The red kettles and bell ringers of the Salvation Army have become American iconic symbols during the holiday season. Street corners in the city and entrances to countless grocery stores are filled with the sounds of pleas for the help of the needy. The larger question is: Where does that money go?
In recent years, the Salvation Army has been under fire for its anti-LGBT social position. Lt. Col. Ralph Bukiewicz, divisional commander of the Chicago chapter, said that " [ a ] ny person who comes through our doors will receive assistance based on their need and our capacity to help.
"We serve 30 million people across the country each year from all backgrounds, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals. An individual's religion, lifestyle or sexual identity simply has no bearing on our willingness or ability to provide service. Any instance of discrimination is in direct opposition to our core beliefs and is against all of our policy. Such actions will not be tolerated from our officers, employees or volunteers. Any personal opinions, statements or actions from any isolated individual should never be seen as organizational policy to acceptable standards."
However, according to the Salvation Army's website, "Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage." Nonetheless, the organization does go on to say that, "Likewise, 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."
Bukiewicz was confident that the "The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division for Chicagoland has not engaged in lobbying" against equal rights for LGBT individuals and went on to allege that the "The Salvation Army has never used its influence to lobby against any individual or group of people." However, in 2004, the Salvation Army's New York chapter threatened to close the city's soup kitchens and end its services to the homeless there if the local government passed legislation forcing it to offer health benefits to partners of their gay employees. In 2001, the group ceased offering domestic-partner benefits to all its California employees since some benefits were being received by same-sex couples. That same year, the group unsuccessfully attempted to pressure Bush administration staff into easing LGBT non-discrimination laws for faith-based groups.
Bil Browningeditor of the Bilerico Project, a national LGBT blog claimed in his Nov. 21, 2011 post, "Why You Shouldn't Donate to the Salvation Army Bell Ringers," that in addition to New York and California lobbying efforts, the Salvation Army has targeted the social policies of both New Zealand and Great Britain. Browning also claimed that when he and his former partner were homeless and in need of assistance, the Salvation Army would not provide them any help unless they broke up. Browning said, "We slept on the street instead and declined to break up, as they demanded."
According to Bukiewicz, the kind of discrimination claimed by Browning just does not happen. He said that turning away individuals in need because they were LGBT "would be in direct opposition to our core beliefs and policy" and that "an individual's sexual preference has no bearing on our willingness or ability to provide service, and we will never ask about sexual orientation before anyone is welcomed to participate in our programs or benefit from our services." Bukiewicz said, "The Salvation Army has a clear and firm commitment to non-discrimination and to the equality of all people. The Salvation Army has been concerned from its inception with the spiritual and social needs of all people, recognizing that all are equal in intrinsic value."
Browning would disagree with Bukiewicz, having stated, "The Salvation Army has a history of active discrimination against gays and lesbians. While you might think you're helping the hungry and homeless by dropping a few dollars in the bright red buckets, not everyone can share in the donations."
Chicago history with the Salvation Army
During the 1970s and 1980s, the now-defunct Chicago Knights Motorcycle Club held fundraising events for the annual Toys for Tots campaign.
In 1982, the benefit raised $22,000 for various charities, including the Salvation Army. The Knights received media coverage that year after the Salvation Army refused its $1,400 donation because of the nature of the gay club. The Salvation Army claimed the decision was in "harmony with our philosophy," and the anti-gay nature of the organization has been under scrutiny ever since.
Gay activist Harley McMillen spoke about the Knights to Sukie de la Croix for his "Chicago Whispers" column in the Sept. 27, 2000, issue of Windy City Times: "We did try to give money to the Salvation Army and they refused it because of who we were. We got quite a bit of publicity over that. Even Mike Royko wrote about it in one of his [ Chicago Sun-Times ] columns, in terms of 'why wouldn't they take the money, and what about the people that need help?' The general public opinion was very much in our favor. Since then I have never given the Salvation Army a dollar, but that's just my personal thing."
In making the donation, the Knights did inquire about the financial situation of the Salvation Army's youth program, and GayLife, in a Sept. 3, 1982, editorial, wondered if that request for information was what was really behind the refusal of funds.
de la Croix also reported that Salvation Army Lieutenant Col. Earl A. Polsley, the day after he returned the check, backed down and told the Knights he had made a mistake and wanted to correct it. The group demanded an apology. None was given, so the Knights issued a press release Aug. 27. Mike Royko's column appeared in the Sun-Times Sept. 1, 1982, de la Croix wrote.
Part of this article is excerpted from the new book, Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen.