Class Is Central to Gay Politics

Roger Lancaster

Class dynamics continue to dictate who has access to an unstigmatized gay identity — and to exclude many working-class people from participating in mainstream gay life.

Participants in the Pride Parade in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on June 24, 2023. (Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Zamora

Over the past several decades, almost a fifth of countries across the world have legalized same-sex marriage, and less than a third now have laws explicitly criminalizing homosexuality. This is undeniably a sign both that there has been real progress in the struggle against homophobia and that large bastions of bigotry remain unchallenged across much of the globe.

In the 1970s and ’80s, struggles for gay liberation often took radical forms, aligning themselves with the antiwar and socialist movements. This connection between gay politics and political radicalism has almost completely broken down today. In an interview with Jacobin, Roger Lancaster, anthropologist and author of the new book The Struggle to Be Gay — in Mexico, for Example (University of California, 2024), argues that one of the foundational problems with the way that gay life is discussed in the academy and activist circles is its inattention to class.

In The Struggle to Be Gay — in Mexico, for Example, Lancaster provides a sociology of working-class gay life, focusing on dark-skinned and indigenous Mexicans. What he finds is that American discussions of gay life often ignore how class determines the spaces that people can afford to have access to. This has prevented many on the Left from seeing how economic insecurity excludes many working-class people from participating in gay life.

The Politics of Gay Life?

Daniel Zamora

To begin with, I wanted to ask what led you to write this book. Was there a specific dissatisfaction over how the question of gay life under capitalism has been told over the last decades?

Roger Lancaster

There’s a lot to be dissatisfied with if one thinks that material conditions, especially class dynamics, ought to be within the frame of reference. But engagement with political economy has mostly gone missing from LGBTQ studies, and from the origins of queer theory onward, class disappears as a sustained subject of interest on the American scene. Indeed, in the introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993), Michael Warner expressly expelled class perspectives from the field. “Class,” he writes, “is conspicuously useless . . . unintelligible” for queer theorizations of the social. This remarkable statement encapsulated the emerging consensus.

You won’t find attention to the grubby realities of class existence in Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, which reshaped the field around abstractions in the 1990s. In consequence, even works that ostentatiously announce their “materialism” keep to theoretical flyover views and don’t seem to have much to say about class conditions on the ground. Some American scholars on the cultural-studies left do write the word “class” from time to time, typically embedded as an afterthought in a string of references to other forms of social inequality — “race, gender, sexuality, class.”

When these theorists refer to class, its often unclear what they mean, and I’m frequently left wondering whether they know themselves. Generally, they see class basically as an effect of discrimination (“classism,” a term introduced by Audre Lorde early on in the development of identity politics) and not as the form that social relations inevitably take under the inexorable dynamics of capitalist production and circulation. Or else, in typical American style, they conflate class with one of its manifestations, poverty, conceptually aligning the bulk of ordinary working-class people with elites in the moral drama of rich versus poor.

The result is a body of work that is increasingly distant from, and is sometimes quite hostile to, the everyday struggles of ordinary people. By contrast, The Struggle to Be Gay is a book about social class and how it shapes gay people’s lives, but also how it constrains their social imagination of sexuality, freedom, and identity. It starts up close and personal, chronicling the experiences of mostly working-class gay men, their encounters with rejection and acceptance, violence and love, their plans and frustrations. The book then pans out to take in wider views: how identities crystallize within changing political-economic crosscurrents, and how these historical developments affect subjects’ placement in the social world today. The setting is Mexico, but the class dynamics I describe play out in other countries, including those of the North Atlantic.

Daniel Zamora

You say that there isn’t such thing as a politics of gay life. What do you mean by that?

Roger Lancaster

Thinking in the field has been buttressed by the assumption that gayness — then later queerness, then later some variant of intersectional identity — has necessary political implications, usually by dint of how either identity or conduct transgresses norms and conventions. But is this so? Can we examine the premise more closely?

