- Hope and Despair in the Queer Nonprofit Industrial Complex
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 236 pp.
For much of their long history, charitable organizations were "mistrusted by the working class, targeted by social movements, despised and contested by socialists and unions. Now, of course, those same social movements have institutionalized themselves in and through the very charitable structure that they once rallied against" (31). This is the political dilemma at the heart of Myrl Beam's Gay, Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics, an honest and compelling account of the affective economy of today's LGBT nonprofits. Not simply another critique of the nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC), Beam's book draws out the way nonprofitization relies on and reproduces a bifurcated affective economy: a feel-good narrative of compassion for funders, and a burn-out-inducing institutional culture of despair for staff. Gay, Inc. is an embedded, empathetic take on the frustration of working in underbudgeted organizations facing constant crises and—more devastatingly—the heartache of inadvertently perpetuating the oppression that has always been at the core of charity projects.
Gay, Inc. begins with a history of the explosive growth of nonprofits after 1965, through decades of neoliberal social policy and state intervention; today, the more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the US are responsible for 9.2 percent of all wages and salaries (21). The massive scale of the nonprofit landscape contextualizes the next four chapters, each focused on a single organization. The first two take up Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halsted, both of which began as grassroots community centers in the 1970s and are now enormous [End Page 343] nonprofits. The next two chapters move to Minneapolis, to the more recent rise and demise of two queer/trans youth centers, District 202 and the Trans Youth Support Network.
Drawing on archival research and interviews with staff, board members, and volunteers, Beam documents how older charity models infuse nonprofits today, especially how compassion normalizes and perpetuates racist class inequalities in the form of "community." So, for instance, we see how, as it expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, Howard Brown appealed to new funders by mobilizing AIDS narratives that juxtaposed white, gay victims (as "our community") against poor Black and brown folks (not "our community")—a discursive separation that, Beam shows, continues to guide queer politics in Chicago today. Throughout, Beam reveals how nonprofits work biopolitically with the penal state to cleave populations into worthy subjects (the AIDS victim, gay homeless youth) and undeserving racialized others—surveilled, punished, and abandoned.
The cruel irony that animates Gay, Inc. is palpable in these four case studies: staff see firsthand how the NPIC reproduces and legitimates a racist calculus of life/value and death/disposability, yet they remain invested—pinning their hopes on a new mission, project, board shake-up, director, or funding stream. Beam brings this bind to life, showing us how it feels to be caught between the charitable visions of wealthy donors and foundations and the desperate needs of clients and youth. Gay, Inc. dwells in staffers' sense of responsibility and anxiety, their frustration as they lurch from crisis to crisis, all the while seeing their hard work turned toward racist ends: queer/trans youth featured as objects of pity in fundraising appeals that never translate into life-saving resources; projects of youth-led trans liberation blocked by a nonprofit model that insists on adult white saviors.
Why, then, do activists and organizers continue to invest in the 501(c) (3) structure, to imagine that they can challenge racialized capitalism through a form built to uphold and strengthen it? "Why do we remain so deeply, personally invested in a system that fails over and over to achieve the results we hope for" (8)? This is Beam's central question and one he never answers—indeed it feels unanswerable when posed, as it is, from within. Beam renders a landscape so dominated by nonprofits that they have become the horizon of politics, social movements, and "community" itself.
This saturation is simultaneously the strength and weakness of Gay, Inc. How it...