The Salvation Army is on a mission this Christmas, to battle those who “traffic in misinformation.” At the invitation of The Advocate, a leader in the organization explained in detail its efforts to spread the word that it is not against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgender people, nor is it funding anti-LGBT efforts with the money it collects from donations.
“We are very, very proactive: We are the ones who define who we are,” says its national media chief, who demonstrated how strongly he believes those words by devoting more than an hour to a wide-ranging interview with The Advocate.
Lt. Col Ron Busroe is the Salvation Army’s national secretary for community relations and development. He holds that rank in keeping with the organization’s tradition of using military terminology for its officers, and he has long been a “Salvo,” as they call themselves. Busroe says 45 years ago this month, he was a freshman attending college in Kentucky when he was recruited to move to New York City to become a bell ringer, earning $2 an hour. He finished college and has worked as a Salvo 41 years.
To bolster his argument that Salvos are not inherently out to disenfranchise LGBT people, Busroe points to the group’s websites. They show that the Salvation Army welcomes LGBT people to take full advantage of all its services,as well as encourages people from all walks of life to work for the organization and its 7,000+ branches, known as “corps.”
And make no mistake, it’s no mom-and-pop shop. The Salvation Army is the second-biggest charity in the United States — taking in $2.12 billion last year, according to Forbes — and it is also a church, founded in 1865 in London by former Methodist minister William Booth. Its members believe only in the “biblical” definition of marriage, “between a man and a woman,” according to its FAQ page.
The group’s mission statement, also on that page as well as elsewhere, says:
“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by love for God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in his name without discrimination.”
“The fact is,” Busroe declares, “it is our mission to serve without discrimination. No one will be turned away because they are a member of the LGBT community or because of racial discrimination. That is inconsistent with who we are.
“We serve 30 million people a year, providing lodging, meals, afternoon child care, drug and alcohol treatment. Our Christian faith is not a carrot, or else we wouldn’t have existed 150 years. We welcome Muslims, Buddhists, or people with no faith. If you come in with a hijab, it doesn’t impact our mission to help you pay the rent, pay your bills, buy toys for kids.”
The same philosophy, Busroe says, applies to LGBT individuals.
“This is who we are, but who we are does not prevent us from serving you,” says Busroe. And in his fourth year in this position as media and community representative for the U.S. branch of the London-based organization, Busroe says the Salvation Army has been “hammered in social media by misinformation, old stories, people misspeaking including internally. That’s the interesting thing, is that we are criticized on both the left and the right.”
Busroe also denies the organization was involved politically in Houston’s battle over an equal rights ordinance, which opponents successfully painted as allowing predatory men dressed as women into ladies' rooms, endangering children.
He says not one penny dropped in its kettles or in its accounts supports causes that are antigay, anti-trans, antibisexual, antilesbian, anti-intersex — or any identities or sexual orientations under the rainbow. “No, we do not fund anti-LGBT causes, not any more than we fund Planned Parenthood. I am bombarded with letters, saying, ‘I’m not going to support you because you fund Planned Parenthood.’ We’ve said to the people, it’s not true.”
So where does the money go? The group has a breakdown of its income and expenses on its FAQ page, dating back to 2011. CNN reports the Salvation Army typically spends 82 percent of all the donations it receives on aid, but budgets so it can direct 100 percent to relief efforts during a catastrophe or disaster.
On marriage equality, Busroe was crystal clear: “We have no position on rolling back marriage equality. And the Salvation Army is not lobbying to repeal marriage equality.”
The Salvo website puts it this way: “The Supreme Court ruling has no effect on the manner in which we serve 31 million people each and every year in every ZIP Code in the United States. Our policy of nondiscrimination has been in place for over 100 years, and we will continue to love and serve all who come to us in need.”
The real question, he says, is for the group to look at how does same-sex marriage impact the Salvos’s mission of helping people. “It’s a distraction, and we need to focus on who we are, and about helping people,” he says.
If marriage equality is repealed or the Supreme Court reverses its decision, what then?
“That’s not going to change our mission statement,” says Busroe. “If the law changes, we’re not going to go out there and become involved in lobbying” to make marriages between same-sex couples invalid.
Busroe says the organization does not even hire lobbyists. “We don’t go down on K Street [in Washington, D.C.] and hire lobbyists. Part of my job is advocating and educating on how certain laws that may or may not pass affect the Salvation Army, and the people we serve.”
According to Busroe, he “meets regularly” with the White House staff on the issue of poverty mitigation, and he says he doesn’t stop there. “I meet with people on both sides of the aisle, Speaker Paul Ryan, the Democratic Party’s Chief Deputy Whip Rep. John Lewis.”
Asked to name an LGBT issue that the Salvation Army is addressing, Busroe cited statistics that show "40 percent of homeless youth who are on the street are members of the LGBT community — it’s terrible.”
What about LGBT employees? Busroe knows of at least one gay man who is out and an ordained minister as well as an officer in the Salvation Army. The Salvos website says, “We do have gay Salvation Army officers.” In fact there is now a website called “The Salvation Army and the LGBT Community.” But Busroe was unable to come up with a hard number of employees who identity as LGBT.
“We don’t ask LGBT employees to tell us, and we don’t know because we don’t ask,” Busroe says. “In questions of hiring by race, it’s much easier to keep track because it’s government-mandated. “
He says the Salvation Army’s benefits policy applies equally to employees who are married to opposite-sex or same-sex partners. Despite the church’s teaching that marriage is only between one man and one woman, Busroe says as a matter of policy, same-sex couples “are eligible for benefits, since marriage is marriage, as defined by the Supreme Court in all 50 states.”
Busroe adds emphatically, “No one will be fired from a position because they are gay.”
But doesn’t the dogma of the church at the center of the army lie in conflict with LGBT rights?
“The Salvation Army does not believe that homosexual orientation is a sin,” says a statement online. The organization swiftly removed two links to “ex-gay” therapy groups when it was first reported in 2013. “Regardless of one’s orientation, since the mid-19th century, The Salvation Army has been serving our most vulnerable citizens according to its founding mission: ‘To meet human needs in His name without discrimination.’ People who come to us for assistance will be served according to their need and our capacity to help — regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
One gay person well-known to the Salvos is out journalist Bil Browning, who writes for The Advocate and other publications. For more than a decade, Browning has issued annual reminders that, in his words, “the Salvation Army is a right-wing organization that discriminates against LGBT people.” In 2011, the annual appeal picked up steam and was picked up by mainstream media outlets, national TV networks, and columnists including Dan Savage.
They retold Browning’s tale of an experience 20 years ago that lit a fire within him: "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 and declined to break up as they demanded."
Over the years, Browning has repeatedly made the case for allegations that Busroe denied in his interview with The Advocate: that, many LGBT people are rejected by the evangelical charity because they're “sexually impure,” that “Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life,” that the Salvation Army will “deny LGBT people services unless they renounce their sexuality, end same-sex relationships” and “has a record of actively lobbying governments worldwide for antigay policies — including an attempt to make consensual gay sex illegal." Browning also believes Salvo donations are used to pay lobbyists.
Christian supporters of the Salvation Army denounced Browning as “the red kettle menace. The two sides sparred for years, every Christmas and in the months surrounding it.
And so finally there was a face-to-face showdown in January 2012. Browning tells The Advocate he received an apology from Maj. George Hood and the army’s communications director for the mistreatment he and his then-boyfriend received all those years ago. But as it came the same day the organization’s leadership joined several evangelical leaders in an open letter denouncing same-sex marriage as a threat to “religious freedom,” to Browning that made the apology seem hollow.
One year later, Browning says he met Busroe, and they discussed another apology, not to him but to the entire community, for outright discrimination, for anti-LGBT policies, and campaigns to oppose LGBT rights.