It is true that everyone subject to modern conventions who is strongly attracted to members of the same sex has to come to some sort of reckoning: “Am I that name, flung in commonplace invective and casual insults?” But it strains matters to say that this personal reckoning has clear political implications.

One strand of the early homophile movement (Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, Edward Carpenter’s activism) allied with socialism, but not all gays threw their lot in with workers and the oppressed. Another strand essentially took up an old aristocratic view, under which homosexuality was one of the privileges of male power (Adolf Brand’s early twentieth-century homosexual advocacy group, Community of the Special, for example) or aligned with the anti-modernist Wandervogel youth movement.

More recently, issue positions have run the gamut. In the heady days of the American New Left, gay militants called for abolition of the family; later, gay rights activists mobilized for marriage equality. It’s hard to deduce an implicit politics in social movements’ changing orientations, goals, and strategies. And if one looks at nightlife subcultures, as distinct from social movements, necessary political implications become even more difficult to tease out. To be sure, any subculture that functioned like a never-ending political forum would quickly become a dreadfully tedious affair.

So I start from a different premise, one based in the very real social scenes I write about. When we gather, socialize, and revel, we are not rebelling, or accumulating political forces, nor are we staging various kinds of transgressivity, calculated to shock conservative mores. We are not engaged in a collective struggle over power and its distribution, which is the operative definition of politics. Foremost, we are out to have a good time, to snatch such moments of pleasure as we can from a humdrum and oppressive existence.

I hasten to add that, of course, subcultures can become springboards for certain kinds of resistant political action. We don’t want the cops to hassle us, and sometimes we find ourselves and our scenes in the crosshairs of the culture wars. HIV still defines the horizons of gay men’s experiences, and collective struggles for health care have certainly been political struggles, although these have taken a very wide range of forms. But the default condition of gay life is not to be immersed in politics. It does no dishonor to the institutions created by gay men and women — the bar scenes, cafés, and club settings, where we make friends, find lovers, and pass time over a good portion of our lives — to call them “social” as distinct from political.

Daniel Zamora

But a great deal of work in the field does present itself as political.

Roger Lancaster

The temptation to substitute “ought” for “is” is very strong, and a series of intellectual moves over the years has attempted to sustain the implausible illusion that gay life, or some version thereof, is transgressive (which is or certainly was true), and by dint of transgression, intrinsically political in some particular fashion (which does not follow). Thus, twenty years after the birth of modern gay liberation, when university students and activists elaborated a lexicon to distinguish properly politicized, right-thinking gays from the rest, North American activists and academics began using the word “queer” to distinguish social subjects they understood to be unassimilable from those (gays) they considered to have become hopelessly conformist.

Twenty years after that, the word “queer” had mostly lost its edgy connotation — but by then, we had already embarked on a series of fresh hunts for the exemplary transgressive subject. This was a subject that could never be assimilated into white ableist cisheteropatriarchy and whose resistance to norms and conventions would be viewed as instructive. We have chased this idea across shifting populations and subpopulations, producing as our exhibits a succession of multiply intersectional groups and ever-smaller subgroups, as first one and then another demographic eventually fails the standards of whatever we might plausibly mean by “transgressive” and “political.”

This transgressive conceit — crystallized in the word “queer,” which, unlike “gay,” signals a refusal to imagine an end to stigma and rejection once and for all — bars the way to the perspectives we need. Increasingly, it stands as an accusation against a growing majority of LGBTQ people who can never be deemed sufficiently queer to pass constantly changing litmus tests. We end up staging endless morality plays, the point of which is to establish ever more finely delineated pecking orders in the chain of oppressions. This sort of moralizing is the enemy of both robust analysis and genuine solidarity. It has taken us to a series of dead ends. Today these habits of thought have put down political-economic roots: they are now subsidized by a far-flung network of well-heeled private foundations, queer theory clergy at universities, and the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) sections of major corporations.

