In many countries, The Salvation Army is probably best known as a charity that has bell ringers solicit donations during the Christmas season while standing with a red kettle. For more than a decade, LGBTQ+ activists and advocates have criticized the organization over the years because they say the organization opposes LGBTQ+ people in action, speech, and policy. In recent years, more people outside of the LGBTQ+ community have taken notice of boycotts and efforts to call out The Salvation Army. In turn, The Salvation Army says the claims are not true.
OK. First, tell me more about who or what exactly The Salvation Army is.
A Washington Post article once described The Salvation Army as “a Christian social services organization with an extensive network of facilities to feed, clothe and shelter the poor.” According to the Salvation Army’s US website, the organization is…
…an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.
The site said that the Salvation Army serves 130 countries and serves 25 million Americans each year.
What’s the Salvation Army’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues?
A page on the organization’s website says “the Salvation Army is committed to serving the LGBTQ community” in five ways:
- Job training
- Help with substance abuse
- Food insecurity
- Teenage suicide
That page goes on to say that:
We’re motivated by the love of God to meet human needs in His name without discrimination. We embrace people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Our hiring practices are open to all, and we provide the same benefits to opposite-sex and same-sex couples.
OK, so why do some people view The Salvation Army as unwelcoming of LGBTQ+ people? That website seems welcoming to me!
LGBTQ+ activists and advocates have criticized the organization over the years for policies, statements, and stances it has taken on LGBTQ+ issues. Here are some examples:
- In 1986, New Zealand’s parliament passed the Homosexual Law Reform Act, decriminalizing same-sex sexual relations. Some members and leaders of the Salvation Army backed a petition to oppose the law, causing resentment among LGBTQ+ people for years, the Salvation Army later acknowledged.
- In 1997, the city of San Francisco required companies doing business within the city to extend domestic partnership benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. According to “Gay and Lesbian Issues: A Reference Handbook,” the Salvation Army refused to do so, and ended up losing a $3.5 million contract.
- In 2004, the New York Times reported, the Salvation Army threatened to leave New York City because of a similar ordinance requiring organizations with city contracts offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners of employees. The Salvation Army didn’t leave New York City, though, after the Court of Appeals ruled that Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not have to enforce the ordinance.
- The Salvation Army decided to extend domestic partnership benefits to employees in same-sex couples in some US states in 2001, as reported in “Gay and Lesbian Issues: A Reference Handbook,” but the organization reversed that decision after pushback from religious conservatives.
- That same year, the Washington Post reported that the Salvation Army asked the Bush administration to exempt religious charities that receive federal money from local laws that bar discrimination against gay and lesbian people. David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, was quoted in The New York Times as saying “gays and lesbians are taxpayers, too… Their money should not be used by religious groups to fund discriminatory practices against them.”
- Andrew Craib, a senior member of The Salvation Army in Australia, suggested in a 2012 radio interview that the Salvation Army believed gay people should die. The organization responded that this was not true and not in accordance with The Salvation Army’s views, beliefs, or interpretation of Scripture.
Wow. I had not heard of any of these things.
You would not be alone. For many people, they had not heard of these things until reading about them in posts by Bil Browning. As both writer and activist, Browning told the New York Times in 2011 that he was using his website to tell the story of how he and his now ex-boyfriend were discriminated against when they were homeless in the early 1990s:
“The Salvation Army refused to help us,” Mr. Browning recalls, “unless we broke up and then left the ‘sinful homosexual lifestyle’ behind. We slept on the street, and they didn’t help when we declined to break up at their insistence.”
LGBTQ Nation and other sites have reported stories from other people in the LGBTQ+ community who have said that they have been denied services from The Salvation Army.
Over the years, activists have urged people not to shop at Salvation Army’s thrift stores and not to donate money to the bell ringers standing with kettles outside businesses. Some have suggested LGBTQ+ people and their allies donate to other organizations instead, and others have taken to putting notes in the kettles stating their opposition to Salvation Army’s stances and actions.
What does the Salvation Army say about all of this?
On the 20th anniversary of New Zealand’s Homosexual Law Reform Act, the Salvation Army released a statement to clarify that not everyone in the organization opposed the law, but that the leadership acknowledged the fact that the Salvation Army’s official position on the law did alienate some LGBTQ+ people:
We do understand though that The Salvation Army’s official opposition to the Reform Bill was deeply hurtful to many, and are distressed that ill-feeling still troubles our relationship with segments of the gay community.
We regret any hurt that may remain from that turbulent time and our present hope is to rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue between our movement and the gay community. We may not agree on all issues, but we can respect and care for one another despite this.
When it was reported in 2001 that the Salvation Army had asked the Bush administration to exempt religious charities that receive federal money from local laws that bar discrimination against gay and lesbian people, the organization attempted to clarify the situation. According to the New York Times, the Salvation Army said its intentions were not to discriminate:
A Salvation Army spokesman, David A. Fuscus, said the group was not trying to get permission to discriminate against hiring gays and lesbians for the majority of its roughly 55,000 jobs and merely wanted a federal regulation that made clear that the charity did not have to ordain sexually active gay ministers and did not have to provide medical benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.
