ST. GEORGE — Having a safe place for members of the LGBTQ community, especially the youth, is essential, Julie Benson, home director of the Encircle House, said. Local businesses can learn how to offer that.
“If you look at the world news and things in general, there’s a lot of LGBTQ communities that need to know they can come into a space where they feel safe,” Benson said. “The LGBTQ community has been so marginalized and misunderstood because it’s a very diverse community. The more you can provide a space or a community that says it’s okay to be here, the more people can thrive.”
“No Sides, Only Love” is the motto of the non-profit, Encircle House, which opened a safe place in a donated home in 2020 in St. George. Its mission is to bring families and the community together to enable LGBTQ+ youth to thrive. The St. George Encircle home is named after Kim and Terry Turner, who support the LGBTQ community.
Thriving isn’t just like the survival feeling and being afraid all the time. Thriving is where one can feel self-empowered and explore opportunities just like those who don’t have to put up with the pressures that an LGBTQ person does, Benson said.
The business training is similar to programs given to schools. Participants are given a sticker they could put on their shop window or somewhere on a counter. Another resource for information is the Southwest Behavioral Health Center.
“The sticker indicates that this is a safe space. So, if you’re LGBTQ, an ally or somebody who needs a calm place to be, or a space where you don’t have to worry about being harassed. They know they can come in there and have a moment to breathe,” Benson said.
Getting the training for one’s business, school or organization helps the community.
“By having that symbol on your front door or window, it’s the way of giving someone a safe nod, that it’s okay to come in here. If you need a place to duck into for a minute too,” Benson said.
The Encircle Home is the first of its kind resource center in Southern Utah. Benson said it supports the area’s LGBTQ+ youth, young adults, and parents by providing individual and family counseling, friendship circles, programs, etc.
Monday through Friday from 3 – 8 p.m. is designed for youth ages 12 to 17 and college kids who want a safe space to drop.
“They can drop by, enjoy some friendships, some snacks, just a place to hang out, maybe have some fun, participate in a conversation or an activity,” Benson said.
Friends, family, and community supporters are also welcome to stop by. Encircle is located at 190 South 100 East. Initially, the pioneer home was known as the Pickett House and was built in 1869. Over 80 volunteers helped renovate the home before it opened.
One of the popular programs, The Friendship Circle, is open to everyone. It is guided conversation and is not therapy. It’s an activity where people can come together and talk about how their day is going.
“Maybe it’s an opportunity to sit in a circle of folks like you for the very first time and just a place to create community,” Benson said.
The website displays various Friendship Circles according to age and affinity. In addition to youth-focused circles, the group offers 18 plus circles. Benson said anyone aged 12 to 17 is considered a young adult, and anyone 18 or over is considered an adult.
“We need to provide that safe space for people in the community that might need it for those over the age of 25 for the first time or seeking out some sort of an experience of community,” Benson said.
The calendar on the website lists the activities available at Encircle.
“It’s just a moment for people to come together. Experience each other and the community. They’re just people like themselves. It’s also a neat opportunity for parents to come along too. Sometimes the kids come and they really want their parents to enjoy an experience with them,” Benson said.
Another safe place in the area is the Dixie State University LGBTQ+ Resource Center. Its mission is to create an empowering, inclusive, and safe space for the DSU community while honoring the full spectrum of gender identity/expression and sexual/romantic orientation.
The + includes all others in the gender and sexually expansive community not already represented by LGBTQ, including Intersex, Asexual, Two-spirit, Pansexual, Agender, etc. According to their website, adding the plus sign makes the acronym more encompassing and inclusive of this diverse community.
However, local advocate Elise West said there still needs to be more local businesses letting the LGBTQ community know they are welcomed.
“We’re not there yet in Southern Utah,” West said.
West hopes to educate businesses on what is a safe place, gender-neutral restrooms, appropriate language, etc.
An LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant, and the Executive Director of Pride of Southern Utah, Katie Perkins, said a business might be inclusive, but it’s not apparent, so businesses can show their place is inclusive by advertising on their website, sponsoring Pride events, hanging the Pride Flag, or displaying an LGBTQ-friendly sticker.
Another way businesses can be inclusive and affirming is by educating their employees, Perkins suggested. Find training for them on pronoun usage and how to address people, and ask how they would like to be addressed.
Perkins said the training helps if an employee happens to overhear someone say something to another customer that is inappropriate.
“Would they feel comfortable stepping in and saying, ‘Hey, that’s not appropriate. We don’t tolerate that kind of behavior here.’ How would they step in?”
Defining a safe place is often difficult because it’s different for some people within the LGBTQ+ communities. Perkins advises businesses to be respectful of how to address people. Also, companies can provide training for their employees and offer safe physical spaces.
“We have people who are lesbian or gay, but then, we have gender diverse folks who might be trans and non-binary. Their safety, comfort, and inclusion look different. It’s a broad topic,” Perkins said.
Over the years, the focus moved from sexual orientation to gender identity and learning about those folks and their needs and barriers.
Community members and businesses can bridge the gap by becoming an “ally.” According to the Human Rights Campaign website an ally is: “A person who is a member of the dominant or majority group who works to end oppression as an advocate for the oppressed population.”
Additionally, allies to racial, religious, and ethnic minorities have effectively promoted positive change in the dominant culture. Recently their influence has extended to the area of sexual orientation. The site stated that more LGBTQ ally organizations strive to make the culture of a campus or workplace more aware and accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals.
LGBTQ students face the challenges below according to the GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey:
- 57.6% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 43.3% because of their gender expression.
- 31.8% of LGBTQ students missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and a tenth (10.0%) missed four or more days in the past month.
- Over a third avoided gender-segregated spaces in school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (bathrooms: 39.4%; locker rooms: 37.9%).
- Most reported avoiding school functions and extracurricular activities (71.5% and 65.7%, respectively) because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
- 8 in 10 LGBTQ students (81.6%) reported that their school engaged in LGBT-related discriminatory policies or practices, with two-thirds (66.2%) saying that they personally experienced this anti-LGBT discrimination
“Even though it’s 2022 and we have over 10 million people in the US who are LGBTQ plus, we still face barriers,” Perkins said. “Look at the legislation that’s happening across the country, the anti-LGBTQ legislative things that are happening. And there’s still a lot of rights that we don’t have.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.