I say, let’s retire this conceptual apparatus and start again from a different foundation, one grounded in the social as distinct from the political, and, as a basic condition of empirical veracity, one that brackets off whatever the theorist or activist might want from whatever it is that real people on the social ground want. Let’s get out of the familiar ruts, and let’s stop seeing the world the way successive generations of academics and activists have been trained to see it. A renewed field then might open up new paths to inquiries about the political — inquiries less beholden to the foundation apparatus and the sensibilities of university politics, all of which, after all, inculcate forms of contempt for the working class. Anyway, that is what I attempt to do.

Class and Gay Identity

Daniel Zamora

But if, as you argue, there is no class politics inherent to gay life, there is a class base to being able to claim a modern, destigmatized sexual identity. You seem to argue that while society as a whole is more tolerant and liberal than it was fifty years ago, such effects don’t exactly easily translate across class lines.

Roger Lancaster

Yes, this is the crux of the ethnographic parts of the book. The mostly working-class gay men I write about, some of them indigenous or from indigenous backgrounds, show scant signs of wanting to be political subjects in any of the senses advanced by academics and internationally connected social movement activists. But they do long for freedom, adventure, plenty, a happy life — prospects opened up over the past fifty years — although they lack the resources to make any of those things happen. That is to say that they perpetually come up against the limitations of their class position. It is worth noting that, as a consequence of their placement in the social world, they also tend to aspire to personal goals that academics and activists might at first glance dismiss as “conformist,” “normative,” or “middle class.”

Daniel Zamora

What, then, does it mean concretely to be gay and working-class today in a country like Mexico?

Roger Lancaster

As the title suggests, it is about struggle, and this is a kind of class struggle: the conflict between gayness, as a cosmopolitan modern identity, and the class position of gay men who basically can’t afford to be gay. Class might be a dirty secret in the United States, but this uneasy relationship between sexual identity and class position is no secret in Mexico, nor is how this relationship fits with a wider storyline about tradition and modernity.

People tell a cruel 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 one hundred 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].”

The first time I heard this joke, I flinched. But a lot of what I was observing on the gay social scene in Puebla began to make more sense to me. And the way tellers, gay or straight, relished the cruelty of the punch line provided a clue to wider frustrations. The joke tells us that in Mexico, gayness is understood to be a middle-class identity, associated with the accoutrements of a cosmopolitan lifestyle. As the father’s line of questioning suggests, this involves a certain style of life, a manner of dress, a fun night out at the clubs, followed perhaps by a leisurely Sunday brunch and savvy banter with friends. But in a country where the minimum wage is US$14.50 per day (and this much only after six consecutive hikes by the current center-left government), the price of admission to the fashionable clubs alone exceeds the reach of many.

For working-class men, then, being gay is not a given; it is a struggle, an aspirational identity. The joke encapsulates it all: how limited resources restrict working-class men’s options and steer their lives along certain tracks, leaving them in the role of frustrated aspirants to a free and unstigmatized identity, but also how class structures people’s aspirational and symbolic worlds. The cruelty of this jest is typically self-reflexive: the teller is invariably in the same position as the young protagonist, locked out of what both perceive to be the good life.

Daniel Zamora

So class dynamics divide the gay world?

Roger Lancaster

Yes, exactly. And to risk repeating: when working-class men strive for gayness, an unstigmatized identity, cultural capital, modernity, they are effectively striving for a middle-class existence. And how could it be otherwise? Anyone can see that men of means have more freedom than men of want; anyone can see that it is better to be perceived as “gay” than as a “puto.” But different forms of mimicry or simulation — fake name brands, for instance — can’t change a working-class person into a middle-class person, can’t change a “puto” into a gay man. And therein lies aspirants’ unhappy predicament: they lack the material wherewithal to get what they want. Like a mirage in the desert, gayness constantly evades them.

