Imagine Dragons frontman talks about being a Mormon LGBTQ ally and expanding his queer-outreach festival
During the inaugural LoveLoud Festival in August 2017 on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, roughly 40 miles outside Salt Lake City, 17,000 people fell into the embrace of Dan Reynolds. Amid performances of his band’s towering anthems, like “Radioactive,” Reynolds’ message rang loud and clear: love yourself and love the young LGBTQ people who need it most, unconditionally. Hugs for LGBTQ youth from Reynolds, recipient of The Trevor Project’s 2017 Hero Award, don’t get much bigger than they did that day. Except they will, soon.
Reynolds, 30, takes his ally platform seriously, so this year’s second annual LoveLoud Festival, on July 28, will be held at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Capacity: 46,000.
Comedian, actor and writer Cameron Esposito, an out lesbian, will perform and emcee, with performances from Imagine Dragons, Zedd, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, Grace VanderWaal, Neon Trees’ Tyler Glenn, A.W., and Vagabon.
Proceeds benefit local and national LGBTQ charities, including Encircle, Trevor Project, Tegan and Sara Foundation, and more. Reynold’s foundation serving the LGBTQ community, also named LoveLoud, was launched in 2017 to “bring communities and families together to help ignite the vital conversation about what it means to love our LGBTQ youth unconditionally.”
In mid-April, Reynolds called from Zurich while touring to reflect on reconciling his LGBTQ support with Mormonism and reconnecting with young gay friends he couldn’t wholeheartedly support because of his past religious beliefs. He also talked about his documentary Believer, which chronicles his journey from deep Mormon faith to passionate LGBTQ activist, and the undercurrent of queerness running through Imagine Dragons’ latest album, Evolve.
LoveLoud started with a phone call between you and Tyler Glenn, right?
Yeah. We knew each other from a distance before, because we both served the same Mormon mission, in Omaha, Nebraska. When we got home, even before I started Imagine Dragons, I went to a Neon Trees show; they were playing little clubs in Utah. We both came up at the same time, and there’s not a whole lot of Mormons in the music industry, so you just kind of know each other through that. But eventually, I called him, and when he put out his solo record (in 2016), Excommunication, I connected with him in a lot of ways.
How open to the queer community were you when you first met him?
We were trying desperately to be textbook Mormons, but I think both of us were finding we didn’t fit into that box for different reasons. BYU kicked me out, and that shook me up and threw me down a road of feeling needless shame and guilt. For Tyler, it was a whole other level of having to live a compartmentalized life and trying to find happiness within the guidelines of false teaching. It was just debilitating for him. There was always such a heaviness around him.
I remember when we played a show, he was on stage wearing a sequined shirt and a kind of glamorous outfit, and somebody in the crowd heckled him. It was before he came out, and I remember him saying something from the stage to the extent of, “You don’t know me, and I’m struggling with things right now and fuck you,” and he flipped off the crowd.
Watching him, what was going through your mind?
I felt what I’ve always felt since probably seventh grade when one of my best friends was gay and Mormon, and I watched him never want to talk about it because it was so heavy. There were no answers to be had at that young of an age and raised in a strict religious family. It’s hard to find any resolution other than leave your home or get kicked out of the house, so I had seen that from a young age in middle school and felt super conflicted as a religious person thinking, I’m supposed to believe all these things, but with it comes this teaching that doesn’t sit right in my heart. Even as a 13-year-old, I saw my friends confliction with their sexuality and religion and I was thinking, “OK, something’s wrong here.”
At the time, were you the support system for them you wanted to be?
We didn’t talk about it. They were my friends, so I didn’t stop being their friend, but I think we didn’t talk about it because neither of us had an answer. It was this massive thing that was lingering over their heads, and I didn’t have any answers as a kid who was going to church every Sunday and told what to say.
