Upstanders: Love for All in Utah
Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
Michael Showalter was a popular kid in his high school in Provo, Utah. Then one day after his sophomore year, he posted a photo of himself on Instagram flashing a peace sign next to a tombstone of a man named Gay. “Same,” he captioned it.
It didn’t take long for Showalter, who had suddenly become the only openly gay student at the school, to find himself the target of invective and isolation. “I don’t want to hang out with him anymore,” several of his classmates boasted to each other.
“For all they cared, I was no longer a person,” says Showalter.
He had grown up attending a Mormon church with his parents and three older siblings, and much of his family’s social life revolved around church activities – 85 percent of Provo’s residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – but there, too, he felt rejected. Church leaders do not permit gay people to engage in same-sex relationships.
Feeling alone, he would get in his car and drive, sometimes for hours at a time, through the neighborhoods of Provo and into the mountains around the city.
His mother, Donna, would be racked by fear, her mind racing toward the awful thought that he might take his own life.
Will I ever see my son again? she would wonder.
In Utah, the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 14 and 21 is suicide. The state’s suicide rate has tripled since 2007, which some experts attribute to the Mormon Church’s position on same-sex relationships.
Although her son didn’t know it, Donna too had been consumed with pain since he had told her – a few years before he came out to his friends – about his sexual orientation. As she sought in vain to reconcile her unconditional love for her son and her deep faith, she longed to talk to another Mormon mother with a gay child, or to anyone who was gay.
She didn’t know a single gay person, and she didn’t feel comfortable opening up to her friends and neighbors, almost all of whom attended her church. Her workplace was similarly off limits: She is employed as a gardening specialist at Brigham Young University, which is run by the Mormon Church.
“I felt so, so isolated, and so alone,” she recalls. “I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
On many evenings, she sat in her closet and sobbed. She prayed she would die.
In late 2016, Donna Showalter heard that an LGBT resource center was going to open in Provo. There had never been anything like that in the city before. She decided to pay a quick visit, figuring that it would be hidden away and empty.
There’s got be three gay people in all of Provo, she thought.
When she got there, she was stunned. The center, called Encircle, was coming to life in a majestic, two-story, blue-and-white Stick-style house a block away from a large, new Mormon temple. And it was buzzing with activity.
Contractors were renovating the century-old building to transform it into a modern, welcoming space. Volunteers were busying themselves with a variety of start-up tasks. Donna learned that Encircle aimed to reach out not just to gay youth, but to their parents, church leaders and others in the community.
She immediately wanted to pitch in. As soon as she heard that the house needed toilet paper, soap and other staples, she offered to do her part by heading to the store.
“For the first time, I felt like there was hope,” she says. “I felt like there was a place for me, and a place for my baby. I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
When Encircle opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2017, Donna became a frequent visitor. Some weeks, she attended a Tuesday lunch discussion run by a fellow Mormon mother of a gay son. Mostly, she just came to hang out: to meet other moms, to laugh with people dropping into the house, to connect with orthodox Mormons like herself who had a gay relative and were struggling to hold onto faith and family.
It took Michael, then in his senior year of high school, a little longer to become a regular visitor. Eventually, though, when he would go out on his long drives and Donna texted him in a panic – “Are you OK?” – he’d message back that he was at the Encircle house.
The knot of dread in her stomach would dissolve.
“I feel like Encircle literally saved his life,” she says.
And hers, too.
Encircle was created by Stephenie Larsen, a youthful 46-year-old mother of six who grew up Mormon in the Provo area. She attended Brigham Young University for seven years, earning degrees in family science and law, and believing that gay marriage would destroy the country’s moral fabric.
“I thought it was evil to be homosexual,” she says.
She worked for a year as a staff aide in the U.S. Congress while her husband was attending medical school in Washington, D.C. When the couple returned to Provo, she took on the task of raising their growing family full-time.
Her wedding had been thrown by one of her husband’s uncles, John Williams, who was a successful restaurateur in Salt Lake City. After Larsen moved back to Utah, she got to know him better. Williams, who was raised as a devout Mormon, always seemed to be filled with love and laughter, and his days were riddled with acts of kindness – small and large – toward others.
A half-century ago, upon returning from the religious mission that is a rite of passage for many Mormon youths, he told his family that he was gay. “His family just embraced him and loved him for who he was,” she says.
