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want to start off with a quick note of thanks for the opportunity to be a part of the conversation about how much this important monograph, Gay, Inc., by Myrl Beam contributes to scholarship on nonprofitization, the incorporation of LGBT and queer politics into the 501(c)3 nonprofit structure, and the affects that foreclose and promote justice through an examination of LGBT nonprofits in Chicago and Minneapolis. I hope my comments can offer a jumping off point for what I’m sure will be a generous discussion.
To begin, I cannot overstate the generative inroads Beam’s text makes into how we, as scholars, can analyze the operation of neoliberal dimensions of biopower and homonormativity in nonprofit spaces, and the implications of that for vulnerable queer and trans youth of color, but also for the possibilities of imagining queer social movements and futures broadly. Speaking as a researcher on affective labor in low-wage service economies and the role of alt-labor organizations in making wage claims to the state—as well as someone who has worked in, been moved and betrayed by, and is on the board of youth and community-based organizations—this is the text I have been looking for.
In order to unpack what this nuanced text offers queer geographies and studies of justice, I want to focus my comments on three main areas: first, the importance of situating the nonprofit sector in a political and affective economy embedded in the logics of advanced capitalism; second, the reliance on affects like compassion and community to incorporate and police the very populations that are made to let die; and third, Beam’s method of autoethnography. I do this as a way to highlight the circulations of feeling as a process triangulating queer and trans youth of color, LGBT service providers and activists, and LGBT donors in gentrifying neighborhoods, where the parameters of worth and worthiness get reproduced.
Nonprofit sector as political and affective economy
The first (of many!) key contributions this text makes is the way Beam traces the history of the nonprofit form as a hybrid statecraft embedded in a neoliberal political economy. The nonprofit’s seeming elusiveness, Beam argues, exists not just in the American imaginary, where it is perceived as both outside of the market and the state, but is also seen as solely operating in civil society. Instead, Beam states that “we must recognize the nonprofit form as critical to the development, ascendancy, and primacy of capitalism in the United States” (p. 22). Scholars like Sonya Munshi and Craig Willse in their 2016 special issue “Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Nonprofits, and Beyond,” and their foreword of the later 2017 INCITE anthology, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, define the nonprofit form too, as the “nonprofit industrial complex,” where they importantly lay bare the foundation-to-grants-based nonprofit dependency that manages and limits the realm of activism and justice possible in the neoliberal landscape.
Beam’s work expands and nuances this directive to situate the growth of the nonprofit form—which starts in the late 1960s but takes off in the 1980s and 90s—in relation to the cuts in, and demise of, the US social safety net. The contemporary aspects of volunteerism, charity, and community as solution, also operate as a site of American exceptionalism where older logics of benevolence continue on through the current charitable model. Another way Beam challenges the exceptionalist myth of the nonprofit form, then, is in materially locating its place in the market, at 9.2% of the wages and salaries in the US, and at $887 billion in contributions to the US economy (p. 21). And, such logics and materiality, also inform and shape the very infrastructure and nonprofitzation of the LGBT movement in relation to contemporary diversity and homonormativity.
Beam points to the different strains of LGBT nonprofits – the intersectional, the service-based, the electoral/legal, and the community center – as a way to name the landscape of those organizations active in the early LGBT movement era. Yet Beam also traces how the continuities of those forms have been paradoxically shaped by and also shape the apparatuses of state and private funding in the face of state disavowal to LGBT deaths. Beam guides us to understand that the historicity of the nonprofit form allows us to make sense of how “the seemingly benign infrastructural choices of LGBT movement organizations have profound and often unanticipated effects” that are racialized, gendered, and sexualized (p. 40). And rather than let us feel debilitated by the nonprofit structure, Beam reminds us that “the nonprofit structure was not—and is not—a foregone conclusion” (p. 40).
That last possibility and even futurity, then, of the space of the nonprofit and the LGBT nonprofit as one of “unmaking,” is where Beam’s methodology and ethnography of affect offers the most powerful instruction to scholars of queer geographies, social movements, and even affective labor. The subsequent layers of Beam’s book elucidate the overall messy interactions of the nonprofit as a political economy and an affective economy that in a way requires and relies on the feelings, emotions, and affects of staff, volunteers, donors, and board members, as much as it does clients and foundations.
And here I want to pause to understand how this affective economy that Beam traces offers more than Sara Ahmed’s starting point definition of an affective economy where “emotions do things and align individuals with communities [...] through the very intensity of their attachments” (Ahmed, 2004: 119). Rather, I appreciate the way that Beam thinks through more than the individual to the communal, instead approaching the affective economy through feelings embedded in an affective ecosystem that binds the connections and dissonances amongst a range of invested constituencies – the staff, the volunteer, the donor, and the board. In doing so, Beam highlights a fine-grained insight into funding appeals of compassion, spatial imaginaries of community, mission statement ideologies, and contestations to donor-based homonormativity.
Affects of compassion as policing mechanisms
The second contribution I want to highlight is the exploration of the affects of compassion and community as modes of mobilizing funding that facilitate the LGBT nonprofit form and its often-times single-issue incorporation within neoliberal governance. In Chapter Two, Beam asks what narratives of compassion get mobilized to further the 1980s Chicago-based social services organization, the Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC), against the lack of funding for its own shelter opened in the 2000s for queer and trans homeless youth— the Broadway Youth Center (BYC). In doing so, Beam considers how the narratives of compassion in an earlier moment of claims to LGBT life foreclose the possibility of justice for the current moment.
