Lehi • On Saturday, maybe the safest place in Utah for members of the LGBTQ+ community was in Utah County. In Lehi. At the headquarters of Adobe, to be exact, which hosted Encircle’s second IGNITE LGBTQ+ Youth Summit.
A year ago, about 250 people attended the event at Utah Valley University. On Saturday, that number more than tripled.
“I find emotional reprieve from the places where I do feel judged, I feel like I don’t fit in,” said Alyssa Lewis, 22, of Provo. “I feel safe. I see that I’m not alone. There are people who are going to accept me for who I am, regardless of what that is. And then, when I leave, I know these people are out there.
“It gives me that extra little bit I need to keep going.”
She was far from alone Saturday, when more than 800 attendees gathered at Adobe, along with dozens of volunteers.
“If you’d told me five years ago, when I was closeted and felt alone and afraid and terrified of who I was, that I’d be standing here in front of this room of queer people — with allies and friends and families — I wouldn’t have believed you,” Jordan Sgro, Encircle’s chief program officer, told the crowd. “But here we are.”
Encircle is an LGBTQ+ support center that hit the headlines when it was denied a spot in Provo’s Freedom Festival Parade in 2017 — and again in 2018, when, after widespread criticism, parade officials reversed that decision.
It opened a facility in Provo in 2017; it plans to open a second in Salt Lake City on Feb. 14, so that young members of the LGBTQ+ community will feel “like you have a place to belong,” as Sgro put it.
IGNITE attendees were feeling the love Saturday.
“Coming to something like this, you see you’re not the only one,” said Sophie Nicholson, 17, of Ogden. “There are other people like me. Great!”
Part concert, part pep rally, part self-help seminar, IGNITE featured appearances by social media stars Kalen Allen, Rob and Devin (Dadsnotdaddies), Jeffrey Marsh and Alexis G. Zall; Carmen Carrera (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”); the band Foreign Figures; and singers Mindy Gledhill, Tegan Quinn and VINCINT.
There was even a little comedy, like when state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, got a laugh by telling attendees, “We are waiting for President Trump’s arrival.”
But what attendees got the most was a feeling of community. A feeling that, for the duration of the conference, at least, they were safe.
“This is a place where we can feel comfortable,” said Nicholson. “Nobody’s going to be, like, ‘You’re gay. That’s not OK with me.’ Nobody’s telling me I’m wrong.
“It’s more of an emotional connection that I can have with everybody here, without saying a word.”
“It’s a reminder," Lewis said, “that we can find safe spaces, even in Utah, where it’s not as queer-friendly as it could be.”
It’s not something everyone expects in Utah, let alone in Utah County, where charities that support gay kids have been denied spots in parades.
“Coming here to Utah for school, I definitely didn’t think this was a thing,” said Sarah Patterson, 24, who moved to Provo from Las Vegas to attend Brigham Young University. “It’s great to find a safe space like this. And it’s been encouraging to me to figure out more who I am.”
The attendees include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer and those who aren’t quite sure. “I’m just questioning,” said Nick Lott, 25, of Lehi. “I’m not sure what I am — bi, gay. I don’t know. I’m here to learn.”
IGNITE breakout sessions ranged from music and art projects to makeup for those who are transitioning, from discussions about LGBTQ+ issues to learning tools to cope and thrive as a member of the community.
Parents and allies had their own sessions on suicide prevention and “What your LGBTQ+ youth want you to know.”
There were sessions for youths (ages 12-17) and young adults (18-26), but there were older people in attendance as well — including one 60-year-old who’s married to a woman, has children, is active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and came out as gay to his family and church leaders 10 months ago.
“That’s a difficult journey,” said Bryan, who asked to keep his last name private. “I don’t recommend it.”
But he definitely recommends IGNITE and Encircle.
“It’s different from anywhere else,” Bryan said. “I can hardly find the vocabulary. It’s just so wonderful to recognize and accept yourself — that you’re not broken or defective. And, for those of us who still hold religious beliefs, that God made us this way and we can embrace it and accept it, rather than shame or hate yourself.
“It’s a life-changing experience for many of us.”