In 2014, while on a bicycle ride in Idaho with her sister, she happened to listen to a podcast featuring the stories of gay Mormons and their families – stories very different from what Williams encountered. She heard tales of severed relationships, excommunication and suicide.
She broke down crying on the side of the road.
Someone’s got to do something to help these kids, she thought.
When she returned to Utah, she called her uncle and asked for his help.
“He said, ‘Sure. What are we going to do?’” she recalls. “So John and I started thinking about what we could do in this conservative community that really could make a difference and help people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, and their families.”
Before long, she chickened out. “I was scared to death,” she says – of what her friends and neighbors would think, and of the possibility that she would do more harm than good for young gay people in the area.
Just be brave, she said to herself every day. Just be brave.
Almost two years later, she mustered the courage to proceed. One day after dropping off her kids at school, she set out to look for a place that could serve as a hub of inclusive community.
Her uncle urged her to find a place that afforded privacy. But she had a different vision.
“This house needs to be somewhere where the community will see it,” she told him. “They need to remember that these kids and their families exist.”
She drove down University Avenue that morning and turned right just after she passed the new Mormon temple in the center of the city. There she saw the blue-and-white house with a for-sale sign. “The cutest house I’ve ever seen,” she says.
Two months into the project, Williams was murdered by his husband. Larsen grieved for him – and for her hope of creating the community center. “I was left without the gay man who understood, and without the financial backing, and without the business experience,” she says.
Soon, help materialized from unexpected sources. A wealthy friend offered to buy the house and rent it to her for $1 a month. Williams’ family made good on his $100,000 pledge to her, allowing her to renovate the structure. Volunteers showed up to lend some elbow grease.
She believed that the design and spirit of the house’s interior needed to feel welcoming. “We want kids to walk in and it smells like cookies. It smells like home. It feels like home. People love you like you would in an ideal home.”
But she also wanted Encircle to be different from LGBT community centers in larger, more cosmopolitan cities that sometimes encourage gay people to distance themselves from family and friends who are not wholly accepting of their sexual orientation. “We are hoping to bring the community and the family to these youth, to love and support them,” she says.
Larsen is under no illusions about the chasm between church leaders and gay people. Still, she wants to build an organization that can simultaneously support Provo’s LGBT community while building a constructive, respectful bridge with the Mormon Church.
“We spent a year prior to opening trying to figure out how can we fit into our community, how can we become an asset to the community? Rather than being something that is butting up against the community and their beliefs, we want to support who the community is, meet them where they are, and help us all progress and become better,” she says.
The result is an organization whose motto is, “No Sides. Only Love.” But trying to bring disparate communities together involves tough tradeoffs. Larsen doesn’t fly a rainbow pride flag in front of the house, to the consternation of some LGBT people. At the same time, she has hosted speakers who are bluntly critical of the Mormon Church, which has irked a few of her religious supporters. Despite that, she says, “we are all discovering there is more that unites us than divides us.”
To encourage community interaction and genuine friendships, she relies on volunteers to help her and three staff members run the house. “We don’t want paid staff loving these kids,” she says. “We want people who are there just because they want to be there.”
Her first volunteer orientation session was packed. And it drew a wide range of Provo residents.
“I’m here because I’m a Mormon bishop,” one man said during the introductions.
“I’m here because I’m angry at the church,” the man next to him said. “I don’t like how they’re treating LBGT individuals.”
“I’m here because I’m gay,” the next man said. “And I’m in a Mormon bishopric.”
Once a week, Richard Ostler volunteers at the main Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. And once a week, he drives 40 minutes south on Interstate 15 to Provo to volunteer at Encircle.
Ostler, a 56-year-old married father of six who owns an advertising business, was called by church leaders to serve as a bishop four years ago. He was assigned a ward of about 400 single people between the ages of 19 and 31 in Salt Lake City.
He knew there were at least a few LGBT people in the ward. Although he started his assignment convinced that their sexual orientation was not a choice, he figured it was his job to encourage them to follow church teachings.
Gradually, his perspective expanded. “I learned as I met with these LGBTQ people that they are born perfect, which is this idea that everybody’s born the way God wants them to be born,” he says. “They’re not broken. They don’t need to be fixed. Their identity needs to be supported, embraced and celebrated.”
The more he listened to gay people, the more he recognized how challenging it would be for them to remain celibate and refrain from same-sex relationships for their entire lives.
