On Feb. 10, a new LGBTQ center will open in Provo, Utah.
The center, called Encircle, is in the heart of Provo’s bustling downtown. It sits directly across the street from Provo's new temple. And, of course, it is in the heart of Brigham Young University country. The school is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Almost a year ago, the Mormon Church declared same-sex couples to be apostates, and ruled that children of gay couples could not enter the church until they are 18 and disavow same-sex relationships.
That decision and the Church’s strong support of California’s Proposition 8 vote in 2008, have, some critics of the Church assert, created a climate of silence and fear for gay people and their families. The teen suicide rate in Utah has tripled since 2007.
(Back in March, State of Nevada did a story on the rising youth suicide rate among gay teens.)
Stephanie Larsen came up with the idea to start Encircle because she wanted to create a safe space for gay people and their families to come and talk or just hang out.
“The need isn’t just for the children who are gay but for their families to," Larsen told KNPR's State of Nevada, "It is a hard thing within our Mormon community to navigate.”
Larsen said the center will have counselors, activities, and classes but most importantly it will be a place where kids can come, be themselves and feel accepted.
She said she chose the spot because it is the center of the community and there are no services in the area. Along with that, Larsen noted that there are 80,000 college-aged kids in the area between BYU students and students at Utah Valley University.
“If there is anywhere in the country that probably has a need for a service like this I think it would be in my own community,” Larsen said.
Larsen said she had not heard from the Mormon Church about the center. She is hopeful that the church is becoming more accepting to gay members because of the shifts she has seen not just from the church but from membership.
She believes the edict sent down by church headquarters last year pushed a lot people, including her, to think deeply about the LGBTQ community.
“I believe that being Christlike means supporting and loving everyone and I want to do it better in this community,” Larsen said.
Stephanie Larsen, executive director, Encircle LGBTQ Center