The temptation might be to dismiss these longings as errors, false lures, or misguided optimism. Queer theory and its offshoots have abundant templates for just this sort of dismissal; I think especially of the late Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. And perhaps I am on treacherous grounds, because socialist criticism also has something to say here. Socialists might be tempted to argue that these ways of longing amount to consumerism and reinforce bourgeois ideology or serve as substitutes for a genuine working-class perspective. Perhaps there is some merit to this. But people struggle with such resources as they have at their disposal, not with those we might wish for them. I don’t think it’s helpful to unfurl, yet again, theories of false consciousness here. People actually know a great deal about their labor, its exploitation, and their real position in the world.

I hope I’m not understood to be pushing a faux-populist countercritique of the sort associated with the banal middle years of cultural studies. The men I write about aren’t only aspiring to buy the latest iPhone or name brand attire, although there is some of that. They’re neither witless dupes of the culture industries nor are they subversively reinscribing and reencoding advertisers’ messages and media objects. Their problem is not having, not not understanding.

More profoundly, they want forms of freedom that they can’t always explain clearly. This wanting involves money, but it isn’t just about the money: aspirants strive to participate in a three-dimensional modern cosmopolitan world of enlightened understanding, personal freedom, and material comfort. Who doesn’t?

So I start there, and I strive for sympathetic understanding of how people inhabit a drab workaday world and with what materials they aspire to something else. I try to track how these longings emerge out of their particular predicaments. It pays to keep the historicity of these developments in view. If gayness is a liberal bourgeois subject position, heir to the traditions of the Enlightenment, it is also a vehicle for universalist ideals and strivings. The personal and collective struggles I document are ongoing and open-ended. No one can say in advance where they might take aspirants, either individually or collectively.

Working-Class Variations

Daniel Zamora

You describe what Mexicans call the “ambiente,” which is an environment rather than an identity. Could we say that the dynamic at work over the last thirty years has precisely been about expanding more explicit notions based on identity like “gay” rather than less prescriptive spaces like “the ambiente”?

Roger Lancaster

Yes, but with some important asterisks.

Most people translate “ambiente” as “gay” or, alternatively, use the term to indicate the kinds of underground scenes that existed before the arrival of the international concept of “gay” sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. These uses obscure important points, which I try to unfold.

Today Mexican speakers have two ways of posing the question to you. If they ask you, “¿Eres gay?” they are asking for clarity about your identity. It is a question that presupposes a globalized classificatory apparatus, and you don’t have to be gay to understand what is being asked. However, if they ask you, “¿Eres de ambiente?” they have asked something different. Such phrasing of the question is rather like the dated English query “Are you in the life?”

In my book, I stress something that is not always understood. The second question makes fewer presuppositions about identity than the former: it is not asking you for your identification papers. It asks instead whether you have fellowship with an amorphous “us.” Born under repressive conditions, the term “ambiente” works off ambiguity, not clarity, and takes this ambiguity as its enabling condition. It also continues, even now, to function as a secret key to a hidden door: if you are not of the ambiente, you probably will not understand the question, and the questioner will not have revealed himself to you.

I try to capture something of the resulting social landscapes and the kinds of people one might encounter there. This demimonde, the ambiente, where no one has to explain himself and no one checks ID papers at the door, is a floating world with no fixed address. It might be this park on Wednesday, this cantina on Thursday evening, this traditional bathhouse on Friday afternoon. It is associated with the popular classes, to be sure, but it is also one of those spaces where the classes scandalously socialize and mix.

So what is the relationship between the one thing and the other? The cosmopolitan gay scene was planted in the ambiente, which continues to exist all around it. The gay scene thus did not displace or supplant the ambiente; rather, we might say that it established hegemony over the wider geography. At the risk of being reductive, we might also say that “gay” is a prominent class formation in the world in the evening. Or, to better frame it, we might say that it is a way of dreaming, of trying to align oneself with the kind of economic clout that might underwrite a dignified life, a sort of “imagined cosmopolitanism,” to finally use the anthropologist Louisa Schein’s unavoidable term.

Daniel Zamora

One sometimes gets the sense that you are enthusiastic about the ambiente, as a model for postqueer forms of life.

