Beyond any potential material benefits they may have
seen, michˆ es have so few nonsexual relationships with foreigners
that respect and attention can be mistaken for receptivity to sex-
ual advances. The converse situation also existed. A few michˆ es
acted very protective of me (escorting me at night, bidding me to
dress down), came to speak very seriously about the research, and
warned other michˆ es not to make sexual advances to me.
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accepted May 31, 2011
final version submitted June 6, 2011
Gregory Mitchell
Department of Performance Studies
Program in Gender Studies
Northwestern University
1920 Campus Drive Annie May Swift Hall
Evanston, IL 60208
gcmitchell@gmail.com
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