LGBT Center Opens in Provo, Across from Mormon Temple
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The conservative Mormon town of Provo, Utah will soon open its first LGBT resource center. It stands directly across the street from a church temple. It's been a fraught year for relations between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and LGBT people. Organizers hope this new center will bring Provo together to help youth in need. Here's Andrea Smardon.
ANDREA SMARDON, BYLINE: Volunteers are planting trees outside an old home in the middle of downtown Provo. It's in need of work, but it's got character. Inside, there's a beautiful dark wood staircase and stained glass windows. Volunteer Trevor Johnson has been scraping old paint from the interior walls. He was struck by the view from the second floor when he first saw the place.
TREVOR JOHNSON: Right through that front window you can see the temple. And I said, that can be a hard thing.
SMARDON: Johnson, who was raised Mormon, is now an out gay man, but he says he was in deep denial as a child. For a long time, he was terrified to admit even to himself that he was attracted to other men. Johnson says for Mormons, to act on that is a sin next to murder.
JOHNSON: For LGBT youth who grow up in the Mormon Church, there can easily be a feeling of resentment or anger towards the church for not making them feel welcome, safe or accepted.
SMARDON: Johnson says he didn't acknowledge his sexuality until college at Brigham Young University, where he says it was hard to find resources. Johnson believes there are a lot of LGBT Mormons suffering in silence.
JOHNSON: Like my own story, I think anybody who is gay and is struggling to come out - loneliness is, I think, the biggest and most destructive piece.
SMARDON: Nationwide, LGBT youth are at greater risk for depression, homelessness and suicide. In Utah, the youth suicide rate is one of the highest in the country.
STEPHENIE LARSEN: There's a need. You know, there's nowhere currently that these kids can go that offer a no-judgment zone where they can feel the love and support of the community. And so that's what we're trying to provide.
SMARDON: That's Stephenie Larsen, the executive director for Provo's LGBT center. She says it's intended to help young people and their families deal with issues related to sexuality in a safe, homelike atmosphere. It's also located in a place where it can't be ignored.
LARSEN: I feel like Provo's ready for this. We need to move forward. We need to start having these conversations. If we don't, it doesn't change.
SMARDON: The center is attracting volunteers across the Provo community like Stephanie Higginbotham looking for a way to help.
STEPHANIE HIGGINBOTHAM: I think the Orlando shootings really...
SMARDON: She pauses as she remembers the nightclub shootings in Florida, where dozens of LGBT people were targeted and killed.
HIGGINBOTHAM: It just really hit me after that. And so then it was just even more, like, what can I do in my community?
SMARDON: Higginbotham is a faithful member of the LDS Church, but she was dismayed when a year ago the church updated its policies to exclude children living with same-sex couples from baptism and declare members in these marriages apostates. Higginbotham says that may get the headlines, but for her, it's not what the religion is about.
HIGGINBOTHAM: The temple, in my view, is a symbol of God's love. And so I think what - it's perfect. It's right there, you know?
SMARDON: Higginbotham sees this center as an opportunity for Mormons to show the loving side of their religion.
HIGGINBOTHAM: I would hope that wards and church groups, you know, come here, serve, help, get to know somebody because that's where I think change happens.
SMARDON: And she says that's how little by little, wounds can be healed.
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Provo.
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