- Rachel Piper
- Jania Sommers of the Utah Pride Center
“Home for the holidays” is nothing more than a trite greeting-card expression for those who aren’t welcome in their family homes, like the many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns who find that being themselves means being alone for Christmas. Advocates and experts worry that LGBT Utahns who are “out” can find the holidays a time of loneliness and isolation if the homes they knew turned them out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Kristen Mitchell is the executive director of the Pride Empathy Line, a nonprofit 24-hour support line for LGBT Utahns. She says that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is taking steps in the “right direction” with recent overtures to gay members—such as the recently launched website MormonsAndGays.org—but that some aspects of the Mormon culture can still be devastating to gay members.
Mitchell, 43, recalls the strange time when she was 5, growing up in an LDS neighborhood of Phoenix, and her mother suddenly disappeared from the family. Mitchell wouldn’t learn until her teens, after her father moved the family to Utah, that her mother was a lesbian and that her coming out meant she had to get out of the family.
“She was basically told by the church to disappear and leave her family alone and that they didn’t need her influence in their lives,” Mitchell says.
Despite anecdotes about high suicide rates during the holidays, average Americans actually succumb to suicide more often in the spring and summer, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, which recently released a study based on data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Local advocates warn, however, that depression and isolation can hit LGBT individuals harder during the holiday months.
For those in the LGBT community who are struggling, the Pride Empathy Line has been offering round-the-clock support since February 2011.
And for just under a year, the Utah Pride Center has employed social worker Jania Sommers to operate its own support line for the community. Though neither are specifically suicide hotlines, both Sommers and Mitchell expect that the need for their services will increase during the holidays.
Sommers has been in social work for the past 40 years and says she was drawn to Utah to work with the LGBT community as an ally, having started at the center as a volunteer before coming on full time.
“In my experience as a social worker, which is pretty long, the holidays can be a terrific trigger for all kinds of things for folks who have been traumatized,” Sommers says.
Sommers says she takes calls every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a large host of issues, ranging from counseling and support to referrals to specific resources. She fields calls from transgender Utahns who are new to the area and looking for support groups; talks to same-sex couples looking for references for culturally accepting doctors; and provides advice and counsel to gay callers who’ve built lives with straight partners, had families and don’t know how long they can keep hiding their true sexuality and identities.
She also fields plenty of calls from straight callers, especially mothers and fathers who are trying to learn how to accept children who may be coming out as LGBT.
“I get calls from parents just trying to figure out, ‘What books should I read?’ or ‘Who should I talk to?’ ” Sommers says. “I like to think people are seeking more education so they can be more respectful. I can’t say that’s a trend—maybe I’m just hoping that’s a trend—but I am seeing more of that.”
That’s an encouraging sign, considering the physical and mental toll that being rejected by family can take on LGBT individuals. According to a study released in June by The Family Acceptance Project, a research and advocacy organization at San Francisco State University, LGBT individuals from “highly rejecting families” are at least eight times more likely to commit suicide, three times more likely to use illegal drugs, and six times more likely to report high levels of depression.
Acceptance of LGBT Utahns has become a major issue, as various groups have clamored for the LDS Church to be more welcoming of gay members, a movement buoyed recently by the church’s decision to create MormonsAndGays.org, which is designed to allow members to better understand how to talk with, understand and love gay family members.
While local groups support the church’s new overtures, they also say there’s much work to be done. The Pride Empathy Line’s Mitchell says Utah’s dominant church culture is exactly why the line was started.
“The big thing is letting them know that we are in the community, we are a part of it and understand it,” Mitchell says. Her organization currently operates with 28 volunteers to cover the line 24 hours a day and generally fields 10 to 15 calls a month.
At the Pride Center, Sommers says her organization is using the support line not only for immediate counseling but also to gather data about the diverse needs of Utah’s LGBT population to better craft programming and services for when the Pride Center moves into a new, larger space in spring 2013.
Mitchell senses that things are improving and says she feels positive about the future and is ready to fight for it. She says she saw the spectrum of LGBT acceptance, from the isolated past to a hopeful future, all crystallized in something simple as a family outing to the mall.
Mitchell, who reunited later in life with her lesbian mother, went to the mall with her mother and her partner and her daughter and her lesbian partner. While Mitchell’s mother is still fearful of holding hands or showing affection with her partner in public, Mitchell’s daughter and her girlfriend act like any other teenage couple killing time at the mall, despite receiving occasional looks from passersby.
Mitchell says she takes heart from her daughter’s freedom but chafes knowing that only she is totally accepted by other shoppers since her partner is a man.
“I can walk through the mall holding hands with him and be completely who I am,” Mitchell says. “They have to hide and do things differently—it’s just not right.”
Utah Pride Center
Jania Sommers, licensed clinical social worker
10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Friday
Utah Pride Empathy Line
24 hours a day
For information about becoming an empathy-line volunteer, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
LGBT-focused suicide/crisis hotline