Editors' Note: Guest blogger Danielle Morantez is a bisexual activist, blogger, creative nonfiction writer, and former Salvation Army employee. She lives in Burlington, Vermont with her daughter and partner of seven years.
My three-year-old daughter Aimee returns home to New England today after spending two and a half weeks in the Midwest visiting family. The purpose of Aimee's trip was to give her time with her grandparents, who miss her very deeply, but also to allow my partner Adam and I to focus all of our energy and attention on finding him a job. Thankfully, I was employed full-time in a position that was stable and secure, allowing us to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table while searching for work for Adam.
On Monday, July 23, that all changed. I was fired from my job as a case worker with the Salvation Army of Burlington, Vermont because I came out to them as bisexual and raised concerns about sections in their employee handbook relating to sexual orientation and employment discrimination.
Until Monday, it was my job to help protect children and families from poverty. Until Monday, I was the one charged with helping those in poverty come out of it. Until Monday, I worked every day assisting needy families in obtaining food, clothing, shelter, and other social services.
But when my little curly-haired girl comes home today, I'm going to have to tell her that our family will now have to depend on some of those same social services ourselves. When she smiles her beautiful smile and asks to visit mommy's "two offices," as she fondly refers to my former workplace, I'll have to inform her that mommy doesn't work there anymore. And when Aimee is hungry, I'm going to have to look into her eyes and tell her that we can't afford to go to the grocery store. We'll have to go to the food bank instead.
These are not things that a three-year-old should ever have to know.
Being a member of the LGBTQ community, my friends often asked - usually with incredulity - why I, a bisexual woman, ever took a job with the Salvation Army in the first place, given its long history of anti-LGBT bigotry. The story of how I came to the Salvation Army is indeed an unlikely one, but it may provide something of an explanation.
Why I Trusted the Salvation Army
I grew up in a poor, single parent-home. Life in Green Bay, Wisconsin was good, but money was scarce; my mother and I sometimes had to turn to the local Salvation Army for help. I spent my summers and many afterschool nights there because my mom, who worked full-time, could not afford childcare. Meeting people at the Salvation Army with such a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences truly rounded me as a person and played a formative role in the development of my strong desire to advocate for people who are marginalized.
A teacher at my very first Salvation Army summer camp, whom I met when I was seven years old, became one of the most influential adults of my childhood and my only stable male influence. He remained involved in my life all the way through high school when he gave me my first-ever job as a camp counselor. I worked for the Salvation Army intermittently throughout my high school years. After my first year of college I received the group's Rising Star Award; at the award banquet they talked about how far I had come, starting out as a child in their summer camp and growing into a teacher myself. A reporter for a local newspaper even interviewed us about the influence the Salvation Army had on my life.
I moved to Burlington in May with my partner Adam - who is also bisexual - after it became clear that the cultural conservatism of northeast Wisconsin was not a community in which we could be ourselves. The move was something of a leap of faith, as it nearly drained our savings and neither of us had been able to secure employment in the area. When we arrived in Vermont we searched for work daily and diligently, but decided to seek social services until we got on our feet. Naturally, I turned to the place I knew best and loved most: the Salvation Army.
When I went to the Salvation Army of Burlington for assistance, Captain Stephanie Thompson struck up a conversation with me. I told her that I was looking for a job. In a subsequent conversation, when it came out that I had previously worked for the Salvation Army, Capt. Stephanie asked to interview me for an open position. I had reservations, both as an LGBT person and because I do not share the religious beliefs of the Salvation Army church. But by that time our family's savings were utterly depleted and our job search was becoming desperate, and this interview was our last, best hope. I had to choose between a potentially discomforting job and the very real possibility of my family becoming hungry or homeless. Needless to say, I didn't hesitate for long.
I was interviewed by Captain Stephanie, her husband, Captain Bill, and Rene, a regional social services representative. I took great care to ensure that the position would not require me to speak with clients about religious matters. The captains assured me that I could refer all religious queries to them because they were the church pastors. When I asked pointed questions about discrimination in the provision of services, Rene informed me that the Salvation Army serves people without discrimination of any kind. I took this - mistakenly, it turns out - to mean that they treated their employees in a similar manner.
I also realized that if I accepted the case worker position, I could provide a safe space for needy members of my local LGBT community to receive assistance without judgment or discrimination. By the time the interview concluded, I was confident that I could take the job while still being true to myself and my community.
