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Re-assessing charity work

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The holiday season means three things for me.

  1. Attempting to enjoy Christmas for my yuletide-obsessed husband’s sake only to eventually fail when the holiday inevitably brings up bad memories and triggers my anxiety.
  2. That goddamn Mariah Carey song being played on repeat at work.
  3. Giving to charities.

In regards to the third bullet point, I give to non-profit organizations throughout the year, but I am more active during the Christmas season. But the last couple years, I had felt conflicted about supporting one organization in particular: The Salvation Army.

When I first started bell ringing for them, I believed in the organization’s mission of helping people in need and I wanted to be a part of helping people. It was evident that the organization helped people when some of the people they had helped would come up to me, tell me their story of how they were helped, and thank me for volunteering my time to bell ringing. I’ve personally witnessed their help as my brother-in-law had been in one of their drug rehabilitation programs and has been doing fairly well ever since.

I have a bit of a soft spot for charities around the holidays due to my childhood experiences of growing up in poverty and receiving a box of food and Christmas presents from a local charity created for that purpose, which explains why I donate my time and money a little more during the holidays than I do the rest of the year. Seeing that Christmas tree the Salvation Army puts up in the mall with the tags each detailing a child and what they would like for Christmas alongside their clothing sizes always tugs at my heart strings.

Not many people sign up for bell ringing and that made me want to volunteer harder. At first I assumed the lack of volunteers was due to our cold winters and people not wanting to stand outside in the freezing cold, but that didn’t explain why the one kettle location in town that was indoors still didn’t get volunteers. I figured that people didn’t care enough to volunteer their time and that just drove me to volunteer as much as I was able. Usually that meant a solid week of forgoing lunch to go bell ring outside my work place and then doing an hour or so after work. Sometimes I would get up early to do a shift or two before work. One year I had signed up for so many shifts that the person in charge had noticed, found out I worked at the store two of their kettles were set up at, and came to thank me while I was working. She expressed shock that I has signed up for 20 1-hour shifts and asked why I was doing this. “I just want to help people in need,” I said.

The added and unintended bonus was that I was able to use my creative skills for a greater good. Initially, my social anxiety got the better of me and I couldn’t bring myself to bell ring when I first thought about doing it. Sometimes when leaving work at night, there would be an enthusiastic bell ringer that wore a snow man costume made out of a foam mattress. One night the lightbulb went off in my head after seeing him and I thought, “Wait…I can cosplay as a character and pretend to be someone else.” Inspired by my trip to Disney World at the peak of the Frozen craze, I built a Princess Anna costume the following year in a span of about four months. It was the biggest cosplay I had ever taken on at the time. It was a means to get over my shyness as it’s much easier to act out the part of a beloved princess than it is to stand outside by myself feeling like an idiot. It didn’t take long for me to learn why the other man wore the snowman costume: it made more donations. There was a definite difference in the interactions with people when I was doing a full costume versus when I quickly threw on a red apron over my coat. In normal clothes, I was a nobody people rushed pass so they wouldn’t feel guilty. In cosplay, I was a beloved Disney princess most in this small town wouldn’t have the opportunity to see in the flesh unless they traveled to Florida or an anime convention and people were dropping twenties into the bucket as if they were thankful for the experience of meeting a costumed character. In fact, that first year I bell rang, my store posted on their bulletin board the thank you note they got from the local Kettle Coordinator that included “Special thanks to Sam, aka. ‘The Princess’ who wowed everyone with her royal presence.” I would go on to build two more costumes, buying two more costumes I could throw on quickly, and had started to plan building a couple more. 

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The last couple years, though, I started questioning my volunteer work and donations to the Salvation Army as it was becoming harder to ignore the issues with the organization regarding how they treat the LGBT+ community, particularly with transgender individuals. Despite being in the B group of the LGBT+ community, I had been unaware of this controversy when I started volunteering and only became aware of it a couple years ago when two or three friends on my Facebook feed denounced the organization.

