By MARK OPPENHEIMER
Bil Browning and his boyfriend were homeless. To protect the identity of the boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend), Mr. Browning will not say specifically where, just that it was in “southern Indiana,” about 20 years ago. But he is very explicit about who refused to give them shelter.
“The Salvation Army refused to help us,” Mr. Browning recalls, “unless we broke up and then left the ‘sinful homosexual lifestyle’ behind. We slept on the street, and they didn’t help when we declined to break up at their insistence.”
Mr. Browning’s boyfriend was wearing a “Silence = Death” AIDS pin on his jacket, which must have tipped off the Salvation Army worker. “He told us we needed to be saved,” Mr. Browning says. “If we were willing to attend church services, he could help. We would have to break up, only one of us could stay in the shelter, and if there was room for the other, he would have to be on the opposite side of the room, and we wouldn’t even look at each other.”
Now Mr. Browning, a writer and gay rights advocate, is using his blog to publicize a decade-old boycott of the Salvation Army. The boycott’s proponents say those who drop money into the Salvation Army’s ubiquitous red kettles at Christmastime, or shop in its thrift stores, often know little about the organization’s evangelical Christianity, its opposition to homosexuality, and its occasional attempts to influence public policy on gay rights.
On his Web site, Mr. Browning, whom the Christian magazine World recently called “the Red Kettle Menace,” encourages people to donate instead to other organizations, like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders. When he passes by the red kettles, he sometimes drops in pieces of imitation money that he says have circulated among gay activists for about 10 years.
One version of the money looks like a real dollar bill, but its (obviously fake) denomination is three dollars, it carries a rainbow flag, and it bears the words, in small print: “When the Salvation Army ends its policy of religious bigotry and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, then, and only then, will this be a real dollar bill.”
Greg Henchar, a Floridian who with his partner runs Rainbow411.com , a gay-friendly business directory, says he created the $3 bill a year ago. The blogger John Aravosis has published on his Web site a similar piece of red-kettle literature — he does not know who created it — that says “Voucher” across the top and begins, “This holiday season I am supporting organizations that do not discriminate in any way.” And about a dozen YouTube videos promote a Salvation Army boycott; the most popular , posted over a year ago, has been watched over 100,000 times.
The Salvation Army originated in a series of revival meetings led by the Methodist preacher William Booth in 1865, in the East End of London. Booth left the institutional church because he believed it did too little for the poor. Today, the Salvation Army operates in 122 countries, offering services including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, shelters and soup kitchens. Although Salvation Army missions lack many trappings of Christian churches — they do not offer communion, for example — they house nondenominational worship services, and their treatment programs rely on the Bible.
The Salvation Army’s “ Position Statement ” on homosexuality, found on its Web site, reads in part: “The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself. Homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, requires individual responsibility and must be guided by the light of scriptural teaching. 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.”
The Salvation Army does not employ registered lobbyists, but its leaders have occasionally made news by meeting with government officials. In 2001, The Washington Post obtained a Salvation Army document that said the administration of President George W. Bush had promised to honor a Salvation Army request: that religious charities receiving federal money be exempt from local gay antidiscrimination laws. The day the request became public, the Bush administration said it was being denied.
And in 2004, in response to a City Council ordinance requiring that organizations with city contracts offer benefits to gay employees’ partners, the Salvation Army threatened to stop operating in New York City. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not have to enforce the ordinance, which had been enacted over his veto; the Salvation Army never left New York City.
George Hood, a Salvation Army spokesman, said all revenue from Salvation Army thrift stores is used locally. But he said a small percentage of money dropped into the red kettles finds its way to Washington — where it helps to pay the salaries of politically active staff members like Mr. Hood. Every local unit pays 10 percent of its revenue to a state or regional division — there are 40 divisions in the United States — and every division pays 10 percent of its revenue to one of four national territories, each of which foots a quarter of the national budget.
In other words, of a dollar dropped into a red kettle in New York City, a quarter of a penny ends up at national headquarters, where conversations with the government — not lobbying, Mr. Hood says — may take place.
Despite the boycott, the red kettles have had three straight record years for fund-raising, Mr. Hood says. As to the complaint of discrimination based on sexual orientation, he says it is against Salvation Army policy. “If they were legitimate clients looking for food, they should have been helped,” he says of Mr. Browning and his ex-boyfriend.
In a statement sent by e-mail later, Mr. Hood adds that “gay couples are to be treated in the same way we treat heterosexual couples.”
“Whether they are provided overnight lodging,” he says, “is determined solely on capacity and availability of beds.” Most beds in Salvation Army shelters are for men, but the Salvation Army has “been going through a transition of facilities over the past several years to expand bed space for women and also to isolate some private rooms for couples, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual.”