'Tis the season for gift-giving, holiday parties, family gatherings -- and, for a lot of LGBT people, wondering if money dropped in the Salvation Army's ubiquitous red kettles will support homophobia and transphobia.
It will not, says the venerable Christian organization's national spokesman, Lt. Col. Ron Busroe -- but he's more concerned about another question that may be on the minds of LGBT people.
"My greater concern is not whether they're donating, but if they're saying the Salvation Army won't help you because you're gay" or transgender, he says. Busroe says nothing could be further from the truth.
The organization's record and policies regarding LGBT people have long been a subject of contention. Some gay activists and journalists have accused the Salvation Army of anti-LGBT discrimination over the years, such as one who said the organization two decades ago ordered him to break up with his boyfriend if they wanted to receive services (they were homeless at the time). The Salvation Army eventually apologized, although not entirely to the journalist's satisfaction. More recently, one of its substance abuse treatment centers in New York City was served with a complaint by the city's Commission on Human Rights, charging it with anti-transgender discrimination in its intake policies.
The commission filed complaints in July against four centers, one affiliated with the Salvation Army. The complaints "charge the centers with gender identity discrimination for refusing to accept transgender patients and for discriminatory housing policies, including assigning rooms based on a patient's gender assigned at birth rather than their gender identity, subjecting patients to physical examinations, and forcing transgender patients into separate rooms," says a press release from the commission. It does not say which violations of the city's antidiscrimination law occurred at which center.
Busroe declines to comment on the New York City complaint because it's an ongoing legal matter, but he tells The Advocate the Salvation Army's policy is to deliver services without discrimination against anyone, LGBT or otherwise. The organization was founded in 1865 in London by former Methodist minister William Booth and his wife, Catherine, as a "volunteer army" (hence the military titles for leaders) to deliver a Christian message and material assistance to the poor and disenfranchised who wouldn't come to a traditional church.
Today, it's still definitely Christian, but it provides its social services to people of all faiths and identities, without proselytizing, Busroe says. "We're not out there saying you need to become a Christian," he says, although its ministerial staff will share the faith message with those who wish to hear it. Nor, he says, is there a requirement that the recipients of aid renounce an LGBT identity. (In 2013 it removed links to "ex-gay" groups from its website after the LGBT group Truth Wins Out complained.)
The Salvation Army is the largest provider of drug and alcohol recovery services in the U.S., Busroe says, and it also offers shelter for the homeless, disaster relief, assistance for former prisoners reentering society, and more. It serves about 25 million people in the U.S. annually, and it has operations in 128 countries around the world. "We are at the front lines of serving those in need," Busroe says.
He asserts that there is much misinformation about the Salvation Army on social media and elsewhere. "One of the tragedies of misinformation is the tendency of some people to say, 'The Salvation Army won't help me, so I won't go to them,'" says Busroe.
A few months ago, he says, he spoke to a man in New York who was reluctant to take assistance from the Salvation Army when he was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s, believing the organization would not welcome him because he's gay. But an AIDS clinic referred the man to the Salvation Army for social services, and he actually found a welcoming atmosphere there. He ended up volunteering for the organization and eventually became a staff member.
The group, Busroe adds, does not discriminate against LGBT people in employment, nor does it discriminate based on race, religion, gender, or other characteristics. "We do not have a litmus test," he says. And it provides equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex spouses of employees.
However, the Salvation Army is a church as well as a social service organization, and one of the church's beliefs is that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples. Busroe was pastor of a Salvation Army congregation in Atlanta for 21 years (he's been with the organization for a total of 39 and will retire at the end of this year), and there were gay people among the members, likely with different opinions on the issue, he notes. But they were welcomed there without reservation, he adds.
In 2012 leaders of the Salvation Army and other faith groups issued an open letter denouncing marriage equality as a threat to religious freedom. But in 2015, after the Supreme Court had made marriage equality the law of the land, Busroe told The Advocate the organization was not engaged in any lobbying efforts to undermine marriage rights (as some critics had claimed), and indeed, does not employ lobbyists at all. At that time he also denied many allegations of past discrimination in provision of services.
In Busroe's more recent interview with The Advocate, he's quick to turn the conversation from religious beliefs to the provision of services, emphasizing that the Salvation Army does not apply any anti-LGBT dogma there. The organization respects same-sex couples' relationships and transgender people's identity, he says. Whether trans clients are housed with members of their lived gender in residential programs, he adds, is usually a local decision taking into consideration the clients' safety and availability of accommodations.
He allows that the organization has "evolved" on LGBT issues in recent decades. "All of us have evolved on a number of issues," he says. "We've all made a paradigm shift over the last 30 or 40 years."
So he hopes LGBT people will support the Salvation Army, but more important than whether they drop a dollar in the kettle, he says, is that they won't hesitate to turn to the organization in time of need. "The Salvation Army," he says, "meets human need without discrimination."