December can be a difficult month for LGBTQ people with nowhere to celebrate the holidays. This is especially true in Utah, where queer youth may be ostracized from their families and communities after coming out.
But one event in Provo made Christmas a little brighter this year: SafeXmas provided shelter, food, and a welcoming community to young adults in the capital of Mormon country. Held at Provo’s Marriott Courtyard, organizers with SafeXmas estimate that 35 clientssome LGBTQ, some notwere served this year.
An additional 75 people were mailed care packages for the holidays.
The yearly event is a project of Jerilyn Hassell Pool, a mother of five who relocated to Provo from Medford, Oreg. last year. Pool tells INTO she was inspired to create a space for LGBTQ youth in Utah following a 2015 policy from the Church of Latter-day Saints which branded the children of same-sex couples as “apostates.” They would only be eligible for baptism after renouncing their parents’ relationship upon turning 18.
In the three months after that policy was enacted, the support group Mama Dragons estimates that at least than 30 LGBTQ youth took their own lives.
“Many people felt cast out of their own families, unwelcome at family events and holidays,” Pool says in an email. “I realized that I could simply host a family-style Christmas and invite every LGBTQ Mormon who wanted to join me.”
After the policy was first announced three years ago, Pool claims that she initially considered leaving the LDS faith. “Well, that’s it,” she thought to herself. “I’m done with the church forever.” But Pool soon realized that renouncing her religion wasn’t “going to help anyone who didn’t have the choice to leave,” as she explains.
The first SafeXmas was held just weeks later. The 46-year-old secured a location in Provo, bought food and gifts, and drove from her Oregon home to host the event, which is supervised by Pool and her husband. There are currently no other volunteers.
She claims that providing this space was critical for the youth she serves.
“Many of the people we help are not out anywhere but in our home,” Pool says. “In larger cities, such as Salt Lake, there are many spaces for queer youth and young adults to find community. In a city like Provo, where the Mormon church and BYU tend to take up the oxygen, spaces need to be carved out and created for those who don’t ascribe to gender and sexual norms.”
She believes that LGBTQ youth deserve to have somewhere to “feel free to be who they are without fear of rejection.”
In putting on SafeXmas, Pool has found a surprising groundswell of support from the local community. She says the local Marriott was “enthusiastic” about getting involved in the project. In addition to donating space for young people to gather and form community, the hotel gave them a “huge” discount on the regular room rate.
The funds to pay for rooms were raised through donations from allies and her own pocket money, Pool claims.
“I am lucky enough to have a large network of people through social media who I can call on when I need help,” she tells INTO. “We have yet to have a need that I have not been able to meet through this network.”
But SafeXmas, which was held between Dec. 23 and 26, is just the start for Pool.
Since the November 2015 policy, her family has frequently opened its home to LGBTQ young people in the area who lack an affirming environment or a safe place to lay their head. Pool calls this initiative “QueerMeals,” and she plans to register it as a nonprofit as soon as next year. SafeXmas will become a project housed under the wider umbrella of that organization.
In addition to providing space for the community, QueerMeals offers everything from groceries and toiletries to free rides for people in need.
“A few times a year I also buy pizzas for anyone who feels the need to eat their feelings,” Pool says, pointing to the Trump administration’s frequent attacks on the LGBTQ community. “On the anniversary of the exclusion policy in November of 2017, I purchased almost 200 pizzas throughout the U.S. and Canada.”
“Dominos needs to give me a bulk discount,” she adds.
For those interested in getting involved in future SafeXmas events or donating to other projects through QueerMeals, visit this website for more information.
Image via Flickr