Is the Salvation Army anti-LGBTQ? Ellie Goulding's back-and-forth prompts new scrutiny

Beth GreenfieldSenior Editor

The holiday season has officially begun — with one clear sign being the kickoff of the Salvation Army’s 2019 Red Kettle Campaign, bringing bell-ringing volunteers to collect cash donations on street corners across the nation to feed people in need.

But this year’s campaign launch has reignited rancor around the Salvation Army’s stance on homosexuality — a longstanding source of tension between the charity and the LGBTQ community, brought back to light by singer Ellie Goulding.

Goulding and the Salvation Army announced she would give the halftime performance for the Dallas Cowboys football game on Thanksgiving Day — an event that also kicks off the Red Kettle Campaign for Salvation Army, which Goulding praised on her Instagram on Tuesday for “providing food for the hungry, emergency relief for disaster survivors, rehabilitation for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, and clothing and shelter for people in need.”

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But her commenters quickly turned critical, pointing out that the Salvation Army had a long history of being “homophobic and transphobic” and of spreading “anti lgbtq+ rhetoric.”

Noted one commenter, “They only help *certain* people. Very homophobic, transphobic, anti-LGBTQIA+ organization. Please do your research before endorsing a company that continues to hurt our community.”

That’s when Goulding reportedly added her own about-face comment (seemingly since deleted but preserved in screen shots here): “Upon researching this, I have reached out to the Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community,” adding that “…supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this x.”

On Wednesday, meanwhile, USA Today reported that Salvation Army representative Kurt Watkins confirmed that Goulding would indeed be performing. Yahoo Lifestyle was unable to confirm that, however, as repeated requests for comment made to both Goulding’s reps and the Salvation Army went unreturned.

Earlier this week, Salvation Army national commander David Hudson responded to Goulding’s misgivings with a statement to Fox News: "We’d like to thank Ellie Goulding and her fans for shedding light on misconceptions and encouraging others to learn the truth about The Salvation Army’s mission to serve all, without discrimination. We applaud her for taking the time to learn about the services we provide to the LGBTQ community."

While longtime LGBTQ activists found the back-and-forth extremely familiar, others were likely left scratching their heads, wondering why the Salvation Army, which assists 25 million Americans annually and 130 countries around the world, was getting such a bad rap.

Here’s what you need to know about the long-running controversy.

The Salvation Army is a church movement, founded in England in 1852, with traditional Christian beliefs.

“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church,” notes its mission statement. “Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

Those beliefs have periodically given rise to tensions with the LGBTQ community.

Back in 1998, for example, the Salvation Army turned down $3.5 million in contracts with the city of San Francisco rather than comply with the city’s new law stating that city contractors had to provide benefits not only to heterosexual spouses of employees, but also to same-sex domestic partners. When a similar ordinance passed in New York City in 2004, the Salvation Army reportedly threatened to leave (it did not, as an appeals court ruled the ordinance did not need to be enforced). Other reported issues have included the SA website offering links to gay conversion therapy organizations (since removed); a spokesperson saying in a 2012 interview that gay people deserve death, according to scripture; and incidents of homeless individuals being turned away from shelters or other services for being gay or transgender.

One of the older such cases on record, from the 1990s, comes from gay advocacy journalist Bil Browning, of LGBTQ Nation, who has been a major force in taking the Salvation Army to task ever since a shelter wouldn’t take in Browning and his then-boyfriend, both homeless at the time, “unless we broke up and then left the ‘sinful homosexual lifestyle’ behind,” Browning told the New York Times. “We slept on the street, and they didn’t help when we declined to break up at their insistence.” A similar situation was alleged to have occurred much more recently, in New York City in 2017, according to the NYC Committee on Human Rights, which noted that various service centers were allegedly engaging in “gender identity discrimination.”  

Salvation Army volunteers, like this man in Scarborough, Maine, are ubiquitous during the holiday season — although some, wary of the organization's past with the LGBTQ community, are hesitant about donating. (Photo: Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Salvation Army volunteers, like this man in Scarborough, Maine, are ubiquitous during the holiday season — although some, wary of the organization's past with the LGBTQ community, are hesitant about donating. (Photo: Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The Salvation Army has made major attempts to change its image and policies regarding LGBTQ policies over the years.

A dedicated page on its USA website, for example, is “The LGBTQ Community and the Salvation Army,” which states, “All people who come to us for services are offered assistance according to their need and our capacity to help.” The page offers detailed facts and services information on LGBTQ homelessness, substance abuse, hunger, teen suicide and job training. Similar efforts at amends have been made through Salvation Army branches including New Zealand and Canada, while the Central USA site includes an “LGBT statement” on its site denouncing discrimination and asserting that the organization does not take part in lobbying. “There is an effort to continue the misinformation and this seems to be pushed most heavily during the red kettle season. It is difficult to fight a phantom,” it notes.

“I think that the Salvation Army has really wrestled with what to do about the church’s stance on homosexuality and transgender issues, and I think they’ve come a long way — further than most churches have, actually,” Browning, after years speaking out against the Salvation Army, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The Methodist church just split over [gay marriage and gay clergy]’ and Methodists are considered more mainstream.” Further, Browning adds, the Salvation Army “literally changed church doctrine” to not explicitly denounce homosexuality, and “they did mandatory, thorough trainings.”

In an 2017 interview with The Advocate, national spokesperson Ron Busroe said, “We’re not out there saying you need to become a Christian,” and noted that those at the organization “have evolved” on LGBTQ issues, saying, “We’ve all made a paradigm shift over the last 30 or 40 years.” He added, “The Salvation Army meets human need without discrimination.” 

Lack of formal apology aside, some activists — including Browning — are pleased with the Salvation Army’s efforts.

“I wish they’d actually apologize for the harm they’ve done,” Browning tells Yahoo Lifestyle, pointing out that, several years ago, the Salvation Army actually requested that Browning, on behalf of the organization’s publicity team, write the very apology he and so many others wished to see. Browning wrote the apology, working closely with Salvation Army staffers, but says it never got approved, partly because the charity did not want to offend its supporters on the religious right; Browning, meanwhile, published the apology on his now-defunct blog, the Bilerico Project.

Still, he notes, “It’s important to point out that, even with all the push for religious exemptions — for so many wanting a license to discriminate — that is not something the Salvation Army has lobbied for or advocated for.” Despite past offenses, Browning says, “They’ve changed dramatically, and I wouldn’t have a problem putting a dollar in the kettle.”

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