When Craib’s 2012 comments on Australia drew backlash, Salvation Army websites throughout the world rejected the statements and attempted to distance the organization from Craib, including in the United States:
The Salvation Army in the United States fully and emphatically rejects the statements made by the media director of The Salvation Army Australia Southern Territory regarding the LGBT community. The Salvation Army opposes any discrimination, marginalization or persecution of any person. There is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for any reason including his or her sexual orientation.
That statement went onto say that Craib’s comments and the interpretation of Scripture were all part of a “misunderstanding.”
OK, and what about the claims that The Salvation Army has refused or denied service or employment to LGBTQ+ people? What has the organization said about that?
For most of this decade, The Salvation Army has attempted to portray the organization as a positive and welcoming one. These attempts have taken various tones. In 2014, a memo by communications director Jennifer Byrd seemed to acknowledge, albeit tacitly, that the organization’s stances had not been 100 percent clearly communicated, The Washington Post reported:
We realize our message of service to the LGBT community and our non-discriminatory employment practices have been overlooked, misconstrued or misunderstood in recent years, and our focus the past 12-18 months has been to be address these failings. We have traveled the country extensively meeting with Salvation Army officers and employees to help communicate the mission of The Salvation Army as it relates to the LGBT community and encourage them to reach out to LGBT organizations on a local level as we have on a national level.
Part of The Salvation Army’s outreach has been to publicize its policies, national spokesman Ron Busroe told The Columbus Dispatch in 2014:
For the past few years during the holiday season, a lot of chatter on social media was saying the Salvation Army was anti-gay and discriminates against people in the LGBT community. I felt we needed to be proactive on this… My concern is that we need to make sure that people aren’t reading things on the Internet or through social media and thinking that must be true.
Has there been misinformation?
There has been at least one instance where someone corrected their previous story to say they might have the details wrong. One story that gained public attention was that of Jennifer Gale, a transgender homeless woman who died in Texas in 2008. According to the Austin Chronicle, an Marti Bier, an aide to City Council Member Randi Shade was quoted in a blog post describing Gale as having “nowhere … to go to protect herself from the cold [last] night.” Within days, this took on a story of its own, the Austin Chronicle reported:
Bier’s sympathetic rumor had become conventional wisdom by Thursday’s Council meeting, and a subsequent press release by Equality Texas was headlined in part, “Her death can be directly attributed to lack of shelters accepting of transgender homeless.”
In fact, a somewhat embarrassed Bier says now, that’s not true. She says she had confused a story she’d heard about another [transgender] woman’s bad experience at a local shelter with Gale, and that she has since contacted both the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and learned that both shelters do what they can to accommodate all homeless people, regardless of gender status although they do have to adjust accommodations to particular circumstances. “I think I was trying to call attention to the problem of [transgender women] accessing services,” Bier said.
Although we’re still inquiring, there is in fact currently no evidence that Gale was ever refused shelter, or indeed that she had ever requested it.
OK, so what has The Salvation Army been doing to try to improve its relationship with the LGBTQ+ community?
In 2015, national spokesman Ron Busroe talked with Dawn Ennis for a lengthy interview with LGBTQ+ magazine and website, The Advocate. Among other things, Busroe said The Salvation Army had no intention of overturning same-sex marriage, the organization does not contribute money to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, the organization doesn’t fire people who are LGBTQ+, nor does the organization turn away anyone for who they are. Busroe said that he had initiated “sensitivity training” sessions for the organization’s staffers, and that he had seen positive examples of The Salvation Army’s employees interacting with transgender people receiving the organization’s services. He also said that he personally had met will Bil Browning.
Browning has often said that The Salvation Army could and should acknowledge their history, apologize, and make an earnest promise to do better. Both Busroe and Browning said the idea of the Salvation Army was discussed, but they disagree as to whether The Salvation Army asked Browning to write the apology the Salvation Army should issue. Browning said the organization did ask him, and Busroe said the organization did not. Browning wrote one, and Busroe said the apology that Browning wrote was not accepted because of “concern by the national leadership that an apology would be perceived or seen as trying to garner [the LGBT community’s] support.”
OK, so what’s next?
In early 2018, CBC/Radio-Canada reported that The Salvation Army was opening a homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ people in Winnipeg. Some hailed the decision, but Mike Tutthill, the executive director of a non-profit organization that serves the LGBT community in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, voiced concerns that The Salvation Army had the community’s best interests at heart:
When an organization has had a negative history with the community, it’s the responsibility of that organization to change the perception within the community, and I’m not feeling like the Salvation Army has done that.. Salvation Army does have a reputation of homophobia.
In short, they’ve tried to sweep their past under the rug when they could end the whole thing by simply apologizing and promising to do better. Without the apology, any attempts they make will be met with skepticism.
Still no apology?
Not in any formal sense that exhaustively addresses past actions, statements, and stances. But in the 2015 interview with The Advocate, Busroe spoke as an individual — not as an organization spokesman — when he said:
If anybody from the LGBT community was discriminated against or hurt in any way by a Salvation Army officer or employee, that is inconsistent with who we are as an organization and who we are as Christians, and I regret that.
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