Love for all in Utah
During a time of increased divisiveness in America, it can be difficult to see the good occurring across the nation every day. To shed light on stories of extraordinary courage, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz and senior vice president Rajiv Chandrasekaran produced Upstanders, a unique collection of short stories and films about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities.
Provo resident Stephenie Larsen is one of the eleven featured Upstanders in Season 2 of the series. Below is her story.
In Utah, the leading cause of death for youth 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.
Stephenie Larsen, a 46-year-old mother of six who grew up Mormon in Provo, once believed gay marriage would destroy the country’s moral fabric. In her years attending Brigham Young University, earning degrees in family science and law, Stephenie says she thought it was evil to be gay.
In 2014, while on a bicycle ride in Idaho, she happened to listen to a podcast featuring the stories of gay members of the LDS church and their families. She heard tales of severed relationships, excommunication, and suicide and broke down crying on the side of the road.
Someone’s got to do something to help these kids, she thought.
At war with herself over what her friends and neighbors would think, and of the possibility that she would do more harm than good for local young gay people, Stephenie told herself to be brave every day. Just be brave.
Almost two years later, she mustered the courage and opened Encircle, Provo’s first LGBT community center.
Stephenie 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.”
She also wanted Encircle to be different from LGBT community centers in larger cities that sometimes encourage 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. Despite the challenges, Stephenie says, “we are all discovering there is more that unites us than divides us.”
“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.’”
To learn more about Stephenie’s story and the rest of the Upstanders, visit starbucks.com/upstanders, or search Upstanders on Amazon Video Direct and on Audible.
Stephenie Larsen of Encircle speaks with young people in Provo, Utah.