“We’ve met with Bil a number of times,” says Busroe. “And the issue of an apology came up. We didn’t dismiss it out of hand, and it might have been an important thing — from a theology perspective. When we asked Bil what it would look like, he told us ‘I’ll be glad to help you,’ then he took it upon himself to write it, and made it public when we decided we wouldn’t release [what he had written].”
Browning counters that the Salvation Army did ask him to write it and claims the group instead chose a “policy of containment,” circling the wagons rather than issue a mea culpa.
Busroe still contends no one in the organization asked Browning to write an apology for the Salvation Army, and he tells The Advocate the reason it was not accepted is “concern by the national leadership that an apology would be perceived or seen as trying to garner [the LGBT community’s] support.”
Unsolicited, Busroe then offered this, not as a spokesman, but as himself:
“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.”
Browning, in response, provided this statement to The Advocate:
“It's obvious that the Salvation Army has worked hard to become more LGBT welcoming and they deserve credit for the steps they've taken. My disappointment and distrust stems from the way they've handled it. Instead of stemming from personal convictions, it's felt politically motivated.
“They've employed an army of paid PR flacks and volunteers on social media to improve their image and made changes to their website, but how are those changes actually playing out locally? They haven't promoted these changes outside of responding to criticism and won't even issue a public apology that was their idea. They are trying to do an apology tour without actually apologizing for their past misdeeds. Instead, they've tried to gloss over the past and offer pinky promises on Facebook that they're our new bestie. That’s not enough; they should do what they said they would do.
“Instead of 'doing the most good' by apologizing and moving on as the group has done in other countries, they’re trying to be our back door friend: They’ll be our 'friend' — as long as we don’t walk in the front door where people could see us together.
“That's unfortunate. I can't wait for the day when I feel comfortable dropping a few dollars in the red kettle again. Right now, a handful of promises made by a few PR flacks isn’t enough.”
One of those people Busroe might be addressing in his impromptu, personal apology is Jodielynn Wiley, who fled Paris, Texas, for Dallas in February 2014 after receiving death threats for her gender identity. She found emergency shelter at the Salvation Army’s Carr P. Collins Social Service Center. According to Busroe, the program managers extended the period of time Wiley could stay “longer than is normally allowed. She received several extensions” as Salvation Army officers worked to get her into a more settled housing arrangement. “There was concern about her safety and those in permanent housing,” he says.
However, an officer told Wiley that to share a room with another woman and share a bathroom with two other women, the officer would need to know if Wiley had undergone gender-confirmation surgery. “After I said no, she said, ‘Well, that’s why we can’t give you a room,’” Wiley says.
Busroe says in that case they tried to help Wiley, who found alternate housing instead. Of this case and others, where no law exists to guarantee a transgender person is protected from discrimination, Busroe says it’s “very difficult. We did try to work with this lady, but other women who were being served said no, they don’t want her sharing their space. We take each case individually and serve the needs of the one, at the same time there are other issues.”
While not excusing the treatment Wiley received, he says, “We are human beings. We are all fallen, we are all fallible.” That’s why he’s launched what he called “sensitivity training” seasons around the country, helping workers who might not know their terminology could offend, learn what questions they should ask, and which ones they shouldn’t. “We’re working with folks from the LGBT community,” Busroe says.
The Salvation Army’s most recent LGBT success story, he says, happened over the summer:
“A transgender child wanted to go to camp presenting female, and the question was, how do we accommodate? The kids stay in cabins by sex, but we were able to work that out. We sat down with parents, discussed the difficulties she might face, and talked to her counselor. She had her week at camp and there were no issues. She wasn’t treated any differently.”
In another situation on the West Coast, a trans man spent six months living in a men’s treatment facility. “No one knew except one administrator and his counselor,” says Busroe. “Not only did he stay throughout the program without problems, he was hired to come on staff.”
Busroe concluded our conversation with an observation inspired by the words of a rabbi to a Christian transgender woman: “We are all created in the image of God.”