Author’s Note: For some context into the socio-political climate of Utah, the most predominant cultural force in the state of Utah is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — better known as the Mormons. Like most conservative Christian religions these days, the LDS Church has struggled with the rise of the LGBTQ+ community on the national stage. Mormons, in particular, have not had a good track record of being LGBTQ+ friendly.
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Ignite: LGBTQ+ Youth Summit put on by Encircle, an LGBTQ+ family and youth resource center. Readers will remember that we covered the Love Loud music festival this last summer, which took place in Salt Lake City. After the Ignite Summit, I suspect that an unexpectedly powerful LGBTQ+ movement is growing in the heart of Conservative Utah, USA.
Tegan Quin, of the band Tegan and Sara, said as much during her address at the Summit. “There’s just something about Utah,” she said with a bit of surprise in her voice. Sponsoring the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which fights for Economic Justice, Health, and Representation of LGBTQ+ Girls and Women, Tegan is intimately familiar with LGBTQ+ issues in America. And to pay Utah, of all places, a compliment like that is striking.
The Ignite LGBTQ+ Youth Summit is another member of a family of LGBTQ+ events that take place in Utah. As previously stated, Love Loud, created by Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons was born here. And the Utah Pride Center hosts a handful of events year-round. Indeed, something curiously special is happening in Utah.
If you can see through the overly dominant over-culture of conservative Christians, you’ll find that there is an under-culture in Utah that is powerfully LGBTQ+ friendly. I say powerfully specifically because if you are an LGBTQ+ youth or adult, and you reach-out to organizations like Love Louder, Encircle, or Mama Dragons, you will have a motivated and empowering network of allies, events, and friends to support you.
Elsewhere I have written about Utah’s record high suicide rates among teenagers and young adults. While these numbers haven’t changed, it’s almost like there is an equal and opposite cultural force building in Utah in response to the ambiguous-to-negative LGBTQ+ religious and political ideology pervading the state. Isaac Newton would be proud.
I might write more about why I think Utah plays host to this wildly disparate LGBTQ+ landscape. But enough about Utah. Let’s get to the Ignite Summit.
To be completely honest, I was a little intimidated when Encircle invited us to this event. For the last year, I’ve been writing about LGBTQ+ events and issues in Utah for different publications, Inqua included. I’ve grown to be a passionate advocate and ally trying to do what I can with my limited voice. But I was intimidated at the prospect of covering the Ignite Summit nonetheless.
Here’s why: there is a lot of sorrow, suffering, and pain felt by the LGBTQ+ community in this state. As a straight white man who also happens to be a Mormon, I am deeply aware that much of the hurt felt by the LGBTQ+ community has been inflicted by people who look like me, sound like me, and believe like me. Hell, I served a Mission for the LDS Church before I was an ally, and I know I am personally responsible for some of that pain. So I knew that if I was going to write about Ignite, I had to do it right.
So I ditched out on the Parent/Ally sessions of the summit and dove into the workshops put on directly for LGBTQ+ young adults. If I was going to attend, I had to experience the Summit from outside my comfort zone. SPOILER ALERT: I was worried for nothing. My presence was welcomed. There isn’t a more accepting and loving group of people alive on this good Earth.
The workshops I could choose from were all geared toward approaching this big rainbow elephant in the room. There were writing groups, art shows, musical jam sessions with LGBTQ+ celebrity artists, and multiple sessions specifically about talking to friends or family with compassion, tact, and power. Where did I go? The writing group, duh.
Ignite is put on by Encircle, a resource center for LGBTQ+ youth and parents in Provo, Utah. Encircle started out as just a safe place for struggling LGBTQ+ youth to experience a level of acceptance and openness many youths aren’t able to feel in their own homes. Encircle is more than just a name, it is a mission. From their website, “to encircle someone is to provide a shelter, a protection, a sense of belonging and ultimately a safe place to learn and grow. With no sides, encircle means to love equally and unconditionally…”
Presently, Encircle has become one of the leading LGBTQ+ forces in all of Utah. They sponsor and attend many of the events and groups I’ve already mentioned. So it’s hard to visit any LGBTQ+ event and not become familiar with Encircle and the marvelous work they do.
Typically, Encircle operates from the Encircle House in Provo and the upcoming Salt Lake House. Each day of the week, Encircle hosts different programs to strengthen and sustain the LGBTQ+ youths in the area. They have many service projects going on, a lecture series, discussion groups, parties, and much more.
But because they operate out of Provo, their immediate reach, besides sponsorships, is pretty limited (Utah is a big place). The Ignite Summit is a way for Encircle to expand the size of their circle for an entire day — bringing the Encircle way to an events center and inviting any and every LGBTQ+ youth, young adult, and parent/ally to attend.
