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‘No sides, only love’ is motto of LGBTQ resource center

Stephanie Larsen

‘No sides, only love’ is motto

of LGBTQ resource center

 

By Max Higbee

Staff writer

Feb. 15, 2018

 

EPHRAIM—Stephenie Larsen, founder and CEO of Encircle LGBTQ Family and Youth Resource Center, believes that Provo—and the rest of the state, by extension—“should be the best place to grow up an LGBTQ child, because we do community so well.”

LGBTQ refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning.

“We can put a man on the moon, we can map our own genome, but sometimes we find it so hard to just love other people when they are different from us,” Larsen said to students last Thursday, Feb. 1, when she spoke at Snow College’s Convocation series alongside Encircle Chief Program Officer Jordan Sgro and Chief Operating Officer Jacob Dunford.

Larsen worked to create Encircle, which is a resource center in Provo, housed in a pioneer-era home just blocks away from the Provo City Center Temple.

The center seeks to provide community, healing and a loving, safe space to LGBTQ youth in Utah County and the surrounding area. It officially opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2017.

Since then it has played a crucial role in organizing a music fest—the LoveLoud Festival last August and has put on the largest-ever youth conference for LGBTQ youth with its Ignite conference in December, in addition to its regular support groups and counseling.

Larsen’s presentation began with a video from Starbucks’ “Upstanders” series that outlined the unique difficulties that can arise growing up LGBTQ in Utah. The video also introduced Larsen and Encircle’s mission.

“There’s messaging that’s telling these kids ‘you are not okay,’” Larsen said in the video. “These are kids who feel like God doesn’t love them, their parents won’t understand, their community won’t understand who they are. The reason for Encircle is to keep youth alive.”

She introduced the problem: Suicide is the leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24 in Utah, even more likely than death in an automobile accident.

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the youth suicide rate in Utah has increased four times faster than the national average, year by year. Members of the LGBTQ community are three times more likely than non-LGBTQ youth to commit suicide.

She shared how, over time, her thinking has changed.

When she left Brigham Young University, where she studied family science as an undergraduate before earning her law degree, she said she was a very black-and-white thinker and believed it was a sin to be gay.

Through marrying into her husband’s family and meeting and growing to love his uncle, John Williams, a gay man and prolific Salt Lake City restaurateur, she opened her mind to the idea that it is supremely important that families simply love and embrace their children wholly when they come out.

She said, “I was left with this question, ‘How can I say that John is not a good person or that he is a sinner, based on him being one of the best people I’ve ever met?”

After years sitting with that question and Williams’ death in 2016, she decided to do something about it and opened the Encircle house.

She found the house by simply going to the then-future site of the Provo City Center Temple and circling outward, looking for potential sites for the resource center.

“We wanted to put it in a home because there’s something about a home that just brings comfort and love and makes us whole. So instead of putting Encircle in a strip mall, we opened up in this little blue house,” she said.

When she first stumbled onto the house, it had two huge “available” signs on its lawn.

In spite of her worries over being able to afford it, she was inspired by the beauty of it, particularly of the 125-year-old rainbow stained-glass windows. So she continued to pursue it.

It ended up being bought by a friend of the foundation, a real-estate developer in Park City. The friend rents it to Encircle for $1 per month.

Larsen introduced the newest addition to the Encircle family of homes, a house that is slated to open this summer in Salt Lake City.

“We are so crowded at Encircle,” she said, “We’ve got 50-60 people there every day, we’ve gone from one therapist to nine, and we have kids coming from as far as Ogden. So we wanted to have another house in Salt Lake so it’s less of a drive.”

Sgro outlined the programs offered by Encircle, such as subsidized counseling for LGBTQ youth and their families, music nights, writing workshops, weekly support groups, lesbian support group and a body image support group.

Dunford shared his journey coming out to his family, growing up gay, being kicked out of BYU and excommunicated from the LDS Church, and, finally, finding Encircle and family there.

He runs the marketing for Encircle and the LoveLoud series, which will continue this year. He designed the foundation’s website, encircletogether.org.

Encircle is no anti-Mormon endeavor. It is not near the temple to serve as its adversary but as a sort of parallel companion. Larsen explained that she was and is a devout Latter-day Saint, as are many of the staff and volunteers.

Rather, their approach is summed up in their slogan: “No sides, only love.”

The Encircle community spans the spectrum from actively serving Mormon bishops to people who have never been in an LDS chapel, and Encircle seeks to be a space where all of those people are welcome.

“We will never tell any of the youth who they should be. We would never say, ‘You should stay in the church’ or ‘You should leave this community.’ Our approach is that you need to be who you need to be to be whole,” said Larsen.

She was rejoined by Dunford and Sgro for a question-and-answer forum with the students at Convocation at the end of the presentation.

Next week’s Convocation will feature Kenny Aronoff, who has been named one of the 100 Greatest Drummers of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.