The Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia held its annual Celebrate Hope luncheon on Tuesday to honor two local civic leaders of color – Romulo “Romy” Diaz, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and Aldustus “A.J.” Jordan. The two men received the Others Award, the Salvation Army’s highest national civic award.
Diaz previously worked as the City Solicitor of Philadelphia from 2005 to 2008, as assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton, and as vice president and general counsel for PECO until his retirement earlier this year. In addition to serving as president and CEO of the Pan American Association of Philadelphia, which strives to perpetuate conversations about Latin America and (developing Latinx talent), Diaz is a member of the National LGBT Bar Association, was recently elected to the board of directors of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh and serves on the boards of the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to name a few.
“Anybody who knows [Romy] knows that he is the quintessential man out in the community,” said Major Tawny Cowen-Zanders, divisional secretary for the Greater Philadelphia Salvation Army. “He is here for our community. From my interactions with him there’s literally not one organization that I think he doesn’t have some part of. He’s fully involved.”
Jordan works as a strategic advisor, funder and volunteer for the Salvation Army and has served on the Philadelphia Kroc Center Advisory Council for the last six years. He has a background in social work and youth advocacy, and previously worked as a government relations leader in the area of healthcare. He currently works as senior vice president and community relations co-head for Wells Fargo.
“A.J. is a go-getter,” Cowen-Zanders said. “In every aspect he wants our community to grow positively, and he wants to be a bridge for the philanthropic and the business community. He is always looking for new ways to think outside of the box.”
Growing up in Vietnam-era Texas as a Latinx person and moving through the world as a gay man, Diaz has been no stranger to adversity.
“This was an era where you had signs that in Texas said ‘no dogs or Mexicans allowed’ in public accommodations or swimming pools,” Diaz said. “So you were pretty familiar with discrimination in a very up front and personal way. That same sense of discrimination was pretty rampant in connection with the LGBT community, which at that time didn’t really have a strong sense of organization or profile. I think that particularly with regard to the LGBT community, so much of that changed as you saw activism growing, particularly in the respect to the AIDS crisis.”
After losing friends to AIDS, Diaz was involved with Whitman-Walker Health in Washington D.C., a healthcare organization that specializes in LGBTQ and HIV care. He also served on the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit legal services organization created in 1993, devoted to alleviating discrimination toward queer military officers related to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. In connection with the Salvation Army, Diaz packed relief boxes for Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, helped provide aid to Mexicans after the earthquakes that hit the same year and worked with the local Salvation Army in 2005 to orchestrate shelters for Louisianan families escaping Hurricane Katrina.
The Salvation Army’s efforts to honor LGBTQ individuals should not go without acknowledging the history of homophobic behavior connected to the organization, such as withholding services to same-sex couples and opposing gay rights. Leaders of the Evangelical Christain charity have previously attempted to exempt the organization from federal and state LGBTQ-inclusive antidiscrimination laws, and have outwardly disagreed with same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 CNN article.
As reported by The Advocate, out journalist Bil Browning previously published an annual reminder describing the Salvation Army as “a right-wing organization that discriminates against LGBT people.” About 20 years ago, a Salvation Army representative demanded that Browning and his boyfriend break up before they received services, according to The Advocate. The Advocate also reported that more recently, a New York Salvation Army substance abuse center received a complaint from the local Commission on Human Rights claiming that its personnel displayed transphobic behavior in its intake policies.
“It’s unfortunate that there’s that view,” Cowen-Zanders said. “We are an international organization and there have been times that some random person has said something, and because they are connected to the Salvation Army in some way, that it gets blown up to mean that it’s for the whole Salvation Army, and it’s not. I know that here in Greater Philadelphia and every place that I have served, what I would say is that we keep on showing love because that is the only way.”
When he spoke at the Celebrate Hope lunch, Diaz made sure to educate his comrades by dissolving the misconception that the Salvation Army is an inherently anti-LGBTQ organization.
“I’ve been involved with the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia almost since arriving in Philadelphia in 2002,” Diaz said. “The experience I’ve had has always been a very welcoming and inclusive organization. The people that I’ve met along the way, including people that I mentioned [during the lunch] like Reverend Bonnie Camarda, and the leadership of the greater Philadelphia Salvation Army have always, I think, reflected that same commitment to community, and frankly without discrimination.”