Look, this is a question we need to ask ourselves
The “why is Servetus so negative about the Salvation Army” question has come up again, as in the past, and probably again in the future. I know it’s a tremendously popular organization and it’s on the list of top ten organizations Americans like to give money to and so on. I won’t hate you if you give money to it, but if you tell me how wonderful it is, I will tell you about the many ways in which I don’t think they are wonderful, and I will refuse to be moved on the issue. I think there are better choices. I don’t need to go into it all now, but you can google ‘criticisms of the Salvation Army’ and find them; representatives and local institutions have done and said horrid things not just in the distant past (cf. Richard Armitage’s visit to and support for the Berliner Stadtmission, whose founder was a notorious nineteeth-century anti-Semite; the organization redressed this somewhat through its relationship to the Nazi-resistant Bekennende Kirche in the 1940s), but in the last decade.
Me? I won’t give money to the Salvation Army for two reasons: in particular, because of a particularly horrible situation I observed in 1996 in Göttingen — essentially people excluded from a Salvation Army shelter during extreme weather because they were alcoholics, and what I observed in the wake of that — and in general, because the organization espouses a theology that is hostile to non-straight humans. They seem to be cleaning up their act, insofar as it is now hard to find anything about sexuality on their website, and they claim to following US federal non-discrimination rules in hiring. As far as I understand, however, even now, if you want to join the Salvation Army and are something other than a cisgendered (I hate that word, but whatever) heterosexual, you must be celibate. Based on statements by members of their leadership as recently as 2012, though, I doubt attitudes in the organization have changed much.
But, you say: surely we’re talking about something everyone can get behind here: homeless shelters? That was where Armitage’s support for this organization started. Surely, you’re not opposed to funding homeless shelters? You’re the one who believes that there are some acts of charity that are virtuous in themselves, no matter the motivation behind doing them.
It’s true, I believe that. And no, I’m not against homeless shelters. Homeless shelters fall for me into the category of “do it no matter how you feel about it.”
But there are questions I think we need to ask ourselves, perhaps particularly in a fandom where we give such intensive lip service to the problem of bullying.
Because this is what I see. And I think that these things are common knowledge. Most people just don’t look at them in concert with each other.
Point of common knowledge one: A major vector of bullying and not just among young people is what I’ll call in shorthand “gender difference,” i.e., victimization of gay, lesbian, gender ambiguous, transgender people — those who fall into the categories grouped around LGBTTQQIAAP. I overhear conversations all the time in public places that suggest that very little has changed since I was a teen, at least around here, in terms of how young people in one or more of those categories are regarded.
Point of common knowledge two: Foster children and homeless youth have a disproportionately high likelihood to identify in one of these “gender difference” categories. Common estimates suggest that 7 percent of youth as a whole in the U.S. identify in one of them; estimates about the rate of gender difference identification in the homeless youth population vary from 20 to 40 percent — a rate of three to five times the youth population at a whole. Some people volunteer to be foster parents specifically in order to try to keep such youth off the street. Evidence exists to show the relationship between youth homelessness and gender difference is causal (teens who come out in the U.S. cannot reckon with easy acceptance from their parents, schools, and peer groups and are more likely to run away from home as minors), but even if it’s not, the correlation is disturbing. While the picture is not as depressing in the U.S. overall as it was when I was a kid, with many more supportive teachers and gay-straight alliance groups and so on, still “gender different” youth in most settings in the U.S. may normally expect resistance, criticism, bullying, ostracization and physical abuse from people in their environment.
So where does that come from? You’ll say, “The Salvation Army isn’t telling its members to beat up gays.” Yeah, I agree, you never hear a bell-ringer shouting “schmear the queer” at Christmas time. But the problem is still there.
I agree that it’s not just the Salvation Army. Negative sentiment about those who are not gender conforming has a long history of being fostered not only by religious organizations but also governments and social groups. Homophobia (by which I mean contempt or aversion toward or unequal regard for or treatment of non-gender-conforming humans) is encoded in huge swathes of our society — to the extent that twenty years ago many people were completely unaware that it wasn’t totally normal to treat such people differently or negatively.
But we have to start somewhere. Organizations that explicitly and implicitly insist through teaching or social practices that certain gender differences deserve non-equal status within them contribute to a general social belief that people with gender differences are “less equal” and thus less worthy of humane treatment in general than people in the straight, heterosexual majority. Why DO my nieces still play “schmear the queer” at school picnics? Why do six-year-olds use the word “gay” pejoratively before they even know what the word means? Because all of us are responsible for creating an atmosphere in which we at least tacitly accept the idea that gender difference is a legitimate ground of persecution and it begins so early that before we even think about it, it’s ingrained in our speech and our thoughts.
So you tell me: how is it okay that if I agree in principle with Armitage’s campaign about bullying, and I’m aware that a lot of bullying exploits gender difference, that I then turn around and financially support an organization that in its structure and teachings fosters and creates the notion of gender difference that legitimates bullying in the minds of many of its perpetrators?
How is it okay if I support a Salvation Army shelter in full awareness that it’s the Salvation Army that preaches the very notion of difference that eventually pushes a large proportion of homeless LGBTTQQIAAP youth out of their homes? When I know that the group (and no, it’s not the only group that does this, just one of legions) teaches an attitude — that these kids are not equal to or as worthy as other kids — that makes it okay for parents to ostracize and condemn their own children?
What should we do?
Your religious convictions are naturally your own business.
In my case, I decided a while back that it’s a racket to set up homeless shelters to help people who are made homeless in part because your own teachings urge other people to persecute people on the basis of their gender differences so that they become homeless. A homeless child is much more likely to become a homeless adult, and the housing problems of transgender people are well known — none of this is news. Creating the audience for your own social services is especially problematic if you ask outsiders who don’t know the whole story to donate for this project.
The climate here makes it imperative to have operating shelters for homeless people and backup systems that make sure that alcohol addicted homeless who need an alternative can find support when prolonged exposure to cold, wind and snow means not only frostbite but possibly death. We have a secular alternative to the Salvation Army in town. As a “wet” shelter, it accepts people who are intoxicated or high at least over night. If you’ve read this blog for a while you know why the issue of sheltering intoxicated alcoholics might be an important one for me.
We donate to it.