Once the tires hit the pavement on my day at the Ignite Summit, I was emotionally invested. The writing group I attended was a vulnerable miniature group-therapy session. After a brief centering exercise, the facilitator explained the rules of participation: show up (no half-assing it), no negative or even positive reactions to anything that is shared, vocal gratitude for everyone that shares. Oh and write for 10-minutes solid, then share. Deal.
The writing group may have been the best way to begin my day. I thought I was prepared to participate. I love writing and I love talking to people about their stuff. But I was not prepared for the amount of anguish collectively felt in that room. Yes, I know intellectually all about Utah’s LGBTQ+ youth suicide problem and I know all about Mormon and LGBTQ+ issues, but that was all in my head in an academic sense. I wasn’t prepared for just how real and present it became in those moments.
I was crying within minutes as the small group of participants shared their writings; about parents who can’t understand how to love their children anymore, about the struggle of self-understanding and acceptance, about the pain of remaining faithful to a community who is no longer faithful to them.
And then to witness the tremendous outpouring of compassion and mutual understanding in the room was a second wave of emotional power I wasn’t ready for. The silent knowing glances and smiles exchanged more heartfelt solidarity than I ever could’ve mustered by my presence.
Everyone in that room, except for me, live this experience every day of their lives. The pain and struggle of finding oneself in a culture/family/friends that aren’t sure what to do with you rip the heart asunder. Then, hopefully, it can be knitted back together by the compassion of others. Hopefully. It was at that moment I thought to myself, “Madison, this day isn’t about you. Just be present, watch openly, and be grateful.”
What I saw were Wounded Healers.
It’s been said that the most effective healer is the wounded healer. Carl Jung described this archetype as an analyst who is compelled to heal because they have been wounded. The wounded healer understands the pain and suffering in a way just any ‘ol healer doesn’t. Having been personally acquainted with the wound, the wounded healer is able to extend a type of compassionate love that heals on first contact. All day, this is what I witnessed.
Every workshop was facilitated by a member of the LGBTQ+ community who knew sorrow. Every group was attended by those intimately familiar with just what it means to be Queer in a world slowly, falteringly, learning to love them. Because of the shared understanding of their mutual suffering, the LGBTQ+ community understands Love on a communal level better than most religious communities do.
On and on came stories of awkward Thanksgivings, bullying, family exclusion, spiritual abuse, and impossible conversations where it feels like everything is on the line. Then mix all that with the already awkward business of being a teenager or young adult trying to figure out who they are in this weird world. Broken hearts everywhere. In response, every time, came the outpouring of compassion from facilitators, attending family members, allies, and friends.
You know how a sunset or work of art can be just so beautifully perfect that it almost hurts to keep looking? Like somehow you aren’t worthy of witnessing something so powerful and moving? That was me all day. After one workshop where an ally-sibling was able to role-play as their Queer sibling in one of those impossible conversations with parents, I saw a long tearful embrace that was sacred in every way. Beautiful.
My heart broke multiple times that day and each time it was put back together by observing a community of wounded healers support and love each other. That love was palpable. Tangible. Real. Maybe all those movies, songs, and poems about Love are onto something.
As the day drew to a close, a modest dinner was provided. Parents and Allies rejoined their LGBTQ+ children and friends to commune together one last time before the day was up. A holiday concert was Ignite’s final act, a celebration of the season, as well as the mutual affirmation, felt for each other.
The artists of the evening sang a number of holiday tunes, as well as some of their own. Foreign Figures‘ lead singer, Eric Michels, who recently came out as gay, sang his heart out in a solo number. Tegan Quin spoke again, followed by author Jeffery Marsh, trans-activist Carmen Carrera, actress Alexis G Zall, and YouTube personality and Ellen sensation, Kalen Allen. Finally, we were treated to more musical offerings including a powerful performance by VINCINT, an intimate performance by Wrabel, and the final number by Mindy Gledhill.
As the concert went on, I was sure to keep my eyes on the audience. Parents had their arms around their kids. Any other day of the week, these families struggle as they balance faith, love, and community. But here, none of that mattered. They were family once again and forevermore. Friends and allies sang together. And everyone that had the eyes to see the pure communal magic going on would occasionally wipe away a tear. This is what it’s all about. This is what family means.
Encircle is in the business of saving lives. It isn’t a mystery that LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk of suicide than any other demographic. What was demonstrated to me is that, no matter your religious or political inclinations, the lives of these LGBTQ+ youths are beyond precious. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you think about LGBTQ+ issues in America, people are worth loving because they are here right now present to us. I have no doubt that many lives were saved by Encircle’s Ignite Summit. I will be forever grateful that I was lucky enough to simply be there. I left Ignite with a renewed (one might even say ignited) passion to be the best ally I can. Because I’ll never know who is carrying a sorrow I can’t fathom. And I’ll never know whose heart could be healed by the extension of an open heart and encircled arms.