On the Job
For the first two months, everything went exceptionally well. In addition to streamlining programs and keeping up with current clients, I took on dozens of new ones, essentially doubling the number of clients the Salvation Army was able to serve on a daily and weekly basis. My two superiors - Captains Bill and Stephanie - showered me with accolades. When the regional social worker who assisted with my interview returned to the office for a visit, she said that I was the perfect fit for the Burlington Corps.
Things began to change early last week. I met with the director of another area social services agency, and she told me as a "fellow Christian" that there was one particular local nonprofit - an agency that helps female victims of domestic violence - to which she never referred clients because it was a "liberal" organization. Her incorrect assumption about my religious views made me uncomfortable, but the fact that she would deny clients access to critical services because of the provider's real or perceived political leanings disturbed me profoundly. I made a mental note to look over the Salvation Army's policies to make doubly sure we weren't enforcing a similarly awful rule.
The Salvation Army gives non-religious workers an employee handbook after they've been on the job for 90 days, which they're told to read thoroughly and return with their signature as soon as possible. I'd been given my handbook early, and in light of what I learned at that disturbing meeting I decided the time was right to examine it. The handbook contains a long list of rules for professional conduct, most of which seemed fairly standard. Two passages, however, gave me pause. One dealt with sexual orientation:
"The Salvation Army does not make employment decisions on the basis of an individual's sexual orientation or preference. However, The Salvation Army does reserve the right to make employment decisions on the basis of an employee's conduct or behavior that is incompatible with the principles of The Salvation Army (15)."
The other stated:
"Rules of conduct are applied impartially at all levels for unsatisfactory conduct as well as misconduct. Unsatisfactory conduct covers, but is not limited to the following: ... Immoral conduct... Any activity, practice, or conduct which conflicts with or appears to conflict with, the interests of The Salvation Army (14)."
To me, this looked like the Salvation Army was asserting the right to subjectively label certain areas of my life or particulars of my humanity "immoral." The prohibition on anything "[appearing] to conflict with" the Salvation Army seemed to give my employer a far broader latitude than I was comfortable with. But why wasn't I informed of this right away, before I took the job? After all, the language in the handbook gave them ample wiggle room in hiring:
"It is the policy of The Salvation Army that it will provide equal opportunity for employment on the bases enumerated in the federal, state and local laws applicable to it, except where a prohibition on discrimination is inconsistent with the religious principles of The Salvation Army... As a religious organization... The Salvation Army reserves the right to make such employment decisions, adopt employment policies (including employee benefits) which are calculated to promote the religious and moral principles for which it is established and maintained, consistent with its rights to the free exercise of its religion guaranteed to it by the Constitution of the United States (7)"
Clearly, I needed to address my concerns with my supervisor before I could sign off on the employee handbook. While I was initially nervous about doing so, the handbook reassured me that "The Salvation Army makes every effort to be fair and equitable in its relationship with its employees (16)." It stated that if an issue arose, the employee should approach their department head promptly, and that "a frank discussion usually will clear up the misunderstanding and solve the problem...(16)." Having only had positive experiences with the Salvation Army in the past, I felt sufficiently reassured that I could speak to my supervisor regarding my concerns.
When I asked Captain Stephanie what would happen if an employee did not sign the handbook, she informed me that it would very likely cost that person their job. The relatively small hourly wage I was earning from the Salvation Army was the only thing keeping my family of three afloat, so the loss of my job was not a risk I could take. With a knot in my stomach, I signed the handbook.
Coming Out to the Army
In the following days, however, I became anxious, feeling that I had betrayed my principles. After all, we moved halfway across the continent in order to live in a place where we could fully be our authentic selves. If I had to crawl back into the closet every day at work, how could I honestly say I was being true to myself and living with integrity?
After a great deal of soul-searching, I realized that I couldn't, so I decided to take the next step in discussing my concerns with my supervisor in accordance with employee handbook's "conflict resolution" section: last Friday afternoon I handed Captain Stephanie a letter. In it, I came out as a bisexual woman, expressed my concerns about the aforementioned passages in the employee handbook, and attached copies of the same.
My letter, the full text of which can be found here, read in part:
I believe I can be an incredible asset to this team... I am just not willing to do that if it means I have to hide who I am, or if I have to constantly wonder if I will get fired for my belief system. I think my sexual identity, life outside of work, and religious views are irrelevant to the social services I provide -- I am not any less qualified for my job today than I was yesterday when you believed I was a heterosexual Christian. I have been having daily anxiety attacks about feeling like I have to pretend to be someone I am not. It is not good for my health as a person, and I am not willing to do that... I want to stay here -- I want to do this job -- but I want to know that when I walk through this door every morning, you know who I am and I want to know that I am here because I am qualified and good at what I do, not because you have a false impression of who I am, or what I believe.
