Generating Discussion: The Shifting Boundaries of Mexican Sexualities and the Push for Sexual Diversity



Cantu’s ethnographic research focused on explaining the development of gay and lesbian tourism in Mexico and its effects on the construction of Mexican sexual identities. By examining the political economy of sex labor and its subjectivity of Mexican homosexual identities, he characterizes the contradictions of Mexican “queer” tourism.  The fabricated transnational “queer” space and the pursuit of a genuine sexual freedom are driving the political empowerment of marginalized sexual communities. In other words, the establishment of sex markets in Mexico encouraged the expansion of sexual identities, which resulted in a more open and public view of homosexuality. Ironically, Mexico’s sex tourism is highly dependent on the influx of U.S. travelers, which influences the alignment of native sexualities to fit U.S. mainstream sexual identities. The asymmetrical economic interdependence between U.S. and Mexico forges new Mexican “queer” identities. Since Mexican sexualities are negotiated through merging sexual markets, organization and public visibility of a politicized transnational “gay” identity is reproduced.


The “de ambiente”  helps promote an authentic notion of Mexican “queerness”  through cultural expression. Cantu argues that culture is birthed through social economic processes, which explains the appropriation of the symbolic phrase. The term “de ambiente” means “of ambience” and it promotes a lifestyle that creates a fun, comfortable, entertaining atmosphere; this epitomized group identity is clearly aligned with the service oriented sexual labor force. Cantu explains how dominant repressive sexual ideologies historically constructed homosexuality in relation the non-normative “gendered roles performed in the sexual act” (p.141). This construction of homosexuality based on notions of passivity and “otherness” derives from the National “macho identity”, which perpetuated the subjectivity of feminized bodies. Because of the gender inequality that structures Mexico’s social and political sphere, bisexual activities privilege the active male. US “gay” identity cannot fully be reproduced in Mexico because of the socio-economic barriers embedded in the social structure. Yet, recent economic forces and the re-organization of urban space have provided opportunities for new alternative sexual identities that challenge and reconstruct Mexico’s monolithic and iconic male identities.


Cantu cites Ian Lumsden’s Homosexuality, Society, and the State in Mexico to delineate three forces that are responsible forthe social construction  and  policing of homosexuality in Mexico: 1) The struggle for maintenance of traditional Mexican sex-gender identities versus the creation of new identities linked to intensified sexual commodification as part of the growing sex tourism economy. 

2) The consumption of American popular culture by Mexican youth –through mass media communication, technological literacy, and foreign financial investment-including transnational business developments.

3) The affiliation and connection with the U.S. Latino community that reside in the Southwestern border states.


Mexico’s economic realignment compliments the U.S. capitalist system. Cantu argues that as result of international trade  policy adoption, such as GATT and NAFTA, the economic links between the U.S. and Mexico have established a strong bi-lateral market interdependency that overrides the  transnational social and cultural problems related to the asymmetric power relationship between U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals. This problematizes the sovereignty of Mexico as an autonomous entity because monetary priorities take the center stage in political discourses. The maintenance of political, social, and cultural ties with the U.S. further complicates the link between sexual identities and the tourism industry; this results in expanding the cultural export of National Mexican sexual identity.


Cantu’s analysis of the Borderlands as a post-modern reconstruction of colonial sexual dominance situate the U.S.-Mexican border as both a physical and ideological location that reinforces unequal politics of gender and sexuality. The subjective attributions of “homosexual” branding on male bodies actively serves as a barrier to migration and mobility up “North” of the border. Ironically, it is through migration and migration routes that sexual norms, behaviors, and identity among Mexican men and women are re-framed into identities that promise political empowerment through the economic benefits of “queer tourism”. Mexico’s  urbanization and the development of tourism industry were successful in mobilizing labor, which led to the development of gay and lesbian communities and of queer tourism. Cantu identifies the creation, commercialization of Mexican “gay” culture in public spheres, and the emerging “gay and lesbian” movement as important factors in the country’s engagement with queer tourism. Based on the historical establishment of red light districts in Mexico as national efforts to urbanize the country during the postrevolutionary period, Cantu argues that the tension of deviant sexual identification and labor was managed through the symbolic social distance represented by zonas de tolerancia. These “zones of tolerance” allowed for the maintenance of socially marginalized identities, while simultaneously leading to economic gains for Mexico. The U.S. was also able to profit from the establishment of “red light districts” located on the U.S. -Mexico border.


