Accepting Help from Homophobes

I wrote a post on Tumblr about the Salvos a few months back, but the issue of homophobia in the Salvation Army has recently become headline-worthy in Australia since singer Darren Hayes’ called to boycott the organisation.

I’m the last person who is going to defend rampant homophobia, and let’s be clear, that’s certainly the institutionalised belief system within that organisation. All of us on SJL are strong proponents of secularism and exist somewhere on the agnostic to atheist scale (okay, I’m probably the only person closer to that agnostic point). The problem is that no one else is really providing the same services as the Salvation Army – at least not where I live.

In my work I am regularly in contact with people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, newly-arrived migrants with little or no English, women in or who have come from violent relationships, people with severe mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who are barely getting by financially. And when those clients need access to free financial counselling, food vouchers, public transport tickets and general community support I usually refer them to the Salvation Army or another religious-based organisation that probably doesn’t have more progressive views on being queer.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. First, these organisations need to be based in the local area where the clients are living. Yes, there may be a secular organisation doing the same work in the city, but considering clients may need to be regular contact with caseworkers, it’s not practical to be making referrals to places with more than 30 minutes travel time one-way. The additional issue is that clients may not have access to a car, live near public transport, or even necessarily have the money to access public transport.

Second, these non-secular organisations are often a one-stop shop for a disadvantaged person. If someone can pick up food vouchers and book an appointment with a caseworker to find emergency housing, have another appointment with a financial counsellor about their managing their finances all at the same place then that’s going to be the easiest and most convenient way for them to seek help.

Third, while I don’t have too much experience in this, my understanding is that those organisations will provide support to queer people if they meet their merits criteria (which will be an assessment of assets and income) despite their homophobic doctrine. I have heard stories about queer people being turned away from the Salvation Army in the USA, but so far I’ve not heard any similar stories about the organisation in Australia. And while it would be best if queer people were not being provided support by a homophobic organisation, if someone is severely marginalised then the important thing is that they are getting that support in the first place. Unfortunately neither I, nor my clients can be particular about my referrals because simply, there’s often no choice to be had.

From an activism point of view, what would be far more helpful is supporting and establishing secular charities that provide the same services without the homophobia. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as it may seem. One practical obstacle is that where service-provider already exist in a region, it’s often difficult to find money or funding to set up a service that would do substantially the same thing – even if the existing service is non-secular and discriminatory. There’s the additional self-sustaining cycle of such organisations from being the sole provider of aid in area. Because people come to know and rely on a particular organisation, that group gains more social capital. Any new service would need to forge new ties and take the time to establish themselves in the area, and it’s far from guaranteed that people would flock to an alternative.

Am I saying you should donate to the Salvation Army? Honestly, that’s entirely your own choice, as is the choice to boycott the organisation. But let’s be clear that boycotting an organisation is a privilege not everyone has. People in need of emergency aid and community support often aren’t able to choose which organisations they approach, even if they are aware of the homophobia in an institution. And while it often irks me to make a referral, it would be worse if I denied marginalised and disadvantaged people access to the help they need.

12 thoughts on “Accepting Help from Homophobes”

  1. Seems Hayes was calling for a boycott of donating, rather than accepting help. Discriminatory practices are so embedded in so many of our institutions (government, police, health), it’s impossible to refuse help from all of them.

    You’re right of course about the role that the Salvation Army plays, but then what can we do to change such monolithic and immovable institutions that are so deeply embedded in our society? Is refusing them funding and hoping other organizations fill the vacuum simply too damaging to those in need?

    1. Boycotts work for commercial services because the person who would otherwise be paying is giving up using the service for themselves. In this case any boycott is merely inaction, and talk (and inaction) is cheap. What’s concerning is that the discussion as I have seen often stops at “this charity is homophobic so I won’t support it”, and even if people donated money to secular organisations instead, it still doesn’t address the issue of how to provide non-discriminatory services to people in need and that SA will continue to be one of the primary service providers in the near-future, even if we started secular charities today. Starting this discussion was one purpose of this post. If people are boycotting SA because they want the organisation to go away then they should also think about the void it may leave.

      Personally I’m not entirely sure how to go about it. Do we enact legislation to prevent discriminatory practices in charity, and try to reform them from the top down? Do we demand the government directly control and fund a state or national service provider? Do we demand the government pull all their funding from religious organisation gradually, and fund only secular organisations to expand? Or is it an issue of underfunded interlinked services for mental health, disabilities, education, rehabilitation, etc.?

  2. I consider myself lucky to live in an area that aslo has charties besides the SA that don’t discriminate. When I wrote an article for my blog about the SA (and a few other charities) I made sure to link to other charities (local and otherwise) that were non-discriminatory. One which worked with homeless and runaway youth, one homeless shelter run by an organization that also offered other services, one free health clinic set up the local Unitarian Universalists, and one or two others that I think I’m forgetting.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out an issue you didn’t raise. That in the the SA is known to use their money to lobbey for laws that discriminate against LGBTQ individuals or that they lobby to allow themselves to ignore laws that protect LGBTQ individuals both with regard to whom they provide services to and employee. Considering this, it makes little sense to support the SA (in terms of donating time and money to them) as they support laws and such that make it more likely that queer people are going to need their services in the first place.

    The SA has also been known to refuse services to LGBT individuals resulting in the death of one trans woman who froze to death because the SA refused to provide her shelter in line with her gender identity.

