Several years ago, I began bypassing the Salvation Army bell-ringers and stopped putting money in the ubiquitous red Christmas kettle, a holiday fixture in 2,000 stores and street corners across Canada.
Yes, the Salvation Army helps the poor by running food banks and offering emergency relief, addiction rehab, and clothing and shelter for people in need — and it’s been doing so in Canada since 1882. But it also has a long history of discriminating against the LGBTQ2 community.
Like many conservative organizations, the Salvation Army adheres to a theology that considers gay sex sinful. It has denounced marriage equality as a threat to religious freedom, vigorously fought against policies extending health benefits to same-sex partners and referred gay individuals to conversion therapy. In 1986, it campaigned to retain the criminalization of homosexuality in New Zealand. It eventually apologized 20 years later.
One of the most disturbing incidents was a 2012 Australian radio interview with a media spokesperson who said he agreed with Romans 1:18-32, which calls for homosexuals to be put to death. “That’s part of our belief system,” he stated. The Salvation Army later apologized for the comment, and the official was removed from his post.
And yet, I felt a twinge of conscience. My mother had been helped by the Salvation Army after my father left our family when I was three years old and my brother was just a baby.
There are social media memes about the church’s approach regarding the LGBTQ2 community. I decided to research one I had seen of two female bell-ringers posing with a sign that read “Gays Not Allowed.” Well, that’s a fabrication — a digitally altered version of a promotional photo that originally read “Doing the Most Good.” Similarly, a 2008 report that a trans woman died on the streets of Austin, Texas, after a Salvation Army shelter turned her away was also untrue.
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In 2013, the Salvation Army opened a “safety dorm” in a Las Vegas shelter exclusively for transgender individuals. In San Francisco, it operates a detox facility that helps those infected with HIV-AIDS. In Baltimore, it provides direct services to transgender people who are survivors of human trafficking. And two years ago, the Salvation Army in Winnipeg opened a new space for homeless LGBTQ2 people.
The Salvation Army international website states that it “stands against homophobia, which victimises people and can reinforce feelings of alienation, loneliness and despair.” The American website notes that four out of 10 homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2 and that almost a third of homeless transgender people have experienced being rejected from an emergency shelter.
Last December, San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter ran a positive piece about the organization’s work, quoting city official Rafael Mandelman, who said, “I do not, as a gay man, love its positions on same-sex marriage, but the reality is the Salvation Army is one of the most important providers of substance use treatment and shelter to homeless folks.… Many, many queer people have turned their lives around with the help of the Salvation Army.”
Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, an advocacy group working to end “ex-gay” conversion programs, is not convinced, however. In a 2016 opinion piece in the Huffington Post, he wrote, “The Salvation Army can’t afford to be viewed as a backward and bigoted organization, because it would cost them a significant amount of money. Their reputation would take a severe hit, tarnishing their brand, particularly among youth who are repulsed by anti-gay propaganda.”
The Salvation Army should apologize to LGBTQ2 people.
The Salvation Army insists it’s not anti-LGBTQ2, but can you really be against same-sex marriage, and insist on abstinence for gays, and make this claim? I don’t think so. I agree with Besen, who urges the Salvation Army to decide whether it’s an “organization that supports equality or… believe[s] that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured. They can’t have it both ways.”
The Salvation Army should issue an apology for the harm it has done to the LGBTQ2 community. Still, I’ve come to believe that its actions trump its theology. Programs for people living in poverty, including LGBTQ2 folks, should not run the risk of being eliminated because one disagrees with the views of those who provide such services. Little would be gained for those most in need if this were to happen. Last year, the Salvation Army assisted 1.6 million Canadians in 400 communities across Canada, including providing food hampers to 260,000 at Christmas.
Recently, I asked my 76-year-old mother about the help she received from the Salvation Army all those years ago. She told me they gave her a cheque for $50 at Christmas for four years in a row. During those years, my mom lived on welfare and didn’t have a car, a television set, a telephone or even a bank account. She used that $50 to buy presents for me and my brother, to get a small tree and Christmas decorations, and to add some special food items to her grocery list around the holidays. In the decades since she received this assistance, she has donated several hundred dollars every year to the Salvation Army. “They helped me out when I needed it most, so I feel strongly about helping them out,” she says.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to write a cheque to the Salvation Army, but I’m not going to smugly walk by the red kettle any longer. My measly $5 or $10 is just a drop in the bucket, but I’ll feel like a grinch if I don’t give at least a little. Studies show that a personal connection to a charity is a major factor in donating. More than half a century ago, the Salvation Army made Christmas a little merrier for our family. The least I can do now is return the favour.
Anne Bokma is a journalist and the author of the memoir My Year of Living Spiritually: One Woman’s Quest for a More Soulful Life.
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