Along with my letter, I included the five-page code of ethics for the Salvation Army social workers to show that I was in complete alignment with it. I said that, instead of the handbook, I would agree to sign off on this code, and that I could prove compliance with it on a daily basis. Captain Stephanie thanked me for my honesty and said she would discuss it with Captain Bill over the weekend. A meeting was set for 10:00 on Monday morning.
I arrived on the 23rd exhausted from a weekend filled with stress and anxiety. Imagine my surprise, then, when Captains Bill and Stephanie informed me that they had decided not to fire me, that they respected my integrity and honesty, and that they were deeply grateful for my presence on the Salvation Army team. They even said that Asit George, a Salvation Army Major who outranked them, had approved their decision, saying that it was completely fine to keep me on staff. I asked the captains point blank if I needed to be worried about the jeopardy of my job any further, and they said "no."
I was so relieved to be able to keep both my job and my integrity that Adam and I went out for lunch to celebrate. After my break, Capt. Stephanie and I began packing backpacks full of brand-new school supplies for distribution to the children of low-income families. We had a wonderful and candid conversation about family dynamics, our belief systems, and our pasts.
Forced to Fire Me
The conversation was interrupted by Captain Bill, who summoned Stephanie into his office. They both returned at about 4pm, their eyes brimming with tears. We returned to the office, where they told me that they had just been informed that their decision to keep me had been overruled. Captains Bill and Stephanie were being forced to fire me. Their superiors told them that they were not allowed to even discuss it with me - I was to sign an exit interview sheet and they were to immediately escort me from the property.
Feeling shocked and deeply betrayed, I asked if I could at least show them my system for reorganizing files, so that they could more efficiently help the clients in my absence. They agreed. Stephanie was heartbroken. She cried the entire time we went through the paperwork, continuously apologizing to me and saying that firing me was "the worst thing [she's] ever had to do." Captain Bill said that he was only allowed to say what the Salvation Army told him to and that since he was forbidden from revealing his own personal opinion, he would not say another word.
And for the rest of the time, he didn't. He just sat there with tears in his eyes.
I said that I greatly respected them both and that I had enjoyed working for them. I told them how much I appreciated the fact that they saw me as the person I am, and how grateful I was for their understanding that my sexual orientation in no way changed, diminished, or devalued, or impacted the great work I did for them in any way. They promised that they would recommend me highly to future employers and would help me and my family however they could.
Doing the Most Good
Needless to say, the news of my dismissal came out of nowhere and caused me deep sadness. It also shocked me, not only because of the affirming conversation with my supervisors just hours earlier, but also because of what I'd found out during the course of my employment about the person who previously held my position. Both supervisors and my fellow employees alleged that they knew of at least seven occasions on which this person had flagrantly violated the Salvation Army rules of conduct and code of ethics for social workers.
In fact, I spent a not-insignificant portion of my time cleaning up the mess left by my predecessor, who played fast and loose with clients' personal information and allowed herself to be bullied by other local faith-based aid groups into divulging personal details that she had no authority to disclose. Despite this, my predecessor was not fired; in fact, she was allowed to retire. I was absolutely stunned that a known violator of the rules was allowed to keep their job until retirement, while I - who hadn't committed any infractions - was fired simply for my honesty and transparency.
Before leaving my office that day, I asked Captain Stephanie and Captain Bill if they could tell me who gave the order that I be fired. They could not. I later found out that after telling Bill and Stephanie that he approved of their decision to retain me, Major Asit George went behind their backs and spoke to his supervisor, Divisional Commander Maj. James LaBossiere, about me. It was LaBossiere who decided to terminate my employment. He wouldn't even admit that he fired me only after my sexual orientation became known: the official reason listed on my employee exit form states: "...her personal beliefs and position do not 100% align with the Salvation Army."
I would sure like to introduce him to my little girl. I'd like him to tell her why her parents are suddenly scrambling to try to provide for her. I want him to look into Aimee's eyes and admit that his hatred of her mommy was so strong that he fired her for her sexual orientation, something that had absolutely no bearing on the work that she did.
And finally, I'd like Major LaBossiere to explain to my three-year-old daughter how he justifies any of his reprehensible actions in light of the Salvation Army's pledge to do "the most good." Because firing someone for being bisexual doesn't sound like doing "the most good" to me. It sounds like a tragic failure.
(You can read Bilerico's previous Salvation Army coverage here - including last year's post that went viral, "Why You Shouldn't Donate to the Salvation Army Bell Ringers.")