Roger Lancaster

It does provide an alternative to taxonomic reification, which today elaborates classificatory schemes in order to produce ever more finely delineated subjects fit for identity politics. But instead of giving unqualified praise for one term or the other, I try to lay out the different implications of “gay” and “de ambiente,” as my subjects move back and forth between conceptual worlds.

Daniel Zamora

The popular understanding of working-class views on sexuality is that they are generally conservative. You seem to disagree that we should spontaneously think about workers in such a way.

Roger Lancaster

Social theorists since Max Weber have thought that class conditions inevitably cultivate socially conservative dispositions in the working and popular classes. It’s not irrational to think this, especially if we understand a feeling for tradition to be embedded in the sorts of class dynamics that Karl Polanyi and others have traced, where the popular classes have an interest in traditional, time-honored ways of doing things because these establish barriers against economic innovations that quicken the pace of exploitation.

Modern observers, including students of Pierre Bourdieu, have variously extended this idea to suggest that workers have a natural affinity for sexual conservatism, especially homophobia. This is to say nothing of the ambient wisdom of the educated middle classes, who invariably view the working classes as “backward,” certainly on the question of sexual tolerance, certainly in the age of Donald Trump and other right-wing demagogues.

But there is simply too much historical and geographical variation for us to say that the working class, or, if you will, the popular classes broadly understood, are homophobic by dint of something intrinsic to the class structure. Historically, you have long periods when the lower classes appear to have been indifferent to the prohibition on same-sex activity: they looked the other way; they practiced same-sex activities in ways that were not very discreet or hidden.

Carlos Monsiváis notes that in nineteenth-century Mexico, tales about men (especially working-class men) bedding down together could be related without raising an eyebrow. And today ideas about sexuality vary greatly from one working-class sector to another, from one region to another, and, in Mexico, from one village to another. Here you find relative acceptance, there violent rejection; here public celebration of sexual and gender diversity, there condemnation and shunning.

Organized religion is often a strong driver of homophobia, but in practice, religious tradition means different things to different people. Whatever the priests might assert, there’s no obvious connection between, say, veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe and homophobia. Many deny a connection. (Even gay bars and bathhouses sometimes have popular saints’ shrines or altars near the entrance.)

Still, in the aggregate today, working- and popular-class youth in Mexico (and other places) do seem to be especially vulnerable to the worst forms of homophobia, including heart-stopping family rejection and acts of horrific violence. I suggest that, rather than naturalizing this vulnerability or writing it into a static view of class culture, we think about it at the convergence of political-economic and social trends.

First, four decades of neoliberalism have made life in working-class barrios and low-income pueblos more precarious and unstable. Things got much worse when Felipe Calderón attempted to buttress his presidency after a questionable election in 2006 by declaring war on narco-traffickers, unleashing waves of violence that still have not abated. Newer forms of religious enthusiasm — evangelical Protestantism, millenarian sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, charismatic movements, family-values Catholicism — have stepped into the social breach, bringing a semblance of stability to destabilized lives, but they’ve also brought amped-up homophobia and intolerance.

Furthermore, higher education is associated with socially liberal worldviews, and these provide some protection against the worst forms of homophobia, but working-class people from the barrios and pueblos have at best constrained access to universities. In trying to piece these factors together, I lean on things that other scholars, perhaps especially Vivek Chibber, have suggested: with the destruction of strong working-class institutions such as militant labor unions and an overarching social democratic–populist compact, which buffered the working class from the worst storms of capitalist development, workers tend to fall back on conservative, stabilizing institutions such as family, kinship, religion. This is not mysterious, but it’s also not inevitable.

For all the reasons I’ve laid out, we should think of working-class intolerance as a tendency, not a rule, a problem that appears under some circumstances and disappears under others.

“Intersectionality,” Socialism, and Sexual Politics

Daniel Zamora

In a sense, your book is an attempt to bring back class into the picture. But not from an intersectional perspective. Why? Aren’t you just adding class into the mix as one among many other identity categories?

