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LGBTQ center to open in Utah town embroiled in rainbow flag controversy

Residents of Heber City, Utah, may not be able to fly Pride flags along Main Street anymore, but they'll be getting a brand new LGBTQ resource center.
Heber City, Utah.
Herber City, Utah.Allison Phillips Belnap

Residents of Heber City, Utah, may not see rainbow banners waving along their Main Street during Pride Month, as they have in years past, but they'll soon get an LGBTQ center to call their own.

Inspired by headlines about a controversial ordinance that may prevent advocates from installing Pride banners on city lampposts during Pride Month in June, the LGBTQ nonprofit Encircle announced that it will erect an LGBTQ resource center in Heber City. Encircle Heber, which will be just blocks from the public high school, will take the shape of a newly constructed house with a large gathering area, therapy rooms, a music room and an art room.

"The house, of course, is a safe space; it makes it feel like home, look like home, so that these individuals have a place to come every day and feel loved and accepted, maybe when they don't feel at home in a school or church or even their own homes," Encircle Executive Director Stephanie Larsen said.

Image: Encircle, Salt Lake City
An exterior view of an Encircle home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Encircle

Since 2019, the sight of rainbow flags on Heber City lampposts during June has ignited debate in the small, predominantly Mormon town, with some conservative residents viewing the banners as city-sanctioned "political" speech. In response to the backlash, the City Council passed an ordinance in August to restrict "political" banners and require that all banners on city lampposts get sponsorship from the city, Wasatch County or the Heber Valley Chamber of Commerce. Because of the debate within the community over whether Pride banners are "political," it's unclear whether city officials will approve them this year.

"We call flags 'political,' yet behind every flag there is an individual who, I believe, those flags are sending a message of acceptance and love for those who are in the community who are LGBTQ," said Larsen, whose organization has built LGBTQ community centers in three other cities in Utah.

While proponents argue that the ordinance is necessary to prevent potential hate groups from displaying their own banners, LGBTQ advocates claim that the ordinance is a thinly veiled attempt to ban rainbow flags from being publicly displayed in the city. Similar controversy over Pride banners flared in other cities last year, including Reading, Pennsylvania; Woonsocket, Rhode Island; Foster City, California; and Minot, North Dakota.

Heber City is far from the only community in Utah where Pride flags have stirred contention. For the last two years, the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Project Rainbow has rented out rainbow flags for $14 to people across Utah so they could stake them in their yards during the city's Pride festivities. While the group staked about 1,400 rented flags in 2019 and more than doubled that number in 2020, many flags were stolen or vandalized, said the group's founder, Lucas Horns. Horns estimated that 10 percent of the group's flags staked across the state last year were stolen or vandalized, and he said the organization even got backlash on social media from people accusing it of "forcing their beliefs" on communities.

Herber City, Utah.
Herber City, Utah.Jeff Mclean

Heber City resident Allison Phillips Belnap, 47, is a lesbian, a suicide survivor and a former Mormon. She raised money in 2019 and 2020 to install the rainbow banners on the city's lampposts hoping to show support for LGBTQ youths and to help curb the suicide rate of young people in Utah, where the youth suicide rate has tripled since 2017. She said it's "so exciting" that Encircle, which provides suicide prevention services for queer youths, will open a center in Heber City.

"I think it's going to create a space that hasn't existed," she said. "That's going to prove very important as we support [LGBTQ] youth and try to diminish the negative mental health effects that have been happening in that population and the troublesome trends towards increased suicidality in that population."

Over 42 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students nationwide seriously considered attempting suicide in 2015, compared to nearly 18 percent of straight students, according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than $350,000 has been raised to build the resource center, which is expected to open in the fall. In addition to therapy and suicide prevention services, the center will host "friendship circles" for LGBTQ youths and will also offer support to parents who need help understanding and accepting their LGBTQ kids, Larsen said.

Mayor Kelleen Potter, the mother of two LGBTQ teens, said she is "elated" that an Encircle center is opening in the city, where she said 12 percent of high school students have self-reported being LGBTQ.

"I just think about myself, you know, 10 years ago, and the years I went through struggling with no one to talk to and how that will never have to happen to anyone again," Potter said. "I just think it's just so incredible. I could not be happier."

In addition to being a safe space for LGBTQ youths and their families, Encircle will strive to educate the wider community about their LGBTQ neighbors.

"Encircle's approach is to bring the family and the community together and help LGBTQ individuals thrive," she said. "We really hope that by going to Heber we can help bring the community together through meaningful conversations and through people getting to know each other. I think that's when the change happens."

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