    So by supporting them, you are supporting a system that privledges non-queer people. There are plenty of options out there for people to donate time and money to that don’t reinforce already existing structures of privledge either through lobbeying efforts or refusal of services.

    Therefore, I disagree with your position that boycotting them is a priviledge not everyone has. By donating (time/money) to the SA you are giving them more resources they can use for such lobbeying and therefore are supporting a service itself that forces all kinds of further marginalizations upon queer people. By supporting them, you are making it harder for non-discriminatory institutions to move into a particular region.

    I can totally understand why someone in your position would be making referals to the SA and that people who cannot afford to consider other options would use their services but I think it’s worth bringing up where the money donated to them is going. Boycotting them by refusing to donate time/money to them is much different from boycotting them when one is in need of their services.

    Otherwise, thank you for this article.

    1. The reason why I speak specifically about the Australian Salvation Army (and also about my local area) is that I believe that there is a different internal culture owing to the less religiously-entrenched culture Australia has over all. I have no doubt that some evangelical employee or volunteer has turned away a queer person at some time, but I haven’t heard the same stories here. Nor do I know of whether SA lobby the government to such an extent here. I’m open to correction however. I want to make clear that I’m not defending homophobia in any way, however, I do believe the SA provides an over all benefit to society in Australia (although, like I said, that is no excuse for homophobia).

      By donating (time/money) to the SA you are giving them more resources they can use for such lobbeying and therefore are supporting a service itself that forces all kinds of further marginalizations upon queer people. By supporting them, you are making it harder for non-discriminatory institutions to move into a particular region.

      These are good reasons for why people personally shouldn’t donate to SA. From an activism point of view however, simply supporting a boycott without any further discussion is unlikely to produce systematic change. First, most of the money SA in Australia receives comes from government funding. From a systematic standpoint it would be much more effective to petition the government for legislative change regarding discrimination, and to change in their funding policies but this has rarely, if at all, been discussed.

      As I mentioned in my reply to Oscar, even if secular organisations magically sprang into being overnight SA and other religious organisations would still be the primary service-providers in the near future. Their absence would leave a void (which is why I say they provide a net benefit). How then do we reconcile the practical needs of marginalised people and the fact that we as a society might need to fund (through government or donations) discriminatory organisations? If we accept the practical reality of the situation, then what is the ultimate endgame for such a boycott?

      Lastly, people don’t donate to charities for entirely reasonable and logical reasons – it’s often highly personal, and it often has nothing to do with maximising utility or evaluating need (if it did then everyone would only be donating to charities that worked in developing nations). People may support SA and similar organisations because they have been personally helped in the past.

      What has been most frustrating to me is that people will point to SA’s homophobia and leave the discussion there. In fact it’s really only the beginning of the discussion.

      1. 1) I’m curious about why you keep associating non-secular with discriminatory. I ask as the local free health clinic was established by the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, an organization that has gone out of it’s way to also be LGBTQ welcoming. Ditto the Methodist Church which originally founded the local Pflag (Parents Friends Families of Lesbians and Gays) and similarly have gone out of their way to be welcoming. The Methodist Church also serves free meals every Saturday to all who come and the current Minister recently announced a new campaign to combat homelessness. Ultimately I’m less concerned with the motivation behind the charity, than I am with the outcome.

        2) I agree, there absolutely needs to be further discussion. Simple boycotts are not enough, support for non-discriminatory charities also needs to occur.

        1. I’m curious about why you keep associating non-secular with discriminatory.

          No, you’re right. I’ve been conflating two different issues when I really mean non-discriminatory. I guess I’ve only seen discrimination like this practised by religious organisations, but of course not all religious organisations practise discrimination.

  3. Really great post. I had no idea Salvos had such a culture.

    And how on earth can US salvos *turn people away* and still call themselves Christian?

    1. I was under the impression he made further statements after that tweet, but I’m happy to be corrected. It’s really just a starting place for discussion.

  4. i think this brings up a really good general question about passive v active actions. so for example boycotting sa by not giving it money or time you wouldn’t have given anyways seems like a not necessarily a strong statement/action. but if you think of redirecting those funds/time towards organizations of lobbying for queer-friendly services as being necessarily part of a boycott then that’s maybe a different story.

    that kind of active boycott should be effective beyond commercial products, here the classic example is probably the montgomery bus boycotts in the us in the 50s, where in addition to organizing against one form of transportation, folks organized to provide alternatives within the community so that the people most in need/dependent on transit could participate without participation further marginalizing them.

    how rad would an active boycott be, one that obliged folks to also say organize to monitor sa making sure it was following its own non-discrimination policies, and also organizing queer-safe/friendly/non-denominational organizations to provide alternatives.

  5. I want to say that I respect your work. It’s not many who have the will to work with those less fortunate.

    And I hope I am wrong but I got the feeling that you feel slightly guilty for providing info about the SA to the needy. You absolutely shouldn’t. This is the right thing to do. I know that if I was this needy I would welcome help from anybody. The wrong thing would be for someone in your position to deny access and information to the needy about an organization that clashes with their personal beliefs and I am really glad you wouldn’t do something like this. You have my respect and I hope you keep up with the good work!

    1. I don’t particularly feel guilty. It was more frustrated at some people’s inability to recognise that we have to work within a broken system, and that using a broken system doesn’t mean we support it as the status quo.

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