Stephenie Larsen is a busy mother of six. When she isn’t wheeling across town, dropping her kids off at school or sports, she runs a support network for gay youth.
Larsen opened the nonprofit Encircle LGBTQ Family and Youth Resource Center in downtown Provo, Utah, in February. The center aims to be a safe, open environment for LGBTQ people in this deeply religious community, and offers individual therapy and group counseling services, as well as a variety of daily activities.
Utah is the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and an overwhelming majority of people in Provo are Mormon. Though LDS church leaders maintain that same-sex attraction is not a sin, members are expected not to act on such feelings. The church also opposes same-sex marriages.
Larsen, herself a Mormon, says she doesn’t have a gay child and doesn’t identify as LGBTQ ― but over the years, she witnessed the church’s fraught relationship with the gay community affect family after family, until she felt she had to do something.
Studies have shown that LGBTQ youth are at a greater risk of depression, suicide and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers. Kids who are exposed to supportive and accepting communities and families are more likely to thrive, while those who experience rejection and bullying are at greater risk of having problems in school and engaging in risky behavior.
Larsen wants Encircle to bring families of LGBTQ kids closer together and to foster understanding between them and the Mormon community. It’s fitting that Encircle, housed in a historic blue Victorian, is located just down the street from one of Provo’s two Mormon temples, she said.
The Mormon church did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Last year, a representative for the church gave the following statement about Encircle to HuffPost: “It’s good to see this historic property lovingly restored and used to serve people in the LGBT community.”
HuffPost sat down with Larsen to talk about the challenges she faces in her work and how she hopes Encircle will help LGBTQ kids in Provo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the mission of Encircle. What is its role within the Provo community and the Mormon community?
It’s a safe space for LGBTQ individuals to come and have community, and the whole goal is to keep the youth alive. It’s extremely difficult if their family does not understand, love and respect them for who they are, and it’s even more difficult when they feel like they’re living in a community that doesn’t understand who they are.
We believe that if we can help the family work through when their child comes out as gay, lesbian or transgender, then they can become an affirming family and support this child on their journey. We hope that through the process, we will help change our community. We believe better conversations at Encircle lead to better conversations in the home, churches, schools, neighborhoods.
Our church, the Mormon church, is extremely important in Provo and affects everyone’s life. So instead of pushing against the community, we’re trying to bring the community in and trying to work in their values to help them better understand and love LGBTQ people.
Let’s talk about suicide. Not only are LGBTQ youth at greater risk for suicide, but Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Do the kids who come to Encircle talk about this?
Most of the youth we work with at Encircle talk about suicide and the struggle they’ve had with it. I think that when you feel like your god doesn’t love you, or there’s that shame involved in who you are, and you can’t change ― I can’t imagine how difficult that would be.
Youth on average realize whether they’re gay by the time they’re 12 years old, but they don’t come out till they’re 22. So there is a 10-year period that these kids are just harboring these feelings within themselves, and no one knows what they’re dealing with. And during that time, they’re hearing what their church thinks of gay people, what their mother thinks, what their aunt thinks, what their neighbor thinks, and they are internalizing that.
What are some of the biggest challenges of your work?
The major challenge is probably communicating with our community in a way of love and respect for their values, while also communicating love and respect for the youth and who they are. Trying to bridge that gap and to create understanding. And not to be seen as an enemy, but to be seen as a true value and resource. We’re not here to protest, we’re here to help the youth.
And I think raising money is one of the hard parts of a venture like this ― you know, you’ve gotta have money to make this thing run. Raising money is a constant distraction from trying to help the youth, but it’s got to get done. You have to do both.
What kind of support have you seen from the church? Have you had a positive response so far?
Yes, we really have. We’ve had bishops come to Encircle, where we get to have hands-on conversations with them, hoping that they will respond well to the youth and families when the youth come out, so the bishops won’t say things that will be damaging and hurtful to the kids.
Do you feel Encircle has made a difference in the short time it’s been opened?
Fifty to 60 kids come to the house every day.
Since we’ve opened, our therapists have seen over 250 new clients. People are coming to therapy, they’re staying, and they’re coming multiple times.
We’ve trained over 400 volunteers who work at Encircle, and I think every time we train a volunteer, they become an ally and more empathetic and understanding of these kids’ lives.
According to the staff page on your website, it appears that the people in leadership roles are mostly white. Does Encircle have plans to hire more people of color in the future?
For sure. It’s very important ― we’re trying to reach out to the Latino community. And to work on that. We reflect our community in our lack of diversity. I love it that you noticed that.
You don’t identify as LGBTQ, but do you have people from that community leading the day-to-day activities of Encircle?
The people who run the house are from the LGBTQ community. Every night we have an event, and the people who run those programs are always LGBTQ. They’re gaining leadership experience, they’re getting to design the program the way they think is most helpful for people with their life experience.
What has surprised you most about this project?
When you walk in this space, it’s always laughter and happiness. People aren’t just talking about how difficult it is to be gay, they’re talking about the good things in life. And I think that’s a really nice part of it ― that they’re just getting to celebrate life and friendship, and just be normal people there.
Anything else you want people to know?
Kids who have the courage to come out in this community ― they’re very brave, and they’re going to change the world. I hope that we can make it easier for gay kids to thrive in America ― that all of us can. I definitely believe they are born this way, and this is not by mistake. They should be honored and loved for who they are.