LGBT Mormons have long struggled to gain acceptance in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But a new, inclusive family and youth center opening in Provo, Utah hopes to offer the kind of sanctuary LGBT people have at times found lacking in their church.
The Encircle LGBT center, scheduled to open in February 2017, stands some 500 feet from one of two Mormon temples in Provo. The city is home to one of the most religious communities in the United States with one of the largest Mormon populations.
Nonetheless, attorney and Encircle founder Stephenie Larson says, “Provo is ready for this.”
“We need to move the LGBT community forward and learn how to love these individuals better,” she told The Huffington Post.
The close proximity to Provo’s downtown temple sends a crucial message to LGBT Mormons and their families that they are welcome at Encircle, Larsen said, regardless of church teachings on gender and sexuality.
“This will be a place where no blame will ever be cast,” she said. “We want this to be forward-thinking, helping these kids realize who they can be and what their potential is and helping them learn to love themselves.”
Larsen doesn’t identify as LGBT, but nearly half of Encircle’s board members do. The board treasurer is Tom Christofferson, a businessman who is both Mormon and gay and whose brother is one of the LDS church’s twelve apostles, or governing leaders.
“The audience I’m most concerned with reaching is local church leaders so that they will see this as a resource in their ministries to families,” Christofferson told HuffPost.
Encircle has also garnered some high-profile attention, with donations from former football quarterback Steve Young, philanthropist Barb Young and entrepreneur Holly Alden.
Housed in a beautiful, bright blue 1890s-era home ― which Alden bought and is renting to Larsen for just $1 a month ― Encircle aims to be a safe space, first and foremost. It will be a figurative home, Larsen said, for Provo’s LGBT community and their families, complete with fresh-baked cookies and a warm, welcoming staff.
Programming will include on-site counseling for individuals and families, speaker series, art classes, homework help and more.
The all-encompassing embrace Larsen said Encircle will embody stands in contrast to the fraught relationship the LDS church has had with its LGBT members over the years.
The church holds that same-sex attraction is not a sin but that acting on such desires is. Church leaders expect LGBT-identified people to remain celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex in order to remain in good standing with the church.
In November 2015, church leaders released new guidelines stating that Mormons in same-sex marriages could be kicked out of the church. The rules also said that children of same-sex parents would be barred from being baptized unless they disavowed LGBT relationships.
“I think a lot of people are really uncomfortable with the policy,” Larsen said.
Hundreds of people withdrew from the church in protest following the announcement, leading officials to clarify their position without actually reversing the decision. Certain children of same-sex parents, such as those previously baptized, wouldn’t be penalized, the leaders said.
The new policies sent a shockwave throughout the Mormon community, with many worrying in particular how the decision would affect LGBT youth and children living with same-sex couples.
“We just put a scarlet letter on these kids,” wrote one Mormon mother of a gay son on social media.
In many ways, Larsen said, life has gotten harder for LGBT Mormons since last year’s policy announcement. “More than ever they need support to know they’re loved by their community, their family and their God,” she said.
In spite of these policies, the church has also made efforts toward greater inclusivity of LGBT people and recently updated its official website on the matter, titled “Mormon And Gay,” to reflect a more welcoming tone toward that community.
When asked whether the church supported Encircle’s mission, LDS spokesman Eric Hawkins told HuffPost: “It’s good to see this historic property lovingly restored and used to serve people in the LGBT community.”
To the Encircle community, he offered the message: “Welcome to the neighborhood!”
Larsen herself is a lifelong Mormon and initially worked on plans for Encircle with her late uncle-in-law, who was gay. She’s seen what it looks like when a Mormon family fully embraces and loves their LGBT relative ― and that will be the model Encircle employs, she said.
“We will not instruct people regarding [church] policy. Our policy will be to love and support individuals and families wherever they are in their journey and no matter how they decide to live their lives. We want them to choose the path that will help them thrive,” Larsen told HuffPost.
While Encircle won’t be petitioning the church to change its policies, Larsen said she hopes to see the Mormon community evolve toward greater inclusion of all its members. “Hopefully the positive and educational conversations we have at Encircle will trickle out into the community and even to churches,” Larsen noted. “I hope we’ll start to see a real change.”