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Near Provo's Mormon temple, another kind of sanctuary — this one for the LGBT community

Published November 28, 2016 3:31 pm

Sanctuary founder wants to promote healthy outlooks for LGBT youths and foster understanding.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • The view from the arched, rainbow stained-glass window has been pretty much the same for more than a century: craggy mountains rising dramatically over Provo and the towering salmon-color sanctuary that long has been the heart of the city's Mormon faith.

But these days, the vista from the historic William D. Alexander House is dripping with new meaning.

In February, the 1890s-era home — a mere block from the Provo City Center Temple — will open its doors as Encircle, the first resource center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families and youths in Utah County.



"Our mission is threefold," Encircle founder Stephenie Larsen said. "First, it's getting the family to rally around the [LGBT] child. If we can get families to have better conversations and be more supportive, then they take that back to their neighborhoods and to their [faith] communities."

And that gets Larsen to goals two and three: Making communities more accepting of LGBT youths and helping those kids lead happy, productive lives.

"It pains me that so many people waste years of hiding who they are and feeling depressed," she said. "If they can just see a future for themselves and realize their talents … that's our goal here. Help them be forward thinking about who they can be and who they want to be."

Larsen began earnest work on plans for Encircle last spring, but the idea for bringing LGBT resources to Provo had been stewing inside her for years.

A lifetime Mormon, whose uncle, the late Salt Lake City restaurateur John Williams, was gay, Larsen said she long had wrestled with her church's attitude toward LGBT individuals and had been heartbroken by the suicides of young gay Latter-day Saints.

"I called John a few years ago and said, 'Will you help me do something in Provo?' " Larsen recalled. "Because if there's anywhere in the nation that LGBT kids need support, it's Provo."

Williams offered enthusiastic support, Larsen said, but the idea languished for lack of a specific direction or project.

That changed a year ago, when top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted a policy that labeled married gay Mormons "apostates" and generally barred their children from membership until age 18.

Larsen again reached out to Williams. The two huddled with LGBT advocates about community needs, and Encircle was born.

Location, location, location • Finding a location close to Provo's city center turned out to be easier than expected.

"I started at the temple, drove around the corner and there was an 'Available' sign," she said. "I didn't look any further."

Built by Alexander, who settled in Provo in the 1860s and served on the City Council and the school board, the house sits on the small rise at 91 W. 200 South. It is on the National Register of Historic Places as the only known example of Stick Style architecture in Utah.

Large and elegant, with a gable roof, gingerbread trim and Queen Anne shingles, it could be the definition of welcoming charm.

"You notice the stained-glass windows are rainbow," Larsen said. "Upstairs, when you look out the window, it looks right at the temple and [Angel ] Moroni [statue]. It's pretty amazing … pretty surreal."

Support for Encircle has been equally amazing, Larsen said.

Friend and board member Holly Alden, who co-founded Park City's SkullCandy, bought the house and is renting it to Larsen at the bargain price of $1 a month. Additional backing has come from football Hall of Famer Steve Young and his wife, Barb, who donated $100,000, and Williams, who also committed $100,000 before he was killed in an arson fire in May.

Fundraising has amassed an additional $50,000 toward the $500,000 Larsen hopes to have in hand before opening.

If she thought she might feel any pushback from Provo's predominantly Mormon community or local LDS leaders, she was proved wrong.

"It's been incredible," Larsen said. "I've seen the best of people in this."

Larsen chalks up that warm reception to the fatigue she believes people feel over the mounting losses of LGBT youths to suicide and shifting attitudes and understanding.

Even the Mormon church has softened its tone in recent years, reaffirming that gay members are welcome at services and chastising parents who cast out their LGBT children.

"Most people are affected by it in some way. If it's not their neighbor, it's their friend's child or a relative," Larsen said. "And, to be honest, I think that the [LDS Church] policy has made people really personally think, 'How do I feel?' It's brought up the discussion and made us ask: What would Christ do?"

Refuge and resources • For LGBT youths — whether teens or college students who have struggled for acceptance and understanding — Encircle's coming presence as a safe space offers a promising and hopeful sign, said Addison Jenkins, president of Understanding Same-Gender Attraction, an off-campus organization for LGBT people and their straight allies run by students and faculty of nearby LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

"Anybody who's spent some time [here] knows, I think, that it's undeniably hard," he said. "I think the number one issue we always have to wrestle with is just visibility, so this will just say, 'Yeah, there are LGBT people in Utah County and there are a lot of them.' "

And for kids with families who still don't understand them, he added, or are operating with outdated information based on past, harsher church messages, having a refuge and resource for services and support is huge.

"This is the first step in healing a lot of those wounds," Jenkins said.

That's part of what drives Larsen.

When it opens early next year, Encircle will have a small staff that includes a social worker, a marriage and family therapist, who trained at BYU, and programming that draws on the work of San Francisco State University researcher Caitlin Ryan by focusing on ways for families to accept their LGBT children without abandoning their religion.

"We are trying to be culturally competent," Larsen said. "I really hope we are also trying to create a model that can go into any community, so then when the next community says, 'Our LGBT people need help,' we can say, 'Here, we started the groundwork, take our stuff and use it.' "

Helping hands •In the meantime, the Encircle house is undergoing renovation with the help of donated labor, fixtures and time.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, volunteers gathered to assist with the preparation. There were nearly more hands to help than jobs to be done.

On the grounds, kids raked up leaves, while lawn mowers buzzed and hedge trimmers tidied up the border greenery.

Inside the front entry, BYU law professor Kif Augustine-Adams was on a step ladder, sanding the house's wood trim to get it ready for fresh staining.

A faithful Mormon, Augustine-Adams has had many gay students in her classes through the years and knows their struggles. Helping Encircle, she said, is a way to send a message of love and support to "our LGBT neighbors, family, friends and community."

"It will be a great resource," she said. "A place for families to come who are working through challenges and issues and who need love, need support, need help figuring out how to be Christian."

Scott Blackburn, who left his Mormon faith in recent years, was on his knees pulling carpet staples out of the dark wooden staircase that leads to the second story.

"The LDS Church makes changes when society pressures them," Blackburn said. "They are still clinging to their beliefs and their doctrine. But I think as this house becomes more established, more of a place in the community where people seek shelter and peace, our friends across the street will take notice."

Upstairs, as she razor-bladed paint from a window framed with rainbow panels of red, yellow, blue and purple glass, volunteer Jess Mikel was brought to tears by the view.

"It's kind of funny that you can see the temple out of this window," said the Lehi mother of two.

"I think it's almost like taking a stand, like showing the LGBT community that even though you may not always be accepted, there is someone right here. We see you, and we're doing our best to do our part."

jdobner@sltrib.com, Twitter: @jenniferdobner —

More online

O More information about Encircle, Provo's first LGBT resource center, can be found online › encircletogether.org

 

 

 

 

 

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