Through a rigorous ethnographic inquiry into the material foundations of sexual identity, The Struggle to Be Gay—in Mexico, for Example makes a compelling argument for the centrality of social class in gay life. Known for his writings on the construction of sexual identities, anthropologist and cultural studies scholar Roger N. Lancaster ponders four decades of visits to Mexican cities. In a brisk series of reflections combining storytelling, ethnography, critique, and razor-edged polemic, he shows, first, how economic inequality affects sexual subjects and subjectivities in ways both obvious and subtle, and, second, how what it means to be de ambiente—“on the scene” or “in the life”—has metamorphosed under changing political-economic conditions. The result is a groundbreaking intervention into ongoing debates over identity politics—and a renewal of our understanding of how identities are constructed, struggled for, and lived.

Roger N. Lancaster is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University. He is author of Life is Hard and Sex Panic and the Punitive State, among other books.

What do you mean by the title, The Struggle to Be Gay?

The struggle I’m referring to is a class struggle: the conflict between gayness, as a cosmopolitan modern identity, and the class position of many gay men who can’t afford to be gay. In Mexico, this relationship between sexual identity and class position is no secret, nor is how this relationship fits within a larger story about tradition and modernity.

People tell and retell a joke that succinctly captures the logic of these relationships.  “Father,” begins an earnest young man from a working-class barrio, “I have something to tell you . . . I’m gay.” The father expresses support, then asks a series of questions: “But do you live in a fashionable part of town? Do you shop at trendy stores? Can you even get into clubs that charge 100 pesos at the door?” The boy’s answer to all three questions in succession is something like “Why, no, papá, you know I can’t afford such things.” Then comes the father’s flatfooted response, a harsh punchline: “Well, I love you very much, son, and I hate to tell you this, but you’re confused, you’re mistaken. No eres gay, eres solo un pinche puto [You’re not gay, you’re just a fucking fag].”

This joke helped explain much of what I was observing on the gay social scene in Puebla. It tells us that in Mexico, gayness is understood to be a middle-class identity, associated with the accoutrements of a cosmopolitan lifestyle — a certain manner of dress, a fun night out at the clubs. But in a country where the minimum wage is 12 dollars per day (and this much only after a series of hikes by the current center-left government), the price of admission to the clubs alone exceeds the reach of many. For working-class men, being gay is not a given — it is an aspirational identity.

Your book focuses on Mexico, but are your findings applicable to other places?

The book is an intimate look at gay men’s experiences in Mexico, but much of what I describe isn’t unique to Mexico. For instance, in the globally interconnected, media-saturated present, we (I am deliberately saying “we” here) come out or we don’t, but everywhere a modern conceptual apparatus enjoins us to know ourselves, be true to ourselves, and to realize ourselves. Similarly, Mexicans wrestle with a conceptual dialectic between “backwardness” (associated with poverty, lack of education, provinciality) and “modernity” (associated with affluence, education, cosmopolitanism), and this cultural dynamic influences everyday understandings of sexualities.

This same tension exists in other countries of the global south. And even in the global north, there’s a sense in which gayness aligns with consumer lifestyles and disposable income. (I write about some of my own experiences coming of age in the rural south, comparing them with the coming-out experiences of my subjects in Mexico.)

I’m making universalist claims—universalist in the sense that the human condition today, shaped by sped-up capitalism and transnational cultural flows, is much the same across much of the world. We all live in capitalism, and we all wrestle with its implications: expanding individual freedoms on the one side, class conditions that limit our freedoms on the other side. For decades, practitioners of LGBT and queer studies have taken a different tack, eschewing universals and underscoring differences based on culture, postcolonial condition, race/ethnicity, migrant status, and so on. This has had the effect of progressively narrowing the scope of the “we” and fragmenting “us” into ever smaller intersectional blocs. Their slogan might have been, “write about anything except social class.” I am writing about class and its salience in gay life. From a socialist perspective, I am also proposing that LGBT members of the broadly conceived working class across the world share predicaments and dilemmas.

What about queerness? What about intersectionality?

It might at first seem that I’m rehearsing a familiar critique of the idea of coming out, which is said to be alien to queers of color or unintelligible to people in other cultures. I am not. Or, readers steeped in the literature might guess that I am looking for points of “resistance” to an implicitly white globo-gay ideology. I have not found much evidence for such resistance, which seems to me to exist largely in the imagination of academics. “Gay,” not “queer,” still remains the default aspirational signifier for large numbers of gay men, lesbians, and trans people, especially those who live outside the educated, upper-middle-class cosmopolis. (The label “queer” is too redolent of stigma to be of much use for people trying to extricate themselves from stigmatized identities like puto.)

