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n Gay, Inc., Myrl Beam provides a compelling analysis of contemporary queer politics, combining affect theory, political economy, and ethnographic methods to interrogate why is it so difficult to enact queer activism from within the nonprofit sector. Beam’s research emerged from his experience working with queer and trans youth preceding this study. The novel contribution of this research lies not only in its attention to the impact of the nonprofit sector on LGBT movements, but also in its attention to the logics of feeling – of failure, shame, disappointment, grief, and devastation – that sit in tension with a desire for what Lauren Berlant calls the good life. The good life as paraphrased by Beam refers to the “moral/ intimate/economic fantasy that keeps people invested in institutions, political systems, and markets, even when evidence of their fragility, ineffectiveness, or outright failure is apparent” (p. 127). By highlighting the contradictions between the fantasy and the failure of non-profits, and of the contradiction inherent in the marketized discourse of compassion and community, Beam emphasizes resistance to these logics which are always in negotiation.
Gay Inc., examines the relationship between queer activism and non-profit organizations in Chicago and Minneapolis. This is undertheorized, despite operating as an “engine for the heteronormative turn in queer politics” (p. 6). By this turn, Beam refers to the politics of marriage, which is an institution that overdetermines the more pressing material needs of LGBT communities and drives political power and donations directed to LGBT organizations who do the formal work of advocacy. With same-sex marriage legalized in the United States, Beam asks whether queer movements can transition from a single-issue focus to address the precarity that queer and trans people are facing under the presidency of Donald Trump.
The paradox of the non-profit sector, as Beam explains, is that it “actually entrenches the very inequalities that it purports to ameliorate” (p. 7). These inequalities are incited by the neoliberal state, which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and is defined by the marketization of otherwise democratic institutions and the entanglement of corporate and political spheres. In the first chapter, Beam historicizes the transformation of society under neoliberalism to explain why the nonprofit sector in the United States turned into what he calls the nonprofit industrial complex, which saw 3,000 designated nonprofits in 1960 explode to 1,571,689 by 2005. He situates the neoliberal turn to fiscal austerity, deregulation, and privatization, which saw a divestment from social supports, in relationship to a parallel discursive project – one that “championed volunteerism, charity, and community togetherness” (p. 46). The project was sold as an alternative to the welfare system, whose benefits were undermined through the mobilization of narratives that “demonized poor women of color as welfare queens gaming the system” (p. 46).
By rhetorically linking discourses of welfare to racialized crime, bloated bureaucracies, and lazy welfare cheats, Beam shows how the state alleviates itself from the responsibility of care. This is then downloaded to nonprofit organizations who in turn rely on individual contributions to meet the growing needs of the economically poor. Nonprofit organizations generate and capitalize on “economies of feelings” (p. 9) that are built through a series of what Beam refers to as affective transactions: First, organizations solicit donations through compassion by animating the sympathy of donors to whose pleasure they are beholden. This is extended discursively as communities, whose (racist) logic disciplines queer bodies and polices those deemed “underserving” (p.10). The reliance of nonprofit organizations on corporate models of governance, which is oriented toward capital and market-oriented principles, alienate queer youth from meaningful participation in community. Nonprofit organizations, which are dependent upon the financial structure of a gift-economy, thus operate in a perpetual mode of crisis, compelled to motivate donors whose response is never sustained long enough to make meaningful change. Beam applies these concepts of compassion, community, capital, and crisis as analytical framings to four case studies: The Howard Brown Health Center, its Broadway Youth Center, and the Center on Halsted in Chicago, as well as District 202 and the Trans Youth Support Network in Minneapolis.
Rather than reviewing each chapter, I will focus on the final case study in Chapter 5 because it reveals Beam’s embeddedness within the structures under scrutiny. Arguably such insider-outsider relationships are what best illustrate the tensions and contradictions of the nonprofit industrial complex. Chapter 5, “Navigating the Crisis of Neoliberalism,” examines the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) in Minneapolis, where Beam worked for many years. The organization was founded in 2004 by youth workers in two homeless youth organizations in Minneapolis and St. Paul alongside District 202, which was a nonprofit by youth, for youth.
