Bad, Homophobic Sweaters: On Demonizing the Salvation Army

by: Jay Borchert

In Ann Arbor, the biggest collection of horrifically ugly holiday sweaters is not found at Kohl’s or Walmart.   Nope. The true dazzlers are found at the cavernous Salvation Army Thriftstore on State Street.

Here, buying an ugly holiday sweater for 6 bucks is super verboten and might indicate your support of a massive anti-gay institution.  So, at this year’s ugly sweater parties I asked friends if they bought their Christmas couture at “The Army.” The replies echoed in my ears, “Girl, I couldn’t possibly buy a pair of socks from their sketchy, homophobic ass!”  It was a unanimous boycott based on reports of homophobia.  Yet, despite their accord, I was not convinced.

Who knew that buying an ugly Christmas sweater could turn into such an ideological clusterfuck?  I mean, here we have a charitable organization that helps millions of people around the world every year, primarily the poor and the marginalized, and I can’t buy a sweater from them for $6 — because they just aren’t with us on our rights.

I guess that since the Army is out of bounds, the correct thing to do is to zip on over to the progressive moral crusaders at Walmart, Kohl’s, or Target for my stuff? Or maybe I could visit an independent used clothing store where the proprietor just might be a closet donor to Rick Santorum? Do we know the politics of every place we shop? Caveat emptor, indeed.

Consumerism is risky. And all this shit at Christmastime.  I skipped it.  With papers to grade, I hardly had the time to breathe or blink, never mind shop for an ugly sweater.  Instead, I showed up at the parties with an extra bottle of wine and an apology for not being in holiday drag, trumping the dress code and avoiding the controversy altogether.

Yet the issue of homophobia by the Army lingers. Truth be told, I am never surprised to hear about issues of LGBT discrimination arising between any religious organization and our community. For me, it will be the dawn of a truly new day when we have even one day out of the year when religious discrimination against us does not happen.

Yet, now that the holiday season has come to a close I decided to think about this boycott a bit further and what it means to me.  What is it really?  What are we saying here?  Is there any causal logic supporting the boycott? What is the categorical imperative that can ground my conspicuous consumption in our capitalist utopia during the holidays and throughout the year? I need to consider our position here along with the homeless, those with addictions, those in need of vocational training, people in need of protection from abusive relationships, single mothers with newborns, those living in hunger and poverty, all those who the army serves, millions of people really, and I shouldn’t limit my thoughtfulness, consideration and boycotting to Christmastime alone.

So, I did some digging.  I take great pause when my actions and our collective actions have the potential to affect another marginalized group, particularly such a large group of people with so many immediate life-threatening problems. To be sure, we also have needs that need dealt with, and the reports about homophobic discrimination by the Salvation Army are out there.

But there is one big problem with the reports.  Every single one I have watched or read has failed to demonstrate the frequency and depth of the problem. We simply do not know how prevalent these bad behaviors are.  If we are to go by the stories alone, even with the issue between the army and New York City in 2004, they are not as numerous as many in support of a boycott would indicate. The reports tend to present portions of the Army’s position statement on homosexuality and do not present instances of actual on-the-ground discrimination against us in our times of need. Many times, these reports misrepresent the official position of the Army by selectively cutting and pasting from the army’s official website as found here.

This paints a picture of a truly homophobic organization which a full review of their position does not indicate.  In fact, there are scant few reports about direct discrimination by the army against LGBT people in immediate need of help during life-threatening situations.  Conversely, I also found reports about the army helping our queer brothers and sisters when they were at their lowest point – stories that they can now write because they have not died.  I remain unsure.

The issue with The Salvation Army is a dissonance between their religious beliefs about appropriate sexuality and their directives guiding their staff and volunteers to charity and social justice for all people. On one hand, the army claims that sexuality should be between a married man and woman only, and that the Bible does not support sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.  On the other hand they claim:

There is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse. In keeping with these convictions the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify without regard to sexual orientation.

Without knowing the depth of harm the organization is inflicting upon our community, can we really call people to boycott an organization that helps literally millions of people each year to come out of addiction, homelessness and a plethora of other dire social problems?  Is our logic clear and without fault or are we engaging a position of privilege and ignoring our social obligation to those in great distress?

Let me see if I can grasp the logic of the boycott.  It’s saying that if my friends and I don’t buy a couple ugly sweaters and a quirky lamp from them or put five bucks in the red bucket, the Army will be transformed or cease to exist alogether.

Next, a new and powerful charitable organization with the reach of the Army will spring up in no time. This new organization will be local, national and international and serve thousands of the poor and marginalized just like the Army, but it will be better.  It will be correct at all times, fresh-smelling and serve everyone in the most perfect way imaginable.  All of their employees and volunteers at their numerous locations will be free of any incorrect thinking from that new day forward. It’s as clear as one plus one equals two.  Boycott the Army and the world will be a better place.

