Should I stay or should I go now?

Should I stay or should I go now?

If I go, there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double

So come on and let me know

The Clash, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”

Corporations have never been more powerful and profitable, or come under more scrutiny. At the same time, and as a result, nonprofits have never been more popular: there are 1.5 million nonprofits, and they account for 9.2 percent of all wages and salaries in the U.S, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. If that seems like a small percent generated from so many organizations, it is, but it also isn’t surprising. Nonprofits have traditionally yielded only ill-paid jobs, except for a minority of top brass, who are paid substantially more than anyone else. It takes money, after all, to look good and fly around to raise money to convince rich funders that money needs to be poured into an organization that needs money to pay people to fly around to convince more people to give money.

Nonprofits are the offspring of philanthropic projects founded by robber barons with names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt: part tax shelters, part charitable enterprises that set about saving the poor—whose poverty had been created by the pernicious exploitation set in place by the barons in the first place. Nonprofits, especially in the shape of foundations, have historically provided a space for both social mobility and the maintenance of class divisions. The Medicis used their patronage of the arts to distract from their poisoning, blood-letting ways and to become part of the ruling class. Similarly, the wealthy today use nonprofits as tax havens and to buy our silence and loyalty about their dubious corporate practices.

The corporate world at least understands that staff need decent salaries—even if it does often underpay overseas and contract workers—and funds itself accordingly. But in the average nonprofit, everything from office supplies to toilet paper to salaries has to be begged for, via a grant funding system that forces overworked employees to spend much of their time filling out paperwork and going without sleep to meet constant deadlines. There are entire fields of nonprofits, including those that engage in front-line work like childcare, that pay their employees less than minimum wage and then attempt to justify such practices as necessary. Employee turnover in nonprofits runs at 19 percent on average, and can be as high as 30 percent.

No one enters nonprofit work to make money, unless they plan to defraud and embezzle a lot of it (which happens more often than is widely admitted). The nonprofit world runs on the fumes of exhaustion, desperate hope, and a general sense of futility exuded by its denizens.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai

And yet: Nonprofits continue to attract eager applicants, nearly all of whom enter the doors as fresh-faced, bright-eyed and idealistic people, some straight out of college filled with the zeal to change the world in what they hope will be the most ethical way, some leaving careers in the for-profit sector after feeling they had their very essences corrupted and drained.

Of late, celebrities and those who seek to emulate them have found a ripe new cause to be excited about: queer youth homelessness. Cyndi Lauper founded the True Colors Fund, which declares, with great earnestness on its website, that it “is working to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, creating a world where all young people can be their true selves.” Lauper and others are responding to a famous statistic that is often repeated like a mantra for fundraising, as on its website: “In America, 40% of young people experiencing homelessness are LGBT, yet just 7% of the general youth population is LGBT.” Homeless gay teens represent a trifecta of sadness and tears. Criticize such funding priorities, or the gay nonprofit structure that spawns them, and you might as well kill and then slowly roast a dozen Chow Chow puppies in Times Square, such will be the wrath heaped on your head.

Of course, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the world’s largest gay nonprofit has swooped in on the issue, like a raptor sighting prey from afar, as has the National LGBTQ Task Force (formerly National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and now usually just referred to as Task Force). In fact, several smaller organizations like Streetwise and Safe and Sylvia Rivera Law Project have been working, directly or indirectly, on queer youth issues for several years, but the larger ones like HRC and Task Force completely ignored such long-pressing matters and only turned to them after the Holy Trinity of Gay Causes (marriage, hate crimes legislation, and inclusion in the military) had been taken care of.

Over and over, the larger organizations emphasize that queer homelessness is a product of individual conditions, like filial or social homophobia, and avoid the fact that the bigger problems lie in a society that provides no institutional structures of support for queer youth, such as housing and employment. Factors like race and ethnicity also determine what happens to what kinds of queer youth: low-income undocumented or first-generation youth in high schools are targeted by military recruiters who offer the chance of being blown to bits, in exchange for a promise of citizenship or as a way to escape poverty in areas where young people are given few alternatives. In all this, a young person’s queer identity is not a singular feature, but one of several conditions that make them vulnerable. The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, fought for by the gay community means he or she can enlist—or be compelled to do so—and also live openly and freely as a gay or lesbian in the military, in exchange for death. (As Eli Massey and I have written in these pages, trans inclusion is still being fought over, but inclusion in the military is in itself an inherently conservative cause that needs to be questioned).

Yet gay nonprofits and their allies insist on treating the problem solely as an issue of homophobia, which allows them to render young people as sad, tragic figures rescued by a few cold beds and stale meals in the glorified shelters that claim to “take them in.” Organizations like HRC are resolutely organized, invested in electoral politics, employ media directors and public relations people and are fluent in the language of messaging and outreach. This means that issues are reduced to their simplest, most heartrending narratives, which raise a lot of money very quickly from sympathetic donors. Gay nonprofits, the well-off ones, are sleek, streamlined fundraising machines. If you go to an average gay and lesbian nonprofit fundraiser with the expectation of little more than cookies and hummus resting on Indian batik-print tablecloths because you think gay nonprofits are comprised of a few idealistic hippies, you will be sorely disappointed (or pleasantly surprised). Gay nonprofit fundraisers are intensely high-wattage events, attended by men and women in designer clothing who place silent auction bids on gourmet chef services and expensive works of art. Without gay nonprofits, there would simply be no “gay movement,” at least not the sort recognised as such by the mainstream.