In one poignant example, the chapter focuses on 1980s funding appeal letters to examine the type of narratives that would compel a white, suburban donor to connect to modes of compassion in order to support the health center at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis impacting the gay folks in the city. In doing so, the affect of compassion is made legible as a facet of crisis through what Beam calls “the relations of deservingness.” In this way, while compassion, crisis, and deservingness are linked through narratives about death, dying, and AIDS, Beam points out how that very narrative created limitations for any later intersectional responses to the crisis of homelessness. Such homelessness, when situated as a part of larger racialized and gendered impacts of the lack of affordable housing, criminalization, and gentrification in Chicago, becomes unfundable precisely because narratives of compassion invoke and create “fundamentally a white, middle-class story of crisis” (p. 43). Beam explains about the donor: “the compassionate one must never be made to feel at fault, implicated in the social conditions that produces the suffering they see and in response to which they feel compassion. So to incite compassion in donors, nonprofit organizations must exhibit particular affects and not others, must produce the correct conditions among staff, clients, participants volunteers and donors” (p. 47).
This quote to me, highlights another interesting nuance to Beam’s understanding of the nonprofit structure, where the nonprofit staff, volunteers, and donors, themselves are engaged in an affective economy but also—particularly for staff—in their own affective labor of narrating and producing notions of deservingness, thankfulness, and neediness. Given my research interests in discussions of affective labor, I found compelling the work that nonprofit staff must do to mitigate their own politics and sense of contradictions within the nonprofit form and its narratives of compassion and crisis. I was curious about, and struck by, how staff keep the nonprofit form alive, both as a part of their own personal politics and in spite of the nonprofit’s politics, while supporting and even masking their “clients” away from the nonprofit’s harmful narratives, as their own affective labor.
For me, the stories of staff frustrations with either the institutions they were in or the foundations that they were appealing to made me laugh or cringe with my own memories of being caught in similar spaces. For example, in Chapter Four, I wanted to know more about Jax’s labor of masking their own frustrations with the organization, District 202, as that organization sought to create a youth leadership development program that it shut down shortly after. I also wanted to know more about the layers of Jax’s own navigations of the possibility for an alternate organizational space through their protests against District 202 as part of their responsibility to queer youth. And, in Chapter Five, I was most excited by Vienna’s story of challenging their wealthy LGBT audiences—who are also their potential donor bases—at speeches, as a part of the political project of shifting narratives of homonormativity and single-issue LGBT nonprofit work. I wanted to know more about places where Vienna did feel situated in the quasi-nonprofit space, if at all, and how—or if—their labor of contestation by challenging audiences may have also been one of excitement. Or, did the threat of precarity and the loss of donors dominate Vienna’s own feelings as director?
Method of autoethnography
The last aspect of the text that I want to bring out as a kind of closing conversation is Beam’s methodology—the use of ethnography of affect across all chapters—and particularly the autoethnography and Beam’s own voice that emerges differently in Chapter Five. As Chapter Five emphasizes the messiness of contestation and possibility in the nonprofit form, it also gives insights into the politics of refusal. Beam highlights his own role as a board member within the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) in Minnesota, and in doing so, speaks to the possibility of a nonprofit to do more than reproduce its form and its harm.
While Beam starts the text asking how the affects of “shame, fear, hope, desire, frustration, isolation, connection” inform queer politics, he closes the monograph with his own reflections as a board member about those very affects, feelings, and tensions in regards to the imbalance of resources impacting TYSN (p. 8). Though Beam charts out the continuance of the nonprofit form in that chapter, I wondered what it was like methodologically to transition from an ethnographic voice to an autoethnographic one, and think through his own palpable sadness, frustration, and dismay. What did it mean for Beam to navigate addressing the organizations in the first four chapters versus his own affective participation, engagement, and even investment in the TYSN space?
In closing, this book raises much needed questions about the nonprofit form as a space of neoliberal governance that is a hybrid statecraft and very much a political and affective economy. It focuses on the affective mobilizations like compassion that rely on relations between staff, donors, and boards in LGBT nonprofits, often at the cost of queer and trans youth of color. It is this project which also then makes possible the ability to, as Beam says, “grapple with the desperate sadness” that staff in queer nonprofits experience (p. 200). Beam’s project allows us to understand these multiple valences of sadness as neoliberal crisis, that staff and organizers navigate not just as individuals but as part of the nonprofit form. In doing so, Beam also points to, and leaves us with, the possibilities of such sadness as an opening to push against the nonprofit form—and as a reminder of, and hope for, alternate and broader movements.
Ahmed, S. (2004) Affective Economies. Social Text 79 22(2): 117–139.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. 2017. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. 2nd Ed. Durham: Duke University Press.
Munshi S and Willse C. (2016) Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Nonprofits, and Beyond. S&F Online. 13(2).
Preeti Sharma is an Assistant Professor in American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. She explores feminist theories of work, neoliberal governance, women of color feminisms/queer of color critique, and worker centers and community-based organizations. Her current project examines immigrant and women of color responses to global capitalism through affective and intimate labor and organizing in beauty service work in Los Angeles.