 The active resistance to incompatible sexual identity labels is visible in the increased political activism, which denies the image of a depoliticized, submissive, and passive homosexual male. Through a transnational appropriation and re-imagination of the U.S. “gay” identity, Mexican self identification of  “gai” aligns  political agency through the adoption of a highly visible identity. There is also a sense of resentment on behalf of an older, privileged Mexican homosexual generation, who reminisce of a time when the expression of sexuality was a private affair, maintained through underground networking. Although it is clear that “gay” tourism has democratized homosexuality as a universal identity, it is important to note that in a Mexican context homosexuality is stratified through race and social class.


Cantu’s analysis raises important questions about the legitimacy of Mexico’s “queer” tourism in relation to the local communities and businesses. To what extent are Mexican “gay and lesbian” businesses involved in the political activism for equal rights and sexual diversity?



5 thoughts on “Generating Discussion: The Shifting Boundaries of Mexican Sexualities and the Push for Sexual Diversity

  1. I think that your comments are very insightful and it’s interesting to consider the differences between the terminology between Mexico and the United States. For example, ‘gay’ in the United States holds a different connotation than this term in Mexico. While the United States and Mexico share “economic interdependence” as you pointed out, Mexico has created its own definition of queer identities and the stigmas behind them. Mexico’s connotation of queer identities comes from an intersectionality of the cultural, economic, religious, and political values of the country.
    Individuals with a more religious background tend to oppose same-sex marriage proposals. This indicates that the religious institutions hold a sphere of influence on the citizens who vote for queer issues and the churches do in fact possess a political influence on its members.
    The interconnection between Mexico and the United States also creates an area of intersect where queer politics and political ideologies can transfer over to the other country. One example is the Mexican term ‘gai’ which has stem from the English term ‘gay’. This shows one instance of a transfer of political terms as well as political ideology between the neighboring countries.

  2. When I was reading this article, the question you asked about the activism of the businesses involved in gay and lesbian tours came to my mind as well. Are they legitimately trying to promote equality? It’s hard to say what their actual intention is. But I was thinking that most likely these businesses are primarily interested in making money, and gay and lesbian tourism is an untapped industry, something that a lot of people likely have interest in but that hasn’t been done before. However, even if these companies aren’t too concerned with promoting gay rights, they’re still helping make gay communities more visible, and that’s one of the stepping stones to being accepted, I think. It seems like the increased prevalence of gay and lesbian tourism is a sign that there is more acknowledgement of gay people as a large and economically viable portion of the population.

  3. In response to Megan, I think that the gay and lesbian tourism industry’s primary focus is on making money. I think that by promoting destinations and trips that allow people to be out while on vacation is a good thing, but might have unintended consequences. The gay and lesbian tourism industry, while providing a unique opportunity, is not something that I think will advance the rights of gay people abroad.
    Cantu’s discussion of the differences and similarities between the meanings of gay in the US and Mexico is very interesting. I think that the economic interdependence of these countries cannot be overlooked as a driving mechanism for the promotion of gay and lesbian tourism. I am skeptical of the transformational potential of the LGBT tourism industry.

  4. Whenever I have heard the word “sex tourism,” I only imagined women working for the industry and never thought about gay, lesbian people as well as men working there. When I first heard about male sex workers I though that I was also seeing the structure by gendered perspective: in my mind, victims were always females, and I think I had not taken account of males or gay, lesbian people.
    Therefore, gay, lesbian tourism was new to me and was what I never imagined. I felt that they were used and consumed as products in the business. But, as Megan points out, the emergence of and the recognition about this industry may be said as one step to talk about rights of the LGBT.
    Not only for this article, but I thought that emergence of new “problems” may be the chance and the time to address core problems although the way to actually do so takes time and needs efforts.

  5. I definitely agree with @ktboyles. While businesses catering to gay and lesbian tourism may appear to be “fighting for equality,” I believe they are just looking to make money. As the rise in advocacy for equal rights has increased so greatly (even in just the past 10 years), because of this new spotlight, business owners see the gay and lesbian community as a new, “unexplored” market, a new demographic, if you will, to exploit and make profit. While it would be wonderful if businesses were just trying to provide the same opportunities given to heterosexuals to gays and lesbians as well, I fear that they are now being seen equally in only one manner: as consumers.

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