The working-class subjects of my study, many of whom have indigenous roots, very much understand the coming-out narrative and aspire to align their lives with it. When they strive for gayness, an unstigmatized identity, cosmopolitanism, modernity, they are effectively striving for a middle-class existence. And how could it be otherwise? Therein lies their unhappy predicament: they lack the material wherewithal to get what they want.

I use the word predicament pointedly. I do not claim that working-class men’s struggles and frustrations are bad, or that they are the victims of false consciousness, only that they grapple with the conditions and concepts at their disposal, not with those that we might wish for them. The point is not to condemn the identification with gayness as an instance of “normativity” or misidentification—or even as an instance of “cruel optimism” in the current vogue—but to understand empathically how such longings take shape within the horizons of people’s experience.

You’ve been writing about sexualities in Latin America for a long time, and your analysis of polarized active-passive roles helped shape understandings in activist and health advocacy circles. What’s new here?

In Life is Hard (1992) and essays dating to the late 1980s, I described how systems of sexual meaning in parts of Latin America sort men who have sex with men: the anal-receptive (“passive”) partner is labeled and stigmatized, while the phallic-penetrating (“active”) participant largely goes unlabeled, largely escapes stigma. (What counts here is one’s sexual aims, not the object of one’s desire.) I contrasted this understanding of identities with that of the educated classes in the North Atlantic, where anyone who has sex with (or even just desires to have sex with) someone of the same sex in any position is “homosexual,” and gay to the extent that he embraces, takes pride in, and builds a life involving this identity. (What counts here is the object of one’s desire, not one’s aims.)

Some of the subjects I write about in The Struggle to be Gay do practice strongly marked active-passive roles. Some seek “straight” partners. And even at the heart of the cosmopolitan gay scene, one sometimes hears “I’m not gay, I’m active,” or “I’m not completely gay, I’ve never been fucked.” But these notions today sound quaint, even when uttered by earnest twenty-year-olds, because they are no longer hegemonic: they are residual, not dominant ideas.

Thirty-five years have passed since I first wrote about how systems of meaning structure active-passive roles into identities, and these distinctions no longer organize clear-cut identities in the sexual imaginaries of most young people in Latin America, even in most working-class settings. And yet, the process of combining sexual imaginaries has been an uneven one. I try to work out how different kinds of sexual diversity coexist and clash in a patchy, class-stratified social terrain.

You’re writing about the present, but you also draw on four decades of observations of Mexican sites. How does a work like this take shape?

Haltingly, it turns out, with false starts, long pauses, and the slow accretion of stories.

My first trips to Mexico were in 1983 and 1984, when Mexico was a very different country, with the corrupt and sometimes brutal PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional] repressing political dissent and youth subcultures, including the gay subculture. I started going regularly to Mexico again in the mid-1990s, at the beginnings of NAFTA, as gay scenes were becoming more visible, even in second-tier cities like Puebla. Since 2006, I’ve spent more time in Puebla, the main site of my research, than in the US, and I’ve spent a substantial portion of my adult life co-involved with the Mexican gay scene.

Forty years is an unusually long period to try to narrate in an ethnographic work. Add to that the deep historical dives I needed to make sense of the changing political-economic setting for subcultures and identity formations. This posed challenges, and I quickly realized that my first book draft was only a set of sprawling field notes! (Young ethnographers, let this be a lesson: Write your field notes all along the way, because if you don’t, your first draft will probably be field notes anyway.) Additionally, over time the people about whom I have written became friends, which required striking the balance between ethnography, storytelling, history, and memoir.

Stories get richer as they get older, and by this time, protagonists in their own storylines had written beautiful, sad, messy stories with their lives. For the great bulk of humanity, stories about personal striving are tied up with stories about economic striving: trying to make ends meet, toiling to get ahead, struggling against the currents of downward mobility. I have tried to keep my eye on both sides of this struggle. Erik, a twenty-one-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who was in the throes of a coming-out crisis when I first knew him, savvily weathered economic disaster and family violence. Oscar, a college sophomore, reclaimed his initially violent and rejecting family, but the path to acceptance was anything but certain. Andrés, the homeless teenager, never had much of a chance to be clear about his desires, to have a gay life. And Diego, who came to the city from an indigenous village seeking freedom and a gay life, came up against the hard facts of working-class existence. The reader will see how these and other stories developed over the years.