It seems like every year someone prints a story about the Salvation Army’s disagreement with gays, lesbians, transgender folks and others who live “alternative” lifestyles. Last year, an Australian Salvationist and Major within the hierarchal structure of the Salvation Army said on a radio show that gay parents should be put to death. He didn’t actually say those words, he just agreed with the DJ that was making the statement. Immediately, the Salvation Army put out a rebuttal stating that it employs its services without discrimination. The last article I read about this incident looked at the rebuttal as a pat answer and ingenuine.
I have run operations for the Salvation Army’s downtown homeless shelter, called Harbor Light, for the past eight years. I have worked on the same block as the Harbor Light for 12 years. I have been quite fortunate in having a CEO, and Salvationist, that has allowed me to run operations with minimal interference. At the same time, I have been able to assess my co-workers, some Salvationists, some civilians, programs, residents, guests and volunteers. My goal is to offer an environment that is safe and clean. I believe that we need to hold people accountable for their actions and remove the worst ones from this environment so that the rest can survive and thrive. Are we removing gay people? Only if they assault, rob or drug deal to another resident.
We not only are the flagship of the Central territory for the Salvation Army, we are also taking the lead in mending relationships within the GLBTQA community. Several years ago, hearing the same issue, our CEO, Envoy Bill Miller, invited the community, in various forms, to meet with us to discuss the issue. The room was packed. Envoy Miller was passionate in his statement that we will never, and he stressed never, turn anyone away from the Harbor Light. I may have sat there thinking, “Well, I just threw out that guy for assaulting that other guy,” but I still believed that everyone is given the same chances, the same opportunities. It was clear that this delegation of the LGTBQA community embraced our vision of a level playing field.
Results from this meeting, whether intended or through happenstance, created a stronger bond within the Minneapolis community. In fact, it was one of the first steps taken in the community to build a partnership with a solid foundation. Since then, the Salvation Army relationships grew exponentially with business, government, nonprofits and local residents.
I could read this article and think, “Whatever, they’re still discriminatory—look what that guy said.” My response to that is, that’s stereotyping. Minneapolis has a large population of the queer community, much like San Francisco or Provincetown. Is it fair to say that all gay men wear muscle shirts, short shorts, have mustaches and talk with lisps? I don’t think so—at least that’s not the case with my gay friends. I don’t think you can let one foolish interview define the 122 countries with a Salvation Army corps saving the souls and lives of people that have been forgotten by the rest of society.
The surprises are still there. I’m used to seeing the worst that one human can do to another within poor communities or within the homeless population. What I found heartening was the young man who puts on a dress and full makeup every morning after using the bathroom shared by 50 other men on a transitional housing floor of over 100 men. At no time was I ever delivered an incident report that this person received different treatment, threats or violence from co-residents. I also paid attention to see if staff were removing this man for dressing as a woman. That has not been the case. As of today, we’ve had several transgender men—maybe a woman or two—stay with us, receive services and assistance to move on to better housing. I have trespassed a transgender man, but because of her actions, threats of violence and general poor communal behavior.
We are still pioneering with the transgender community. We rely on the county to define the gender of the individual and house the person on the appropriate floor. Front line staff, both Salvationists and civilians, may have balked at having a transgender male on the female floor, who the county identified as female, because she had a penis. Fortunately, we have a transgender employee on staff who helped those folks navigate multiple complicated systems to realize the freedom of themselves through gender identification and trained staff on how to handle the situation. I believe we are at the point where this is becoming routine.
When you pass a red kettle this holiday season, think about how the Salvation Army is really helping all people that come to our doors. Believe that Minneapolis and Minnesota is leading the education of the Salvation Army worldwide. That’s not to say that other states or nation’s TSA corps are not supporting the same doctrine that we support, just that we’re leading in addressing the issue head on and leading by example. Nine cents out of every dime dropped in a bucket go back into direct services for the homeless, poor, disaster survivors and anyone who shows up at our front door needing some help. This is the time of year that we heal, forgive and help each other out. If you believe what you’ve just been told, pass it on, drop a dollar into a kettle, smile at a bell ringer who is either volunteering their time to help another or a homeless man or woman making just enough money to surprise their child with an unexpected Christmas present. ’Tis the season.
Dominick Bouza, southside resident in the Field Regina neighborhood for 20 years.