As the holiday season approaches, LGBTQ+ people will once again encounter donation requests from Salvation Army bell-ringers. And as has been the case for many years, questions will arise about the organization’s unfortunate history with the queer community.
The latest controversy surrounds Ellie Goulding, the British singer hired to perform at a football game sponsored by the Salvation Army. When alerted by fans that the Salvation Army has a history of discriminating against LGBTQ+ people, Goulding wrote that she was reconsidering her participation in the event. After consultation with Salvation Army officials, the singer decided to go ahead with the show but offered little explanation to fans for her change of heart.
In an email interview, the Salvation Army tells Out that they’ve implemented reforms and are now dedicated to helping all people in need, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“If anyone needs help, they can find it through our doors,” wrote Director of Communications David Jolley. “Unfortunately, as a large organization, there have been isolated incidents that do not represent our values and service to all people who are in need.”
More than “isolated incidents,” the organization has a long history of hostility towards queer people dating back to at least the 1980s. In 1986, the New Zealand branch collected signatures in favor of retaining the criminalization of homosexuality. The charity apologized for its actions in 2006.
In the 1990s, San Francisco implemented a requirement that companies doing business with city government offer benefits to same-sex partners. In response, the Salvation Army requested an exemption from the rule on religious grounds.
In 2012, the organization suggested that gay Christians pursue celibacy “as a way of life,” with spokesman George Hood explaining, "a relationship between same-sex individuals is a personal choice that people have the right to make. But from a church viewpoint, we see that going against the will of God."
The following year, the Salvation Army was found to be referring online visitors to ex-gay conversion therapy groups. Following an outcry, those links were removed from the organization’s website.
A leaked internal memo in 2014 showed the organization’s opposition to marriage equality, and in 2016 they pulled support for an Australian safe schools program that focused on LGBTQ+ students. These moves came in addition to multiple reports of the organization’s discriminatory policies against LGBTQ+ individuals.
But leaders insist that the organization is doing its best to reform.
“As we’ve better understood the needs of the LGTBTQ+ community, we’ve evolved our approach,” Jolley wrote to Out. “As we build and remodel emergency shelters and transitional housing across the country, we consider ways to help LGBTQ+ individuals feel safe and cared for. We also have specific programs and resources across the country, such as a dorm in Las Vegas that is exclusive for transgender individuals, a detoxification facility in San Francisco that caters to those infected with HIV/AIDS, and our work in Baltimore to meet the needs of transgender individuals who are trafficked.”
In response to the Goulding controversy, the organization released a statement. “Regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, we’re committed to serving anyone in need,” they wrote “Every day, we provide services such as shelter for the transgender community and resources for homeless youth – 40 percent of whom identify as gay or transgender.”
That figure of 40 percent refers to an estimate reflecting homeless youth in the overall population, not the proportion of queer people served by the Salvation Army itself.
“We don’t ask our clients about their sexual orientation,” Jolley wrote, “and we provide service based on how they self-identify.”