I know there will be a slight lag time to get the new organization up and running, but the millions who suffer from addictions, homelessness and physical abuse, the babies born to mothers in poverty who will be tossed out with their bathwater during this downtime, are nothing compared to what those of us with the privilege of the boycott will gain.  We will gain the ability to shop in good conscience and without controversy. We will have earned a new freedom to make grand claims regarding societal uplift that do not involve the messiness which crowds the lives of the poor and the marginalized on the other side of town. Not only that, it will be a Malthusian revival, proving once and for all the clear logic of putting our privileged selves in front of the millions of the marginalized poor, homeless, hungry and drug addicted.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Many of us have worked in environments where our employers do not always do the best job of recognizing and respecting our identities.  Do we quit? Sometimes.  More often we generate positive relationships with our coworkers and symbolically interact with our environment to make it a better place.   Secondly, many of our families are not perfect here either.  Do we quit the family? Certainly some of us do, but most of us figure it out over time.  We make it better.  Is this possible with the Army?

What makes this even more complex is that in all the stories I have read about the boycott, not once did the numerous resources that the Army provides for those living with HIV/AIDS in cities all around the country appear.

How did this tidbit get skipped?

One thing is certain: The Salvation Army is not Target, people.  Those in need of help cannot just bounce on down the street to the next shelter in the same way that those in need of trash bags and bathroom cleaner or even an ugly holiday sweater can easily find alternate sources.

What should we do?  Here is my recommendation: before we tear down a massive  sheltering arm for the poor, hungry, drug addicted, homeless and those living with HIV/AIDS among many others, we should critically examine the logical extension of our beliefs and actions.   What are we as boycotters doing here?  Is this the best way?  I remain unsure.

Jay Borchert is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Demography at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. His primary research interests include Prisons, Punishment, Surveillance, Law, and Critical Race Theory. His current work focuses on the continuing criminalization and punishment of consensual, same-sex, sexual behaviors in U.S. prisons post Lawrence v. Texas, and the expansion of prison labor. In his spare time he enjoys early electronica while stranded in remote airports and Southern cooking.

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9 responses to “Bad, Homophobic Sweaters: On Demonizing the Salvation Army

  1. The SA says it doesn’t discriminate against homosexuals…unless they are practicing. That’s a big unless. The fact that many in the ranks are compassionate, good people doesn’t change the fact that I won’t support an organization that makes a point to say that it is opposed to my loving relationship and sexuality. Luckily, there are good organizations helping people locally that don’t have hateful policies. I donate to Ozone House, which has a fund specifically for youth kicked out because they are gay; Food Gatherers, which provides food to those in need; and Neutral Zone, which helps at-risk kids. Thus, I feel perfectly fine about not giving the SA a dime. As more people like me find other places to donate, the SA faces the choice of contracting or revisiting its hateful policies (never say never; remember how many orgs had similar policies about miscegenation not so long ago).

    • Hi Mike – I think you may be confusing membership with the church of the salvation army and eligibility to receive their outreach such as HIV services. To be a member of the church they do want people to adhere to a certain “moral code,” and there are certainly problems with that code. However, salvation army services are open to all without threat of discrimination as stated in the direct pull from their web page that I posted in this piece.

      One thing that it is important to realize is that for people who live in a place of privilege – i.e. cities where there are options for people who need these services – is that many people live in places where the salvation army is the only provider for addiction treatment, shelter, and HIV/AIDS outreach. For them the equation is not so simple. Also, the number of people served by the organizations you mention is incredibly low compared to the number the army serves. So even when additional options are out there, getting a bed or a spot is often very difficult.

      It’s great to give to those other organizations. However, for people like me who have needed social services in the past, things are never quite as clean cut as your post suggests. I wish it was.

      Best,

      Jay

  2. Thank you for that post. I am a member of the Salvation Army Church and have very passionate views regarding equality and love for all. I belong to this church for one main reason. Because they serve others first and foremost. It makes me feel like I am making a difference. A good one.

    Now are we doing “the most good”? Probably not. I think things will change slowly. And not fast enough for some.
    But just so you know, I love all my brothers and sisters. I work to serve everyone.

    Thank you for thoughtful words. Be blessed!

  3. I’m with the Salvation Army and a member of the LGBT community. As a member of both I wanted to take a moment to say Thank You. Not only is this beautifully written and thoughtful, you actually did your research. That means more than anything.

  4. Pingback: Bad, Homophobic Sweaters: On Demonizing the Salvation Army « In Our Words « selaniest·

  5. Thank you for your post.

    The Salvation Army is not perfect. It makes mistakes. Stupid, ugly, hurtful, mistakes. But its changing, learning… it just takes a long time, probably too long.

    As you see so often at work sites, “Please bare with us during this process of renovation”
    :)

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