Evangelical organization needs to make a public apology as well as policy changes and feel-good videos
With Christmas 2014 done and over with, we won’t see the Salvation Army bell ringers on the streets for another 12 months, more or less. But given the organization’s presence and power, it’s worth talking about it now anyway. And the Salvation Army, like most American Christian denominations, is struggling with how to reconcile religious doctrine with the growing acceptance of LGBT civil rights.
When founder William Booth started his ministry in 1852, he focused on the outcasts of society — thieves, prostitutes, drunkards and the destitute. As the church grew, it spread internationally and retained its focus on serving the less fortunate — or at least, some of the less fortunate.
The evangelical church has come under fire for its history of blatant discrimination against LGBT people. But the group claims it is slowly changing its policies to be more inclusive. Still, change comes slowly to organized religion.
A small and short-lived effort to draw attention to the Salvation Army’s discriminatory policies was launched more than a decade ago. But it slowly petered out, as the LGBT community shifted its focus to marriage equality and private sector employment protections. In 2010 I kicked the campaign back into gear with a short article that updated the Salvation Army’s history of prejudice and inequality toward LGBT people.
In 2011, I rewrote the piece in a longer form and shared my own history of being turned away from a Salvation Army homeless shelter during a particularly rough period in my life. I told readers “Why You Shouldn’t Donate to the Salvation Army Bell Ringers” if you care about LGBT people, and I encouraged folks to donate to other charities instead. The article went viral and I found myself dubbed “The Red Kettle Menace” in a New York Times story on Christmas Eve.
The real story, however, lies in what happened after Christmas.
I met with Salvation Army Major George Hood and Communications Director Jennifer Byrd in January of 2012 to discuss our differences. We’d lobbed volleys at each other through various media sources for two years, but connecting in person was always something I’d wanted to do. You can’t solve anything with a one-sided conversation.
But while our meeting was cordial and the two of them spent quite a bit of time trying to mollify my concerns, it was marked by a very unfortunate turn of events.
The same morning we were due to have lunch, an open letter from several evangelical leaders was released claiming that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would “threaten religious freedom.” The letter cited the Salvation Army by name, pointing out “San Francisco dropped its $3.5 million in social service contracts with the Salvation Army because it refused to recognize same-sex ‘domestic partnerships’ in its employee benefits policies.”
The letter was signed by about 40 religious leaders, including Commissioner William A. Roberts, then national commander of the Salvation Army. The letter cast a wide shadow over the entire meeting.
Hood and Byrd were pleasant and friendly during our meeting and they offered up several areas where the group had made positive steps forward or at least didn’t actively work against LGBT people. They made an attempt to listen and interact. They apologized for the way I had been treated 20 years before, and they explained that they were examining many different policies related to LGBT people and families.
I’d planned to write about the meeting, but the whole experience left me feeling odd. I wanted more than a personal apology for an isolated incident two decades ago; I wanted them to publicly acknowledge the pain they’d caused many LGBT people over the years.
“I respect your right to take offense to the letter,” Major Hood told me as we parted. And he and Byrd expressed their personal regret at the previous anti-LGBT stances the church had taken. But they seemed powerless to do more than feel sorry.
While I’ve done interviews about the Salvation Army since that meeting, I haven’t written anything else blasting them. The old article remained popular during every holiday season; it was shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook alone. Then as Christmas approached in 2013, the Army took a new tactic toward ending their standoff with the LGBT community.
That year, the Salvation Army launched a large public relations campaign featuring videos of queer employees and clients singing the church’s praises and telling viewers that the Salvation Army doesn’t discriminate against LGBT people. Staffers and members from local chapters and the national office reached out to bloggers and activists in an attempt to tamp down the anger and dismay.
The LGBT community didn’t respond to the outreach quite like the Army had hoped. After all, employees can be coerced into making feel-good videos for their employers, and clients wanting a warm place to sleep and a filling meal will surely mug for the camera if doing so means they and their children get fed.
The LGBT community’s suspicions run decades deep and some changed language on a website, a few YouTube videos, and emails sent to bloggers hasn’t worked any magic.
As news has spread that the Salvation Army was embracing nondiscrimination policies in hiring and assistance, LGBT people have started to take a second wary look. After the LGBT group Truth Wins Out discovered a link on the Salvation Army website that went to a religious right group offering harmful “ex-gay” therapy, the Army removed it within minutes of being notified. The church is making a concerted effort to improve their image, but without acknowledging the still festering wound.
I met with Ms. Byrd and Major Hood’s successor, Major Ron Busroe, last December for another conversation about their policies. As the conversation turned to the topic of the ongoing campaign, they pointed out the webpage and the videos. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t know the history or the language of the queer community.
They seemed deflated when I pointed out why LGBT people were still skeptical.
The Salvation Army’s website now has a dedicated page entitled “Debunking the Myth of LGBT Discrimination” as part of their public relations campaign. My personal story of being discriminated against by the Army had been acknowledged and apologized for the previous year; now it was a “myth.”
Therein lies the problem facing the Salvation Army. They are taking steps forward toward equality for all people. They have updated their nondiscrimination policies nationwide. They have sent directions to shelters across the country on how to treat gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clients with respect and dignity.
In 2001, the Salvation Army actively lobbied the Bush White House for the right to ignore local nondiscrimination laws and “not have to provide medical benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.” In 2013, they provided domestic partner benefits in all states and localities required by law plus any states that have legalized same-sex marriage. They’re investigating how to fairly provide those benefits to employees across the country.
But the Army has still avoided the one thing that can give it the redemption it seeks: taking responsibility for the policies that actively hurt our community.
Discrimination against LGBT people happened. The church spent political capital opposing LGBT rights. Vulnerable people have been hurt even further in their name. The Army is responsible for its own actions.
Instead, the Salvation Army is whistling nervously in the dark as it passes by a monster of its own making. It refuses to acknowledge its sin before asking for forgiveness.
While Army officials in New Zealand and the United Kingdom strengthened their commitment to equality and service after acknowledging their anti-gay past and the hurt it caused, American officials have so far been reluctant to take that first, but most important, step.
Major Busroe and Ms. Byrd weren’t able to offer what’s needed most — a public apology from the new national commander, Commissioner David Jeffrey, for the pain the Salvation Army had caused. They promised to take the idea to their leader, but even after continued conversation over the past year, they’ve made no further steps to move forward.
As with their PR blitz, they’ve mouthed the words but refused to put any action behind them.
“If I had the authority to do it, I would,” Major Hood said regarding a public apology. “People are people. When they’re suffering, hurt or isolated, we’re the group that needs to be there. I just don’t have the authority.”
If the Salvation Army wants to work with and serve the LGBT community, there’s an easy solution. Commissioner Roberts has the authority — and the obligation — to simply say, “We’re sorry for the hurt we caused. We won’t do it again.”•
Bil Browning is a long-time gay activist and writer, and the founder and Publisher of The Bilerico Project blog. He lives in Washington, D.C.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 2, 2015.