If history provided no context, the Salvation Army might look like a fairly LGBT-friendly organization. The only thing the church organization seems to have to say about LGBT people in December of 2014 is that it proudly hires and serves them without discriminating. However, not only is that provably untrue, but it also sweeps a significant anti-LGBT record under the rug without taking any accountability for it.
One of the LGBT activists who has led the charge in boycotting the red kettle donations during the holiday season is Bil Browning, blogger and founder of The Bilerico Project. In 2011, Browning outlined some significant milestones in the Salvation Army’s history of opposing LGBT equality, including numerous occasions when it sought exemptions from nondiscrimination protections. He also noted that the organization often only provided services to LGBT people if they renounced their identities or ended their same-sex relationships.
Since then, Browning has met with U.S. Salvation Army officials on numerous occasions, and the organization has in turn made substantial changes to its public image. Gone is the position statement that declared, “Scripture opposes homosexual practices,” and that “such practices, if unrenounced, render a person ineligible for Salvation Army soldiership.” (The Salvation Army Canada’s Ethics Centre notes in an update posted a year ago, “The topic of Gay and Lesbian sexuality is under discussion at this time.”) Last year, the Salvation Army immediately removed two links from its website that led to organizations advocating for ex-gay therapy, apologizing for their “oversight and any confusion this may have caused” and asserting that it “does not consider homosexual orientation a sin.”
This year, the pro-LGBT PR campaign is continuing. The Columbus Dispatch reported Monday morning that the Salvation Army outright denies that it is anti-LGBT — that these are “rumors” and that “these accusations simply aren’t true.” In fact, they’ve been using the “rumor” line for several years now. The record, however, is well documented and still ongoing. Just this year, a Salvation Army shelter in Texas refused to house a transgender woman because of her surgical status. Perhaps the shelter had not gotten the higher-ups’ memo on LGBT inclusion, or perhaps the organization is still struggling to walk the walk as it talks the talk.
Browning, for his part, told ThinkProgress that he believes the Salvation Army is “definitely moving in the right direction,” but suggests that “they’re trying to do it in an ultimately self-defeating manner” — without offending the conservative Christian groups they’ve long been allied with. He noted that a big part of their effort this year involves responding individually to people on Twitter to reiterate that they do not discriminate. Browning calls this being “a backdoor friend” to the LGBT community. “They claim to be our friend, but they want us to enter through the back door so their other friends don’t see us hanging out together,” he explained. “That’s not good enough and it will ultimately doom their efforts at erasing the stigma of their past.”
This year, Browning launched a new phase of his campaign, urging the Salvation Army to issue a public apology for the harm it’s done to the LGBT community, rather than trying to pretend that its anti-LGBT past (and arguably present) is just a “rumor.” Such apologies are hardly unprecedented; Browning notes that the Salvation Army “has apologized for the exact same behavior before in other countries, as well as apologizing for other bigoted and discriminatory actions against ethnic groups.” As long as the group refuses to apologize and refuses to inform the public that it’s made a big change to its doctrine and policies, “they’re just whistling in the wind and hoping that their outreach on social media helps to quiet down the outrage one confused person at a time.”
Nevertheless, Browning lauds the “worthy” organization for being “organized around a religious philosophy that is one of the most generous and Christ-like: to help the poor and needy.” He told ThinkProgress that he would “donate to the Salvation Army immediately if they apologized.” But until they’re willing to “publicly declare that they help all Americans without discrimination,” he qualified, “they’ll never live up to the ideals of their savior.”