A change of heart for the Sallies
IF you’re queer and over 45, chances are you don’t have a high opinion of The Salvation Army.
The Christian church and welfare organisation is remembered as having organised the petition against homosexual law reform, presented on the steps of Parliament on September 24, 1985 in a ceremony some likened to a Nuremberg Rally. It’s a judgement perhaps not fully deserved. The petition was in fact largely organised by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a Christian conservative pressure group formed to fight the reform and largely dominated by members of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand and Pentecostals. That group ceased to exist in the 1990s, many of its members joining the Christian Heritage Party until leader Graham Capill was gaoled for multiple sexual offences against girls in 2005.
Major Campbell Roberts, head of The Salvation Army’s social policy unit, says although The Salvation Army did not initiate the petition senior Salvation Army leaders did offer the Army’s assistance in co-ordinating it and so identified the total movement with their action.
“While some Salvationists were clearly opposed to the law change, others were uncomfortable to varying degrees and took no part in its public campaign ... and a small group initiated a counter-petition,” Roberts says.
“Regardless of where they placed themselves on the issues involved, many Salvationists were deeply opposed to, and embarrassed by, the intemperate manner in which views were expressed during the debate.”
It was not the Army’s finest moment and even 26 years later the organisation is reluctant to speak about it.
“It’s still a very sensitive issue,” says Major Christina Tyson of the Army’s public relations unit. “Opinions have moved on since then, but they are still varied.”
Signs of that shift in opinion are evidenced in the public statement recently released by The Salvation Army to Rainbow Wellington, a queer social and political group.
“It was 25 years after law reform and we wondered if there had been any change in the Army’s views,” says Tony Simpson of Rainbow Wellington. “So we contacted them, not without some misgivings. We were greatly encouraged to receive a highly positive response which initiated further discussion.”
That discussion has resulted in an apology from The Salvation Army to the queer community.
“Since the events of law reform in 1986 The Salvation Army has reflected deeply on its actions and the hurtful way some members publicly expressed their view on this legislative change,” the Army statement says.
“We regret and apologise for any hurt that may remain from that turbulent time, and our present hope is to rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue between our movement and the GLBTI [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex] community.”
Tony Simpson of Rainbow Wellington says the Army’s statement was a significant step forward and an important building block for the future.
“There are still some diehards in The Salvation Army, but this shows there has been a welcome shift and the time has come to look forwards rather than backwards and to move on.”
Others, however, have been less receptive of the Army’s apology. Bill Logan, a long-serving queer activist was one of the leaders of the Gay Task Force during the time of homosexual law reform.
“They don’t say in that statement that they were wrong,” Logan says. “They’re sorry if people’s feelings were hurt, is what they say.”
Logan says The Salvation Army gave respectability to a nasty assault on the queer communities in New Zealand which resulted in many queers feeling exposed and a marked rise in homophobic violence and also suicides among gay people.
Whatever the official stance of The Salvation Army, the organisation is treading cautiously.
“We won’t be joining the marriage amendment debate, although individual members may make submissions during that process,” says Christina Tyson.
Next week Capital Times looks at the shifting stance of Members of Parliament to the advance of queer rights in New Zealand.
A supporter at last week’s marriage equality rally at Parliament.