“I realized that it’s a very difficult road to be LGBTQ and stay in the Mormon Church,” he says. “It’s easy just to say, ‘You need to follow the rules of the church,’ but when you really meet with people that are walking that road and feel the challenge of that situation, your heart goes out to them.”
He concluded to himself that everyone in his ward needed to find their own way. “I believe in the LDS Church and invite everyone to follow its teachings, but I also support the right for people to choose their own path in life,” he says.
As his bishop assignment was nearing its end, he was scrolling through his Instagram feed – his work with youth had spurred him to learn how to use social media – and he saw a photo of a young Mormon man posted by his mother. She wrote that he was gay and that he had committed suicide the day before.
“She said he was a square peg in a round hole, and that he just had so much pain in his life,” Ostler recalls. “I felt called by God at that moment to go and serve LGBTQ people.”
He and his wife showed up at Encircle on the day it opened. “I have great respect for Stephenie,” he says. “She did more than post something nice on social media. She said, ‘I’m gonna go walk with these LGBTQ people. I’m gonna go out there and put a physical location together in Provo, as a house of healing.’”
When he volunteers, Ostler listens, but he also talks – at the behest of gay youth and their parents. Some find affirmation in hearing words of love and inclusion from a man who had been called to serve as a bishop. He tells them that their sexual orientation is part of God’s plan. He shares the parable of the Good Samaritan and his belief that Jesus would have embraced LGBT people.
As the summer sun streamed through the house’s old windows on an August afternoon, Larsen invited Ostler and eight others to gather around Encircle’s communal table for a get-acquainted session. Among them were two of her staff members, Max Eddington and Jacob Dunford. They were joined by a retired biology professor at Brigham Young, an attorney who teaches at the university’s law school, a mother of a gay man in his twenties, a mother of a transgender daughter and a lesbian couple who had married a month earlier.
The retired biology professor, Bill Bradshaw, began by asking about who visits the house.
“My favorite people are those who just drive by and say, ‘Gosh, there’s really something about that house. What do they do there?’” said Debbie Tanne, the mother of a transgender daughter. “And they walk in and they say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking, I want to make a difference.’”
Curtis Anderson, the law teacher, said he fit that description. He said he does not have any LGBT family members, but he wanted to lend support to fellow Mormons who are concerned that loving their gay children makes them disloyal to the church. “That’s why I think Encircle is so important,” he said.
A petite young woman sitting next to him, Jordan Sgro, told the group that her mother does not accept her marriage. Her wife, Aimee Olsen, and has only met her mother a handful of times. “She’s never been inside my home that I grew up in. She’s never met my little sister,” Sgro said. “It’s excruciatingly painful to think that my own mom doesn’t want me. Me. Fully me. Whatever, whoever I am.”
Still, she said, she wants to make her mother proud. “I want to do the right things, but you come to a point where you need to do the right thing for you, and I just don’t think love is a belief. I think love just is. I don’t believe I love Aimee. I love her. I just love her, and that’s what makes me happy.”
Ostler sought to comfort them. “Some parents think they’re crossing a line in Mormonism to love their [gay] kids. They think they are selling out their religion,” he said. “One of the things we need to teach our parents and the churches is how to do this. You’re not crossing the line.”
He dismissed the idea that piety demands parents shun gay weddings. “Christ would be there,” he told Sgro and Olsen. “He’d be supporting you.”
Larsen smiled. It was the sort of message she wanted every young LGBT person to hear, words she wanted to echo off the walls of the house.
As the discussion ended, new conversations began. Upstairs in a support group for teenagers. Downstairs in the parlor. On the porch, where two dozen people gathered for an evening community service project.
The activity has taken Larsen by surprise – she never expected Encircle to become such a magnet – and she is amazed at how much has unfolded organically, without scripting by her staff. Friendships have been forged, shoulders proffered for tears, laughs shared over bite-sized pieces of candy. Through it all, Larsen has imposed but one rule inside Encircle: no judgment.
“We will never say, ‘You should stay in the church,’ or ‘You should leave this community,’” she says. “Our approach is, you need to be who you need to be to be whole. If that means you stay in the church and you live a celibate life, and that is what will bring you happiness and wholeness, then we respect and honor that. If you feel like, ‘I need to leave here, and I want to be married to another gay individual,’ then we support that and love that. We just want the youth to feel like they can be whoever they want to be, and that they need to be true to themselves, and they need to look inside of themselves and say, ‘This is where I will find happiness.’”