Entertainment And News

We Spoke To A Utah Mom About How A New LGBTQ+ Support Home Literally Saved Her Son's Life

Photo: Encircle
How An LGBTQ+ Support Home Is Saving Lives In The Community

When Chrisann Toelupe’s son Micah came out as gay she and her husband were supportive but living in rural Utah, the love Micah received from his family wasn’t always enough. 

Micah felt isolated and alone at high school and Chrisann watched him go from an honors student to struggling to focus on any of his schoolwork.

Her fears about her son’s mental health and education pushed the family to search for support. 

That's where Encircle came in. The little blue house in Provo has been a safe haven for LGBTQ youths and their families since 2017, offering counseling and a community to children and teens who often feel alone in their struggle. 

Now, thanks to new donations from Apple, Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith and his wife, Ashley and Imagine Dragons’s lead singer Dan Reynolds and his wife, musician Aja Volkman, houses like the Provo home will be popping up across the US. 

The donations, which are valued at $4 million, include everything from money to iPads, and even Dan Reynolds’ childhood home which will become Nevada’s first Encircle Resource Center. 

Encircle helps more than 70,000 LGBTQ-identifying kids and their families each year and this new expansion will only further their mission. 

To hear more about how Encircle lifts LGBTQ families out of dark times we talked to Chrisann Toelupe. 

Clockwise from top left: Parents Packard and Chrisann Toelupe, with their children Khristian, Micah, Kainoa, and Gabe.

As the mother of two LGBT children, Encircle has played a vital role in not only keeping Chrisann’s children alive but helping them to thrive. 

“Micah went through a really dark time in high school,” she says about life before Encircle. “We ended up hospitalizing Micah for suicide ideation.”

Encircle host therapy sessions, art classes, music nights, and more, and having their help made the Toelupe’s feel supported through tough times. 

“For Micah, it was the group therapy and realizing he wasn’t alone,” Chrisann tells us, “He would go to school and be the only gay kid out of a thousand kids so being able to be around other queer youths was very helpful for Micah.”

“Encircle was life-saving for Micah,” Chrisann says and it gave him something to look forward to in a time dominated by darkness and depression

“He would go to school knowing, ‘Ok, I’ve got to go to school Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday is Encircle, Thursday is school but I can be at music night on Thursday night,’” Chrisann says, “That’s what got him through day by day.”

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When Chrisann’s daughter Khristian came out as transgender, the support the Toelupe’s had already found at Encircle once again became vital. 

“When Khristian came out as trans that blew me out of the water because I had already had to learn so much about the gay community and I knew I wanted to support her but I was starting from scratch again and I just thought, ‘How do I help her?’” 

But Chrisann quickly realized many parents at Encircle had already gone through a similar journey and were ready to offer up their wisdom.

“I already have this support system in place. I’ve got all of these people who I’ve met through Encircle that have trans kids. I have this network of people who can help me,” she says. 

But it wasn’t just about finding ways to help Micah and Kristian. Having a community of parents to lean on helped ease some of the fears Chrisann and her husband had been dealing with.

“It was a scary time as a parent,” Chrisann reveals about supporting her children through mental health crises. “Seeing other parents go through that and seeing them on the other side was very helpful.”

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Chrisann has also seen so much positive change in the wider community since Encircle came to Utah. 

“People really rallied around the whole concept Encircle is trying to build,” she says. Chrisann references Encircle’s founding motto of, “No Sides, Only Love”, and says this has been crucial to uniting the community. 

“We have a very conservative community and for some reason, there is this idea that the LGBTQ community is pinned up against religion but it can’t be that way in Utah because we’re a very religious state,” she says. 

“People see that they don’t have to pick a side. They can go to church and love and support the LGBTQ community. I feel like that motto has really spread into our community.” 

In Chrisann’s experience, these conservative views reflect a lack of awareness about the community but it doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to learn. She tells us that for many people in their area, Khristian was the first trans person they’d met, and though they may not have always understood what pronouns to use with her, they were unwilling to learn. 

“The more we shared our story it made people think differently. This is not some obscure community. These are kids,” she says, “It made them look at the community in a different way when we were coming out and saying, ‘We’re a family with queer kids and we need your support.’”

Depoliticizing and humanizing LGBTQ issues made this conservative community less intimidated by a community they had misunderstood for so long.

“I always tell my kids we can’t change people’s minds,” Chrisann says, “All we can do is share our story and change hearts, and they’ll change their own minds.” 

And change their minds is exactly what they did. Chrisann shared several anecdotes about how conservative Utah has rallied around Encircle but one that stuck out was how Micah’s school went from being a source of anxiety and fear for him to becoming an accepting safe space.

After seeing some of his high school counselors show up to offer their expertise at Encircle, Micah’s attitude towards school transformed.  

“He went from not wanting to tell anybody [that he was gay], to telling everybody, to bringing his boyfriend to the prom in rural Utah,” Chrisann says.

The Toelupe’s hope the expansion of Encircle will give other families the same solace it gave them. 

Families come from all across the country to visit Encircle’s Utah home and the support it offers is needed for LGBTQ youths and communities in every state. 

“When you don’t feel alone and you feel supported you can speak out for your family and be an advocate for your family,” Chrisann says, “It’s a rippling effect, like a stone in water, it’s a rippling effect for the whole community and that will be happening all across America.”

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.