It may "feel" good to tuck a few bucks into the little red can as volunteers brave the cold to ring their bells on street corners to raise money for the Salvation Army, a 148-year-old Christian organization that serves people in need. But if you're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – or if you care a lick about equal rights – then you may want to reconsider where you donate your hard-earned dollars and cents this season. While the Salvation Army has launched a warm and fuzzy campaign denying that it discriminates against the LGBT community (going so far as to remove anti-gay rhetoric from its website after much criticism), its ongoing efforts to derail an entire community for years tells a whole different story.
While there are countless testimonies buzzing around the internet of LGBT people who have been forced to hide or denounce their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to access vital support (like food, shelter and clothing) from this so-called Christian organization, like referring them to "ex-gay" ministries (such as the controversial Exodus International which believes in "praying the gay away"), organizations that more states like California and New Jersey are banning because of their unscrupulous tactics, the discrimination persists. Even the American Psychiatric Association has said that these anti-gay ministries, which have long been supported by the Salvation Army, are detrimental to the development and self-esteem of LGBT minors, putting them at higher risk for suicide than their peers. But as fundraising shrinks as more people become aware of the Salvation Army's deep-rooted homophobia, the organization is fighting back with claims that simply don't stack up to the realities of their very dangerous deeds over the years.
A history of homophobia
Not only has the organization opposed many equal rights initiatives worldwide, like the Homosexual Law Reform Act that would decriminalized sex between consenting adult men, but it also refused a multi-million-dollar contract in San Francisco because the city provides spousal benefits to same-sex partners. The same happened in New York City and other municipalities with LGBT equality on the books. The hard fact: The Salvation Army doesn't want to do business (keeping in mind, of course, that they're in the business of helping people) in places where the LGBT community is protected against discrimination. But the jokes on the Salvation Army as more states and municipalities are showing more legislative support protecting the LGBT community against workplace and housing discrimination and other hate crimes. Even Pennsylvania's own Republican Governor Tom Corbett recently announced his somewhat surprising support of a new bill that would protect the rights of the state's LGBT citizens.
Meanwhile, the Salvation Army – muddled in its own antiquated ideologies about Christian values – also tried to ban the mere mention of homosexuality in schools, saying that it would encourage children to "become gay." They also attempted to work with the Bush administration in 2001 to ensure that religious charities receiving federal funding (a bone of contention already to anyone who values the separation of church and state) should not be beholden to any laws banning anti-gay discrimination. Thankfully, they failed. But the organization still refuses to extend medical benefits to same-sex partners of its own employees, that is, if an employee can keep his or her job long enough to fight for them.
Just last year, the Salvation Army branch in Burlington, VT, fired an employee after it was discovered that she's bisexual. The explanation? Her lifestyle was simply not compatible with the principles of the organization. Salvation Army spokesperson Major George Hood responded to the termination saying this: "A relationship between same-sex individuals is a personal choice that people have the right to make. But from a church standpoint, we see that going against the will of God."
The "No Red Kettles" campaign
Despite scrubbing its website of anti-gay references and resources, the Salvation Army's longtime anti-gay tactics has inspired a boycott called "No Red Kettles," which wants to debunk myths and demand that the organization abandon its discriminatory practices or risk losing even more funding.
Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, has also challenged critics who defend the Salvation Army. "If a racist organization was trying to collect money with the message that some of the money was going towards good," he asks, "would you support them?"
This isn't to say that the Salvation Army doesn't, indeed, do good in the larger community, running charity shops, shelters for homeless and providing aid to the poor around the world with more than 7,500 centers across the country. Locally, the building collapse at 22nd and Market Street has also cast a tragic shadow that might have Philadelphians reaching a little deeper into their pockets this season. Be clear that the leadership of this organization doesn't necessarily reflect the feelings of the dedicated people who do good every day – and certainly not the people who lost their lives in the tragic event. But unfortunately, despite this incident and the charitable services the organization offers many people in Philadelphia and beyond, the fact is not everyone is treated equally. And the money that is collected in those red kettles this season does not support the LGBT community in need in our own backyard.
"The Salvation Army has a history of active discrimination against gays and lesbians," says Bill Browning, a longtime gay activist and editor-in-chief of The Bilerco Project. "While you might think you're helping the hungry and homeless by dropping a few dollars in the bright red buckets, not everyone can share in the donations."
Want to really do some good this season? Consider donating to secular organizations that do not discriminate against the LGBT community, like The American Red Cross, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and the Trevor Project.
"I've seen the discrimination the Salvation Army preaches first hand," says Browning. "When a former boyfriend and I were homeless, the Salvation Army insisted we break up before they'd offer assistance. We slept on the street instead."