Roger Lancaster

It’s true that I try to think about overlapping dimensions of inequality. The people about whom I write are gay, male, dark-skinned, indigenous or recently so, of mixed ancestry; some are from rural or small-town settings. They are also mostly working-class. I try to attend to the specificity of these factors, taking them all into account and describing their effects on subjects’ experiences. I also analyze some of the ways sexual prohibition, race/ethnicity, and so on, interdigitate in wider social systems. All of this might seem tailor-made for identitarian, especially intersectional, treatment.

But the elements in play here are not equally weighted, with each contributing the same force in a calculable summation of each person’s position in a system of social inequality, nor are they all of the same substance. Most importantly, one is not like the others. Class is not an identity: it doesn’t depend in the least on “ascription,” to borrow a term from Adolph Reed Jr. It is not a civic status or an ideological product but a relation of production, an objective situation ineluctably structured by productive forces. Unlike the other forms of inequality in play, then, class is a necessary, not contingent, feature of the capitalist system, which cleaves the world into owners and workers.

Notions like racial capitalism invariably (mis)read ascription into the unchanging dynamics of the capitalist system, finding there what they’ve already posited. This misdiagnosis compels the conclusion that capitalism necessarily requires racism and racial inequality. Queer theorists, when they have touched upon such matters, make a similar move, conflating the mode of production (laws of economic production under capitalism) with the mode of social reproduction (changing institutions of marriage, family, kinship) in order to argue that capitalism requires homophobia.

This, too, turns out to be a flawed premise — obviously so at a time when “diversity” represents the human face of neoliberalism, as both Nancy Fraser and Walter Benn Michaels have shown. Intersectionality and queer-of-color critique build on these shaky theoretical foundations. I haven’t found much within the literature that has given rise to these concepts to help me understand the predicaments of my subjects, as they struggle with various forms of inequality within class constraints, much less the architectonics of inequality in changing social formations.

I’ve thus tried to bring a stronger sense of historicity to this material than what gets modeled in most intersectional approaches, which too often seem like mechanistic tabulations, the tallying up of one pre-given identity with another in essentially static frameworks. The better approach, as I understand it, is to be very fluid in our analyses, to try to understand how identities flicker into being or out of existence within changing political-economic horizons.

I thus write about how modern homosexuality came into being in Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century under conditions of class warfare and nervousness about the stability of the social order, and how subsequent gay identities were shaped and reshaped under changing political-economic conditions, from the decline of the center-left dictatorship to the rise of neoliberal democracy.

Daniel Zamora

You mentioned the notion of racial capitalism, and you write a lot about skin color, indigeneity, and implicit indigeneity. Are these questions more closely aligned with capitalist logics than questions about sexuality?

Roger Lancaster

Perhaps the stakes come through best when I examine the race/ethnic question in Mexico. A scrupulous examination of the social terrain prioritizes the logic of class in explaining present-day inequalities, even while acknowledging the continued placement of an indigenous minority in the nation and internalized racisms in mestizo culture. To crib the logic of a passage from the historian Cedric Johnson’s discussion of race and class in the United States: indigeneity is still derogated, and the mestizo-ized descendants of pre-Columbian civilization are still lumped near the bottom of the economic heap, but anti-indigenous racism and forms of oppression based on the hacienda system, which bound indebted people to the land and reproduced ethnic identities, are no longer the primary determinants of material conditions and social mobility for most dark-skinned Mexicans.

Given how much racism one hears in everyday conversations, one might think that, notwithstanding legal equality, racial animus and discrimination continue to actively structure economic inequalities today. It’s not irrational to think so, but it’s doubtful that these are major contributors. After disaggregating class, ethnicity, and color, a careful sociological study found surprisingly little in the way of evidence that active discrimination steers Mexican labor markets and keeps phenotypic hierarchies in place.