You’d think being bisexual would have meant severing all ties with the organization upon finding out they were discriminating against people like me. The problem was the controversy wasn’t so simple and black and white. It seemed like any instances of discrimination were isolated incidents that were not representative of the organization as a whole in its current form and it appeared they had made strides to change and become more inclusive. At the same time, some of these incidents were in more recent years despite non-discriminatory policies and shouldn’t have been happening at all.

After the 2019 holiday season, I flip flopped on whether or not I’d support them in 2020. I mostly stayed on the side of not supporting them purely because I was conflicted, but for about the first six months of 2020 I felt guilty about it. After all, they do help people, including those in the LGBT+ community. I knew my volunteer work brought in a good chunk of money so I questioned if I was doing the right thing as not volunteering would mean a loss of donations to be able to help people.

Sometime during this past summer, I was waiting in the car for my husband and a bit from Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special “Nanette” came on the comedy station. She talked about how she questioned her career in comedy and using self-depreciating humor in her stand-up routines:

“You know…over the past year, I’ve been questioning it and reassessing. And I think it’s healthy for an adult human to take stock, pause, and reassess. And when I first started doing the comedy, over a decade ago…my favorite comedian was Bill Cosby. (audience laughs) There you go! Its very healthy to re-assess, isn’t it?”

nanette

I wasn’t even thinking about the Salvation Army at all, but that bit clicked with me. I had been thinking about my volunteer work for the past half year or so just as Gadsby had pondered using self-depreciating humor, but I had been mostly looking at how my leaving would affect the organization’s ability to help people rather than looking at the organization itself. It wasn’t easy considering the conflicting information on their treatment of LGBT+ individuals. Just when I thought I had it all figured out I would find something new that would change everything and then I’d discover something that would bring me back to the original opinion. I kept rethinking and re-researching until I was finally able to find something I hadn’t known or hadn’t considered before and it allowed me to pin down a decision on what I was going to do in regards to supporting them without being wishy-washy about it.

Yes, Salvation Army has made strides within the last decade or so to be more inclusive on top of their accomplishments in helping people, including queer individuals, but that also doesn’t change the undeniable fact they have committed actions and spread views that are anti-LGBT+ and it has resulted in hurting people who were in need of their services. Unlike the sexual assaults that made Hannah Gadsby reconsider Bill Cosby as her favorite comedian, I think having an anti-LGBT+ past is forgivable as long there is genuine change and I had believed SA were working to redeem themselves. Any organization can admit to wrongdoing and offer up a sincere apology for their indiscretions alongside a plan to remedy the situation going forward. In reassessing the organization, I eventually realized the Salvation Army hasn’t truly done that.

Salvation Army addresses their anti-LGBT+ past with complete denial. Instead of taking full responsibility for their mistakes, they have tried to sweep it under the rug and pretend they have never been against the LGBT+ community in any way. When people look underneath that rug and become genuinely concerned that the organization hasn’t changed, SA have gotten extremely defensive and have treated accusations as if they were little more than baseless rumors. For example, when singer Ellie Goulding was going to pull out of a Thanksgiving half-time performance involving Salvation Army after learning of their anti-LGBT+ history, David Hudson, National Commander for the SA, stated, “With an organization of our size and history, myths can perpetuate.” A week later, he wrote an op-ed about the controversies. He wrote, “Why take the time to read, research and rebut when we can simply scan and swipe? Assumptions are regularly presented as foregone conclusions, and facts often are drowned out by fiction” and “Yet because our organization is rooted in faith, a chorus repeatedly rises that insists we are anti-LGBTQ.” 

