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inimal research exists about queer institutionalization at the level of non-profit and community organizing, despite the ubiquity of queer non-profit organizations in North American queer cultures and politics. Myrl Beam’s Gay, Inc. offers a pertinent intervention into this gap, attending to the intersections of non-profit organizing, urban social movements, and LGBTQ+ politics. Beam’s account of the delicate and complex political dynamics that manifest in LGBTQ+ non-profit organizing in Chicago, Illinois, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, illuminates the significant ties between LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations and homonormative processes that construct proper queer subjects, which rely upon narratives of deservingness through compassion, and worthy or unworthy LGBTQ+ subjects, in the non-profit sector.
Beam presents ways in which the notion of community quickly becomes wielded as a technology of governance through queer non-profit organizations located within architectures of homonormativity. Community functions as a biopolitical form of discipline, which Beam (2018: 83) describes as “increasingly the logic through which some queer bodies are protected and folded into (national) life, while others are located outside the life of the nation, a threat to it, and exposed to early death.” Within organizations, this unfolds through a simultaneous exclusion and incorporation of such subjects into mainstream discourses, and value becomes imbued into certain queer bodies – individual subjects, as well as collective groups, communities, and organizations – while stripped from others, within queer non-profit organizations. In urban environments, this instruction of value bleeds from non-profits into localized political contexts and social dynamics, which Beam illustrates effectively through his case study of Chicago’s LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations. Boystown, Chicago’s gay village – a predominantly white neighborhood and the location of the majority of organizations discussed in Gay, Inc. – has a contentious history with homeless Black and Brown youth (see, for example, Daniel-McCarter, 2012 and Rosenberg, 2017). Beam charts the history of Boystown’s racial tension through an in-depth approach to the neighborhood’s queer non-profits, which have reflected both overt and less visible forms of queer racism perpetuated throughout the gay village. Part of this was initiated by Take Back Boystown, a movement that gained momentum in 2011 involving white residents calling for an increased police presence to monitor the behaviors, movements, and bodies of Black and Brown youth in the neighborhood.
The saturation of queer and trans support services in the area has attracted predominantly Black and Brown homeless LGBTQ+ youth to this wealthy, white gay neighborhood for many years. Yet despite the concentration of organizations, forms of community policing within Boystown quickly infiltrated into these queer non-profits. For example, Chicago’s Center on Halsted (COH) created a task force on crime and hired private security guards, which Beam explains effectively “endorsed… the racist narrative of Take Back Boystown” (p. 104). At the same time, the Broadway Youth Center (BYC), a drop-in service for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, was temporarily housed in a church basement and “remained in that precarious position – in a stop-gap location only intended to last a few months – until a new space was finally acquired in 2016” (p. 66). The BYC was held in this precarity for several years, despite very successful fundraisers run by its sister organization, the Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC), which could have helped the BYC to secure a stable location – but never did. Beam charts how the BYC remained financially insecure over several years while the HBHC heavily relied upon the narratives of BYC youth members, who were predominantly Black and Brown, to ensure successful fundraising campaigns by eliciting compassion-through-donation, and cultivating a sense of donor-as-savior, without ever funneling the capital gained through these fundraisers back to the BYC or the youth who made the campaigns so successful. For many years, the BYC continued to be centered in “a never-ending stream of fundraising ideas that would exploit the stories of BYC youth for financial gain,” (p. 72) illustrating the simultaneous efforts to exclude homeless Black and Brown LGBTQ+ youth while also requiring their fixedness in funding discourses within these non-profit organizations. Thus, we see here the material and geographical consequences of the cruel attachment between the BYC and HBHC, wherein the BYC is exploited for capital gain while being maintained in a precarious financial state, unable to provide stability for its housing precarious LGBTQ+ youth members because of its own vulnerability. Youth’s instability and hypermobility in the city is, consequently, reflected in the BYC’s own precarity in Boystown, and this starkly falls along the lines of race.
But this dynamic also points to the ways in which non-profit organizations deploy and rely upon the violences experienced by LGBTQ+ people of color for financial gain, while minimally investing into resources to counter institutions and forces that inflict violence, and contributing to current and future networks of oppression that disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ people of color. In this “‘promise project’ of homonormativity,” (p. 95) the biopolitical management of the lives of homeless queer and trans youth of color is mobilized for the purpose of capital, despite that such lives are relegated to disposability. This bio-necro collaboration never pulls homeless queer and trans youth of color from the necropolitical holdings that capture their lives, but instead sustains their being marked for death through narratives of victimhood. In this way, Beam argues that “nonprofits are also sites of the mediated and precarious reentry of some youth into community, albeit according to racialized scripts of ‘deservingness’” (p. 105). Queer non-profits are, as Beam illustrates, becoming agents that mark queer and trans youth of color as unworthy of sympathy, while white youth frequently come into play as redeemable subjects.
The notion of redeemable subjectivity that is dictated by non-profit organizations is also made strikingly evident in Beam’s account of the ways in which trans populations and politics are increasingly being negotiated and found contentious in mainstream queer organizations. Beam makes it clear how managing exclusions within the LGBTQ+ community are increasingly dictating trans normative politics and those trans subjects deserving of reprieve from conditions of oppression. As Beam so aptly describes, trans issues are “the next vanguard of homonormative incorporation” (p. 180) and as such, funding and capital becomes a nexus of exerting control within homo and trans normative organizational structures.