TYSN emerged out of necessity and was created as a response to violence against trans women of color. The chapter, which explores this case through the affective register of crisis, is centered on two stories: The first is CeCe McDonald, who was imprisoned for defending herself against a racist and transphobic assault, and the second is Veronica, a client of District 202 who, like many trans and gender-nonconforming people, didn’t survive her assault. Beam traces how stories like those of CeCe and Veronica illustrate the violence that undercuts the everyday operation of LGBT nonprofits. For Beam, what’s unique about TYSN is that it was the only organization that did not become a formal nonprofit.
Through an analysis of the TYSN, Beam examines two aspects of the system that posed a challenge to pursuing nonprofit status: foundation funding, whose demands do not meet the realities of programming, and the high stakes of mainstreaming, which Beam assesses in the remainder of the chapter. I want to turn to one moment in the history of the TYSN, which illustrates the risk of asking for charity. In 2011, the TYSN was invited to give on the topic of community at the Minneapolis LGBT chamber of commerce. One of Beam’s informants, Vienna, took the podium and, instead of pandering to the corporate audience, highlighted the violent practices of the funding sponsor, whose engagement in anti-worker policies, reliance on trafficked child labor, and palm oil extraction practices, illustrated the complicity of corporations in perpetuating violence. Imploring the audience to see what might be perceived as disparate struggles as relational and bound together, she said:
To an audience full of economic privilege, do I ask for charity to pass on to trans and gender non-conforming youth, who are in much need of your resources? Or do I ask for their solidarity, with trans youth and our greater community? In asking for their charity, I must encourage a relaxed atmosphere and affinity. In asking for solidarity, I must ask us all to reflect on our privileges and place within these systems of oppression (p. 172).
Vienna’s speech emerges from a stance of what Beam, in referring to sociologist Avery Gordon, calls a stance of undefeated despair – reflecting “the simultaneous grief and rage over the ubiquitous violence directed at brown trans bodies” (p. 19). Yet, speaking to a gay and lesbian audience who benefited from the very system Vienna was critiquing, the speech was denounced outside the organization as anti-business and offensive. Beam traces the fallout, which did not come from within the organization, but rather from funders, real and potential. Referencing Judith Butler and José Muñoz, Beam shows how grief and loss can be politically enabling. He also shows the cost of a principled youth-led movement whose entanglement with mainstreaming resulted in a loss in funding. As a culminating series of events, of which this was just one, the TYSN closed their doors because the work had become unsustainable. From the conclusion of this case, Beam incites the reader to consider the value of failure as an analytic frame within which queer organizations can learn to resist the mainstreaming and co-opting of their work. Failure is a rejection of a fucked up system, as one informant put it. A principled choice, an “escape from punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development” (p. 195-196). As Beam shows, the cost of failure is unevenly distributed. For many queer and trans people, failure accompanied the loss of valuable and often life-saving connections.
Looking forward, Beam points to the danger of trans mainstreaming, which is being organized around a reductive rights framework that limits conversations about public space to bathrooms, rather than the broader violence trans people grapple with in public spaces. We must engage with precarity on both registers: as shared, such that we are all “vulnerable, contingent beings” (p. 154) and as an ongoing structural problem that is unevenly distributed. In drawing from Berlant, Beam refers to the idiom of care that is at the heart of social movement organizing, “a recognition that our precarious hold on life is both fundamentally shared and unfairly determined by our relationship to powerful systems and institutions” (p. 155).
For geographers, this book shows how powerful systems like nonprofits shape our spaces, how they police brown bodies impacted by economic poverty, and how systems can be shaped by interrupting the production of spaces. Beam’s contribution reveals the mechanisms of this production and its effect on disciplining of queer and trans bodies—what he refers to as the biopolitics of the non-profit community. Beam writes that the book was an attempt “to reckon with the desperate sadness that [he], and those around [him], experience in LGBT nonprofits—and also the profound attachment we nonetheless have for them" (p. 4). As a result, the reader is left with the task of reflecting on their own investments in compassion and community, as well as on the ways that these ideas are bound up to capital and their impulse to respond to crisis. In so doing, readers can perhaps counter some of the assumptions with which they approach LGBT nonprofits specifically, but also the diffuse and global nonprofit industrial complex and the relational geographies of dispossession that call for our solidarity.
Beyhan Farhadi is a 2020-2021 Postdoctoral Visitor at York University. She explores the politics of belonging and identity using qualitative observational research. Her most recent project examines the relationship between educational inequality and online learning.