Myrl Beam, Dept. of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Myrl Beam Discusses the Impact of Nonprofits on LGBT Activism

Myrl Beam, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, who specializes in sexuality, social movements, political economy, race and critical theory. His research focuses on the impact of the non-profit system on queer activism, and his new book on the subject, Gay, Inc: The Non-Profitization of Queer Politics, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press this August.  

How did you originally become interested in studying the impact of nonprofits on LGBT activism?  

I graduated from college and I went to work  thinking I was going to go work to change the world. I ended up working as a domestic violence advocate, working with queer survivors of domestic violence going through the criminal court system in Chicago, and I was working for a nonprofit organization that was housed in the court system but was part of a big nonprofit system called the Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago. And I recognized a few different things about it. One, it did not think of domestic violence as a social movement or political issue. It thought of domestic violence as a criminal issue and as an individual healing issue –  that survivors of domestic violence needed to seek criminal remedies and individual healing.

So, something had happened which changed this social movement from the 60s, 70s, 80s, that was all about gendered violence as a product of toxic masculinity, as a product of systematized gender-based inequality, to something that was individualized, medicalized, professionalized, and criminalized. Meaning that in its process of becoming institutionalized, something about the politics of the movement had dropped out. I had a few nonprofit jobs like this over a period of a few years, and I began to become a part of the conversation around something that folks were beginning to call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.  

Gay Inc. book coverWhat is the Nonprofit Industrial Complex?  

It’s thinking about the ways that social movements have changed in the past 60-50 years, since what we would call the Movement Era in the 1960s and 70s. A few big things have happened since then and one of them is that nonprofits have become the primary mode through which social movements are organized. So, I went to graduate school basically to write about it, to figure out, why does working for social change suck so much for so many people? Why is it that everyone that I knew, including myself, was so desperately unhappy in their jobs? And why is it that it felt like the work we were trying to do, which was the change the world, was so different than the work we were actually doing, which was putting band-aids on massive social problems or chasing grants to do something that we knew was not going to create the kind of substantial mass mobilization that would really be necessary to change the world?

How do you address the NPIC in your book?  

The project looks at four organizations, LGBT nonprofits in Chicago and Minneapolis, and basically is making the argument that one of the reasons why the LGBT movement has changed so significantly in the last 40 years, moving from an oppositional, radical movement that was about challenging sexual norms and resisting the state and the policing of sexuality, to now instead seeking access to all those normative institutions that police sexuality, like marriage, is the institutionalization or the non-profitization of that movement.  

You mentioned that the non-profitization of the LGBT movement changed the direction of the movement itself. How does this happen?  

By far the biggest issue is funding. So, marriage is a really good example. Most queer people, when we’re talking about big huge populations and all of their diversity, marriage is not their primary issue. But yet, somehow, marriage became the thing that people cared about. And part of the reason is that the people who do care about marriage are very, very wealthy. And the organizations that constitute the movement rely on those people for the money that funds their organizations. Over the years of institutionalization the LGBT movement has become increasingly reliant on the wealth of white gay men, and to a lesser extent white lesbians, for whom the system has worked, and for whom their primary goal is inclusion within the status quo. And so, then the politics of the movement writ large become inclusion in the status quo, and things like marriage equality, hate crimes bills, access to the military become the issue despite the fact that the vast majority of queer people might prioritize things like police violence, poverty, homelessness, immigration, and welfare.  

If the current formula isn’t working, what would a movement that could actually achieve change look like?  

The nonprofit system is the infrastructure that’s available to us and though it ultimately has a conservative effect on organization’s politics, it also is a space where amazing radical work happens. Those two things exist simultaneously, and in tension with one another. At the heart, the organizations that are trying to do things differently have a few things in common. The first is that they recognize that the nonprofit system itself has power, and it has always tended towards the reproduction of capitalism in the US. That was always its structural purpose.  There are some ways that organizations can contend with that, but you can only contend with that if you recognize it and make conscious choices around it. If you just assume that your progressive politics will win out over the pressures of funding and the power structure inherent in the nonprofit form, then you will be unable to resist those conservative effects. But organizations like FIERCE, which is based in New York, organizations like CUAV (Communities United Against Violence) in San Francisco, SONG (Southerners On New Ground) which has a chapter in Richmond, and many others are working really hard to sort of push against that.  

What impact do you hope your book will have?

I would like to arm young people with some skills and foreknowledge to have these conversations within social movements in a more savvy way, and to push social movement organizations who are already grappling with these issues to think more critically about the structural form that their organizations take. I’m also in conversation with folks who are struggling with these issues within social movements and the nonprofits that make up social movements. And so, in that sense I hope the book will be a contribution to the efforts to structure our movements differently. And then also the book is trying to push queer politics to think about where we’re at in the post-marriage, post-Trump moment and to think about how, despite the sort of celebratory tone that followed the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage, despite the fact that while it was being hailed as the sort of apex to the queer movement, many on the queer left actually felt like it was the low point –  that it represents a capitulation or a retreat from queer politics rather than the achievement or advancement of it.

If we’re really going to pursue movements that are capacious, that are revolutionary, that actually want to make people’s lives more livable, to create worlds in which people can thrive, then we have to think critically about the form of our movements. We can’t just repeat the same institutional structures that got us to this place to begin with, we have to make real change and it’s not just about the issues we care about, it’s about the structure that we use in order to advance those issues.  

Written by Megan Schiffres