The gay Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) is like a bloated shark that must keep swimming in order to stay alive: if it stops feeding itself with more causes that funnel more money into it, it will die, and it exists in order to keep existing and also to ensure that mainstream and wealthy gays and lesbians have an arena, a social register of sorts, of their own where capital and social class can be invested and gained and circulated. The task of the gay NPIC is not to fund causes but to coin social currency for a community that hankers, desperately, for legitimacy and validation, to belong.

Myrl Beam’s Gay Inc.: The Nonprofitization of Queer Politics considers and to some extent critiques gay nonprofits. The book is ostensibly a collection of case studies of five organizations that Beam was directly involved with in some capacity. Three, the Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC), Broadway Youth Center (BYC), and Center on Halsted (COH) are in Chicago while District 202 and Trans Youth Service Network (TYSN) were based in Minneapolis (they no longer exist). In fact, BYC is a subsidiary program of HBHC, and all three of the Chicago organizations are part of the same ecosystem and exist near each other. TYSN emerged from the ashes of District 202. All five share the same institutional DNA, are urban organizations, and have very similar target populations they aim to serve.

The book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded remains one of the strongest critiques of what we now think of as the NPIC, but the critique has never extended too widely, and the history of the NPIC remains occluded by a soft, white, fluffy cloud composed of good intentions and bleeding hearts. Beam reminds us that this massive behemoth extracts the ideals and aspirations of thousands of people who truly want to make change, and that nonprofits, including the gay ones, operate within a state apparatus of surveillance and punishment. In fact, they exert varying and often crushing degrees of both in order to regulate and discipline those who come to them looking for resources, and the disciplinary structure is usually a racist and transphobic one.

Beam writes about the enormous sense and desperation that suffuses the work of the NPIC, where its administrators, like him, understand the grinding hopelessness of a system that will ultimately do little to change things and which subjects its “clients” to great humiliation. He describes an instance where he found himself publicly telling one youth to put back an extra slice of pizza she had picked up, so that there would be enough for everyone else, and how he felt policing someone for whom the pizza might have been the only meal of the day: “It certainly made clear to me that though my job was many things, uncomplicatedly ‘good’ it was not.” He writes of the constant stress of trying to keep BYC going: “It was beautiful and devastating, and it reflected a reality of queer homelessness and poverty that [HBHC] has never quite known how to apprehend.” That combination of beauty and devastation, that sense among staff and youth of how necessary even literally life-giving the work can be, alongside the constant awareness that all available resources could disappear at any minute is a thread running through all the case studies.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot to wade through and find such moments of clarity in an often turgid book that is more focused on making sure to quote the right theorists than on clarity. Beam’s absorption in the organizations he writes about lends poignancy to this book, but it also makes the book sputter and become repetitive. Beam’s reliance on academic theorists also means he gives too little credit to journalists. I know, because I am the “informants” (his word for those he spoke to in and around the institutions and events he studies) he spoke to about the issues—I broke the story on Howard Brown’s financial mismanagement and covered it for a few years for the Windy City Times. Kate Sosin, also writing for the WCT, produced in depth reports and analysis that the paper sought and got special grants to produce. I don’t mean to throw a Norma Desmond tantrum about an upstart who dared to not name me (“I’m still big, it’s the citations that got smaller”), but to point out that Beam deliberately erases important reporting and analysis. Instead, he often quotes theorists and intellectuals to explain what the informants relay. In the process, Beam, who wants to be critical of nonprofits, in fact reproduces the hierarchy of analysis bred in the biggest nonprofit of all: the academic nonprofit industrial complex, where acknowledging that non-academics might actually produce credible intellectual work is forbidden.

As someone who works outside the nonprofit structure, my life and work—like that of many, many other radical queers—is also touched upon by the gay NPIC in sometimes intangible ways. At the very least, every one of us has friends, lovers, partners, spouses, and comrades, and any combination of all that, who work in that world. Every week, we scramble to find healthcare or emergency services or just a lifeline and counseling for yet another queer person who might actually have matters made worse for them in a non-queer service sector. The gay NPIC has its tentacles within our hearts and our lives, and we are made to feel grateful for the pittances it offers us—a trans-friendly gynecolgist here, a therapist who will not try to cure us there, elsewhere perhaps a doctor who will heal and not lecture us on our sex lives—because it deliberately keeps such resources to itself, instead of working on changing the rest of the world (somewhere along the way, everyone forgot that all medical care should be sensitive to trans needs, not just queer medical centers, for instance).

There is no purity among us and we are all aware of the fraught and conflicted nature of the system. A more useful and interesting book would have looked at groups like Gay Shame that have consistently, for 20 years, been holding weekly meetings and constantly critiqued the mainstream gay movement and presented alternatives to the nonprofit structure; Gay Shame has been instrumental in continually calling out the retrograde politics of San Francisco’s gentrification. It could have looked more closely at nonprofits like Sylvia Rivera Law Project (whose work he does mention in passing) that face different sets of issues and perhaps even some amount of “success,” to really evaluate what happens.

Most importantly, it would have spent some time illuminating  why so many people continue to enter the gay NPIC, who remains, and why, and who leaves. What are the classed and racialized factors that determine who can afford a lifetime of awful salaries (hint: they’re often privileged and white)? Who has to choose never to enter the NPIC in the first place or ends up leaving it because of economic and other pressures (hint: they’re often people of color)? What do they really think remains of the NPIC’s potential, if anything? Are there absolutely no successes, and if so, how do they stay afloat in a sea that constantly pushes and exhausts them and forces them to make compromises?

Gay Inc. offers useful critiques but it leaves untouched the question of why Gay Inc. continues to survive when so many of its denizens are constantly asking themselves, “Should I stay, or should I go?”

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