This is evident through Beam’s case study of the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, which was created in response to violence against trans women of color, and was almost exclusively run by a multiracial group of trans men and white trans women. Beam describes a moment of tremendous backlash when Vienna, the director of TYSN, gave a speech at an annual National Coming Out Day luncheon held by the Minneapolis LGBT chamber of commerce. In her speech, Vienna criticized the event’s main funding sponsor for their antiworker policies, use of trafficked child labor, and ambivalence toward palm oil extraction. The speech was also heavily critical of the Human Rights Campaign and the single-issue focus on marriage equality within broader LGBTQ+ politics. Vienna’s speech sparked outrage from the luncheon attendees, who launched calls for her resignation and an apology to the LGBT chamber of commerce, which Beam attributes to the ways in which her speech challenged the benevolence of wealthy queer donors, and exposed their compliance with oppressive political structures. Yet this conflict also illuminates how trans people and politics that refuse complicity in other forms of oppression and environmental destruction are increasingly challenged in the face of mounting homonormative pressure, and punished for political positioning that diverts from white, capitalist interests.
These conflicts emphasize the nuances of trans embodiment, and how intersectional analyses of trans politics are crucial in understanding the unfolding and emerging trans geographies within different cities and urban politics. Beam impresses that trans people and politics “are threatening to the project of mainstreaming, bringing with them, as they do, the specters of poverty and homelessness, policing and criminalization” (p. 178). Homonormative organizations are increasingly at risk to the ways in which radical trans politics can disrupt, challenge, and expose forms of corruption that may otherwise be silenced through complacent politics informed by neoliberalism, the drive for capital accumulation, and liberal aims for mainstream recognition. In other words, as homonormativity distances mainstream queer politics and organizing from a queered positionality bent on social justice, confrontational manifestations of radical trans politics – such as those exemplified with Vienna and TYSN – can pervert such homonormative queer politics, spaces, and organizations. As one of Beam’s participants stated so aptly, “anything connected to the T [is] too faggoty” (p. 175), the slur signaling a political antagonism of mainstream queer politics rooted in (homo)normativity, capital accumulation and the multitude of devastation it leaves in its wake, along with logics of representation that erase LGBTQ+ populations – especially trans people – already facing significant marginalization and erasure. In other words, in this example the political position of transness as both antithetical of, and antagonistic toward, mainstream queer politics retains a potential to interrupt the division of unworthy/worthy LGBTQ+ subjectivities through its association with environmentalist and anti-capitalist leanings.
However, assigning transness with such a leftist political alignment diverts attention easily and dangerously from the ways in which trans people and identities are increasingly becoming invested in homonormativity and liberal logics of recognition. Beam impresses upon his readers that transness is developing a shell of normativity, beginning to offer certain trans subjectivities tentative entry into mainstream culture through the direction of LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations. Gay, Inc. concludes with Beam’s reflection on the closure of TYSN, a decision that was directed by an all-youth staff who had replaced the all-adult staff over a multi-year process. Beam utilizes this closure to reflect upon trans normativities and the development of exceptional trans figures, who offer legibility to worthy and sympathetic trans subjectivities that easily fit within the non-profit industrial complex, and “do not fundamentally challenge the terms of neoliberal capitalism” (p. 198). In facing the concerns of an unsustainable system that “interrupts the queer potentiality” (Beam, 2018: 190) of LGBTQ+ social justice activism and movements, we can read the closure of TYSN as a refusal to be co-opted that was, notably, driven by trans youth who were directing the leadership of the organization. Such resistance holds onto the promise of queerness as a process of mess (Manalansan, 2014), particularly in the face of increasingly normative LGBTQ+ politics that so intensely instruct the direction of LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations. In this example, trans youth enacted anti-normative agency and disturbed the potential future of trans normalizing that TYSN had been facing in the mainstream LGBTQ+ politics of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
As issues such as the trans military ban invite certain trans subjects into the realm of citizenship through their participation in the US military industrial complex, Beam’s writing of the incorporation and valuation of LGBTQ+ subjectivities in queer non-profit organizations is pertinent to our political moments. Gay, Inc. asks us to consider how the legibility and acceptance of certain trans figures through mainstream organizations may impact future trans organizing like that of TYSN, how certain trans figurations may become increasingly rejected within LGBTQ+ non-profit organizations, and how transness may increasingly become a tool that mainstream organizations simultaneously Other while also requiring its closeness to secure funding.
Daniel-McCarter O (2012) Us vs. them! Gays and the criminalization of queer youth of color in Chicago. Children's Legal Rights Journal 32(1): 5–17.
Manalansan IV MF (2014) The ‘stuff’ of archives: Mess, migration, and queer lives. Radical History Review 120: 94-107.
Rosenberg RD (2017) The whiteness of gay urban belonging: Criminalizing LGBTQ youth of color in queer spaces of care. Urban Geography 38(1): 137-148.
Rae Rosenberg is a queer, urban, and cultural geographer whose research interests include the placemaking and survival strategies of marginalized LGBTQ2+ people. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher for the University of Toronto at Scarborough, and his work has been published in Gender, Place, and Culture, Urban Geography, and Somatechnics.