Instead, we are driven to conclude that contemporary forms of class oppression steer the fates of a growing mass of Mexicans who disproportionately (but not exclusively) have indigenous roots. Their labor has been degraded by “hyper-industrialization, the large-scale introduction of automation and cybernetic command, just-in-time production, and other strategies of flexible accumulation” in Mexican farms and factories. (I paraphrase again from Cedric Johnson’s instructive arguments.) They were born into poverty and remain there because the conditions for upward economic mobility among less skilled and less connected workers have stagnated. (These conditions may be beginning to change. Nearly six years in power, AMLO’s center-left government hasn’t flipped an on/off switch to stop neoliberalism dead in its tracks — such a switch does not exist — but has instead pushed reset buttons across a very wide spectrum of government practices. The net effect has been to reduce inequalities and deliver more power to working-class people.)

This approach is very different from intersectionality. The last thing I want to do is to propose a new intersectional identity, one that fast-freezes disproportionalities into fixities: working-class, dark-skinned, gay. Sexual repression and intolerance traverse society, as do prejudices based on skin tone or implicit indigeneity. These look different when viewed in light of the class condition of society, which provides a sort of gravitational field for these changing elements, rather than as autonomous forces that intersect and interlock.

Daniel Zamora

But how should we approach sexual politics from a socialist perspective?

Roger Lancaster

I try to keep in mind Eric Hobsbawm’s riff in his 1996 essay on socialism and identity politics: socialism isn’t for black people, or gay people, or Latinos, or any other specific sector or group. Socialism is for everybody. It’s not even only for workers. Although socialist parties and movements historically have been based in the working class, the appeal of socialism, at its most successful, was wider. Working-class demands took broad forms that also drew support from the unemployed and economically marginal people, small vendors, middle-class professionals, and other social sectors.

By contrast to this universalist approach, we’ve now had fifty years of trying to build socialist politics as an ad hoc coalition of minority movements that make identity the foundation of struggle. The results have not been impressive. Particularist demands never sum up to universalist principles; they never take the form of demands that might stem the tide of waxing inequalities. They thus seldom even address the real needs of a majority of the people the social movements claim to represent.

In any event, activist liberalism — which many now confuse with socialism — is indisputably better at interest-group politics. Let’s acknowledge that this approach has achieved some real gains, especially in dismantling legally sanctioned forms of discrimination. But beyond these important reforms, piecemeal rights granted in the name of identity have had mixed results.

The right to marry, for instance, is universal in principle, but in practice gay people’s enjoyment of this right has been skewed to the middle and upper classes — because the material circumstances of working-class people impede their enjoyment of this right. This is part of an old story about formal equality, liberal rights — in a sense, the backdrop of the whole book.

Again, I think it’s important to break out of the acquired thinking habits of academics and NGO activists, which have aligned with liberal, not socialist, principles. If socialism’s “everybody” is universal and inclusive, then the approach to sexuality — and race, ethnicity, and other questions identified with identity politics — ought to be to look for shared interests and common needs across all the sectors of the working and popular classes. We should pursue, as much as possible, a vision of the common good.

So, for example, if darker-skinned people are heaped near the bottom of the economic pile, the solution is to scale up unskilled wages, raise the social floor, provide unhindered access to health care, education, and so on. Similarly, if gay men today can’t build decent lives because of the same class conditions of powerlessness and artificial scarcity that affect the working and popular classes broadly, then the path forward isn’t to roll out new particularist demands but to expand universal rights to health care, shelter, livable wages, education, and benefits, and to give workers more power in their workplaces and in society at large.

Some will wonder whether this approach really addresses the specificity of gay experiences. I will answer this way: I believe in human creativity, so I’m optimistic that, if given these conditions, we would build better, happier, more integrated, and gayer lives for ourselves and for each other. We could then decide, without presupposition or compulsion, whether marriage or some other institutional arrangement best meets our needs and desires. We would also struggle against residual forms of prejudice (racism and homophobia) with more effective weapons.

No doubt what I am saying here will be controversial. No approach will answer precisely to every conceivable problem or demand. A universalist socialist approach, however, will prove more inclusive — and ultimately more effective — than liberal particularist rights based on identity.