But these aren’t myths or assumptions. People aren’t claiming SA is anti-LGBT+ purely on the basis of being faith-based, but because the Salvation Army has a well-documented anti-LGBT+ history that includes things like campaigning against a New Zealand law decriminalizing sex between adult men, backing out of city contracts and ultimately shutting down programs in San Francisco due to not wanting to follow local ordinances requiring benefits to same-sex couples, threatening to shut down operations  in NY unless they were exempt from ordinances requiring benefits to gay employees’ partners, attempting to make a deal with the Bush administration exempting religious organizations from local ordinances banning anti-LGBT+ discrimination, a Vermont chapter reportedly firing an employee after discovering she was bisexual, one of their drug rehabilitation centers denying services to transgender individuals, having a position statement that asked Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex to embrace celibacy because such relationships supposedly go against scripture, and their website having links to groups that support conversion therapy (which have since been deleted). This history does not go away just because SA’s leaders refuse to acknowledge it before spouting off the organization’s LGBT+ related accomplishments and statistics in an op-ed. They have zero chance of convincing their detractors that they have changed for the better when they can’t own up to the mistakes they made.

I learned that a couple years ago SA had confirmed it had guidelines instructing personnel to keep their opinions on certain social and political issues (including LGBT+ related ones) to themselves—not because having a horrible view on certain groups of people is against the organization’s values, but to avoid controversy that would reflect poorly on the organization and ruin their reputation. It made it sound like they were more concerned with their image and how their staff and volunteers might make them look bad rather than not hurting the LGBT+ community any more than they already have. Discovering this gave me a new viewpoint on their non-discrimination statement that I had always taken as a sign that they had changed:

A diverse range of views on homosexuality exist within The Salvation Army – as among the wider Christian (and non-Christian) community. But no matter where individual Salvationists stand on this matter, The Salvation Army does not permit discrimination on the basis of sexual identity in the delivery of its services or in its employment practices.

While they don’t elaborate on what “a diverse range of views” actually means they do state its in line with the wider Christian community, which is everything from fully supporting them to outright condemning them and everything in-between (being supportive of LGBT+ anti-discrimination laws while opposing gay marriage, being for anti-discrimination laws except with exceptions for religious beliefs, being for gay rights but not transgender rights, etc.) This statement combined with the fact they had to curb their personnel from expressing views that would reflect poorly on the organization (which would include anti-LGBT+ views in SA’s case) seems to indicate they’re willing to have volunteers with hateful or intolerant views towards certain groups of people just as long as they’re not caught discriminating against those people. A few instances in recent years have proven that anti-LGBT+ Salvationists cannot be trusted to follow this non-discriminatory policy. Worst yet, there appears to be no publicly available guideline on how those who are caught violating this policy are dealt with.  Here’s a novel idea: Maybe instead of allowing staff and volunteers that are anti-LGBT+ to join SA and having guidelines telling them to avoid expressing anti-LGBT+ views on social media because it makes them look bad, the organization should consider not allowing openly homophobic and transphobic people into their organization.

I was once willing to look past their history and accept they were making an effort to do better. But how can the organization become better when they can’t even admit they were wrong? How can they expect queer individuals and their allies to believe they have truly changed and are trustworthy when the organization seems perfectly fine with employing Salvationists with hateful or intolerant opinions of the LGBT+ community?

Even if the organization does some great charity work and I’m not aware of any instances of discrimination with the local SA chapters I had been supporting, I cannot in good conscience support this organization when they completely deny they ever hurt the LGBT+ community and they still employ the same types of people who in the past were gladly willing to rally against LGBT+ rights  and refuse to give services to queer individuals on the organization’s behalf. Although I’m embarrassed and feel stupid it took me this long to realize all this, I admit that regardless of my good intentions I was wrong for supporting this organization due to their outright denial of any wrongdoing and the uncertainty that the donations I’ve helped collected may have not been used to assist everyone that came to them for help because of phobic Christians that are still allowed to exist within the organization.

If only the Salvation Army would also fully admit they were wrong and actually fix the root of their problems instead of spackling over the cracks in the foundation and pretending like that’s okay. Maybe I’ll reconsider supporting them if they ever decide to get their act together, but for now my bell and Princess Anna cosplay are in retirement.

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