Snow Pride Club invites
Utah County groups to educate
students on gay issues
By Max Higbee
Nov. 23, 2017
EPHRAIM—In the heart of Utah County, there are two organizations that are working to ease the unique struggles faced by people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. These groups seek to give families and friends important tools to support their loved ones whose sexual orientation is different.
Last Tuesday night, Snow College’s LGBTQ Pride Club organized a support event. Two representatives from the Utah County groups came to talk to Snow students: Stephanie Larsen, the Executive Director of Encircle Resource Center, and J.D. Goates, the president of USGA, an off-campus club providing support to gay students at BYU. Brigham Young University is owned by the LDS church, which does not allow homosexual activity.
` Larsen said that the average child realizes they’re gay or lesbian at 12 years old, and the average age is even younger for trans children. She said, “The average coming out age is 22. That leaves ten years during which time kids can hear opinions that may harm them: what their church thinks, what their aunt thinks. Often people around them are unaware of the effect that opinions can have.”
Provo’s Encircle Resource Center is specifically tailored toward offering support, counseling, and sanctuary to LGBTQ youth and their families, although they offer services and support to adults as well. The center is housed in an 1891 pioneer house near the Provo City Center LDS temple, just a few blocks from the heart of downtown.
Larsen is an active Latter-day Saint and mother of six, a native of Utah County. She told the audience how she first thought to create a resource center like Encircle in response to the disparity she saw between the kindness and acceptance that she believes the LDS gospel teaches and the unkindness and discrimination that she witnessed in Utah County against lesbian, gay, and transgender folks.
“When families abandon gay, lesbian, and transgender family members, the ensuing loneliness can contribute to suicide,” said Larsen.
Larsen shared how she was inspired to start Encircle in a big way by her husband’s late uncle, the well-known Salt Lake City restauranteur and philanthropist, John Williams, who was also a gay man. When he came out to her husband’s family more than fifty years ago, they responded with love by embracing and supporting him, and Williams went on to become a successful restauranteur.
Just a few months after becoming the first financial supporter of the burgeoning Encircle organization, John Williams was murdered in his home in an arson fire.
“I honestly didn’t know how we could or were going to go on without him,” Larsen stated. “He was my biggest inspiration, and our greatest financial supporter.”
But to honor John’s memory, Larsen pushed on. She recalled the first time that they looked at the house that would become the home of Encircle: “We just walked up, and before we ever even looked around, I peered in through a window, and there was this gorgeous rainbow, stained glass (reminiscent of the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ rights movement). I just laughed and said, ‘yep, this is it. This is the one.’”
Larsen walked the audience through a typical week at Encircle, detailing the programs they offer, from a support group for survivors of sexual assault to a weekly jam session with music and instruments in the house’s living room.
“We have this support group for LGBT teens—just imagine 40 teenagers packed into a room—and they won’t let us split them up at all into smaller groups,” Larsen shared. “Kids come from as far away as Ogden every week, and if anybody’s ever missing, you’ve got kids calling them and putting them on speaker phone so they can be there in spirit. It’s really incredible to see these kids building such a network of love and support.”
Next month, Encircle will be hosting what Larsen termed “the first gay youth conference.” Called Ignite, the conference will be at Utah Valley University on Saturday, December 2 and will feature keynote speakers and local celebrity performers.
J.D. Goates spoke about USGA. “We are not the US Golf Association,” he joked. “USGA stands for Understanding Same-Gender Attraction.”
USGA is a BYU club, but because it is not sanctioned by the school administration, they meet weekly at the Provo City Library.
Sharing his own life story, Goates says that he was raised both Catholic and Mormon, as his mother was Catholic, and his father was a Latter-day Saint. They are both faculty members at Brigham Young University.
“I went through all of the rites of passage for both religions, just short of becoming a monk. I even served an LDS mission, speaking Spanish in the New York City South Mission.”
Speaking to people who may feel like they cannot support gay folks because they feel they would be supporting sin, Goates said, “People don’t have to understand or agree with everything in somebody’s life to walk with them and nurture them. It’s like the (LDS) Primary song, “I’ll Walk With You.”
A question from the audience asked Goates and Larsen about what the word “queer” means in the modern LGBTQ movement.
Larsen responded that “queer is the umbrella term for all people who are not strictly straight or strictly cisgender (meaning that the person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth). Like an umbrella, you can imagine the handle coming down, and on one side, we’ve got gender identity, and this refers to the way you identify, as a man or a woman or non-binary. On the other side is sexual identity, and this refers to who you love, who you are attracted to.”
Goates, in response, said that it is a safe bet for those seeking not to offend or belittle to “mirror language,” to use the words for somebody else that they use for themselves, especially with personal pronouns such as she/her and he/him.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 82.26% of Utah County’s population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, making it the third-most uniformly Mormon county in the most religiously homogeneous state in the United States. While LDS leaders have said that simply being lesbian or gay is not a sin, they maintain that having a sexual relationship with somebody of the same gender is sinful.