I look back: I’m a strong believer in the whole “you should live life with no regrets.” But you know, I can’t tell you, honestly, that I don’t have regrets in this specific way. I wish as a 14-year-old boy I could’ve had the words to say, “Hey, this is not great, and if there is a God, and it’s this loving God that we’re taught about, how could we rationally believe that that God would make you have this sense of love that you don’t get to act on?” It’s supposedly the most beautiful part of existence and human nature — to love. How could any of that make sense? I wish that I had the mental and spiritual capabilities to see that as a kid, but I didn’t.
I was dealing with my guilt complex and feeling bad about being a 14-year-old boy dealing with my sexuality. Even as a heterosexual teenage kid in the Mormon church, you’re immediately feeling guilt and shame about masturbation and sex before marriage. Certainly, on my mission, I would’ve hoped to be a 19-year-old who had, again, the mental capabilities or life experience to get out of false teaching, but I didn’t. For two years you’re given a white handbook that tells you the answers to everything, so when someone asks you a question, you’re supposed to be this 19-year-old who has the answer.
So yeah, I do regret that for those two years I turned to a white handbook rather than my heart and my mind, which already knew the answers.
My little girl, she’s raised to believe what she believes in her heart, and so as a little kid raised that way, it’s such an easy concept for her. She’s 5 years old and I can say, “What does it mean to be gay?” and “How does that feel?” and to her, I didn’t have to teach her that concept. It’s like, of course, people should love who they want, and you should never bully, and she understands all those concepts. But when you have religion on top of that, it gets muddled.
After becoming this mega-ally rock star, have you been in touch with your gay childhood friends?
Yes, that’s been one of the most fulfilling, beautiful parts of this process; connecting with them and them knowing they have a friend that fully accepts them and loves them. But yes, we’ve connected, with two in particular, and we’ve talked about how they both left the church because there’s no real safe space for LGBTQ youth within the Mormon church right now. There’s not. There’s no healthy option for any LGBTQ youth (in the church), and that’s the sad thing. I wish I could give options to all Orthodox religious LGBTQ kids.
And you are, with LoveLoud. Describe the feeling of being at last year’s premiere LoveLoud Festival?
I would say, to date, LoveLoud last year was genuinely my favorite day of my life thus far. But so many people looked in on this and said, “Dan, you should be preaching with your platform: ‘Hey, LGBTQ kids raised in Orthodox faith, leave. Get out of the religion.’” And that is truly an uninformed, uneducated, and unsafe thing to be saying to those kids because a lot of them don’t have a choice.
Basically, they’re saying, “Get kicked out of your house, potentially, and put yourself in a more at-risk situation.” So the only thing that you can do is say, “I love you. I support you 100 percent. And look at all these people who are also religious who also accept and love you.” Let us do everything we can do to make a safe space for you, and that’s what LoveLoud is about.
It was rad to see a lot of people who came from ultra-conservative backgrounds of faith, mainly Mormonism, come out because it was in the heartland of Utah. Some of them came to the festival already with minds made up of what it meant to love and accept LGBTQ youth, but I think a lot of them didn’t, which is rad. There were a lot of people who were on the fence. Uncles and aunts and parents who didn’t know how to deal with the situation of having their child be gay, or their niece or nephew. I know their eyes were opened because I received tons of emails and messages from people saying things like, “My uncle who had never accepted me at all came to this and walked away and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I understand, and I love you, and I accept you.’”
How does it feel to hear a story like that?
It makes it all worth it because it’s a difficult line to walk. You’re never progressive enough for the progressives, and you’re never conservative enough for the conservatives. I’ve had people tell me, “You’ve made so many more kids gay, and this is your judgment day to deal with that.” I read those things, and of course, it’s sad. But also I know my path. I know my mission, and I know what I’m doing, so it’s OK, because I know there’s misunderstanding. But yeah, those letters mean a lot and they fire me up to say, “OK, let’s go next year to a stadium and let’s make it bigger.”
What are you most looking forward to about this year’s festival?
That it’s much, much bigger is exciting. It’ll be at least double the size. We did 20,000 last year, and this year we’re doing a stadium, so it’s like 40,000. The artists are bigger. And watching how it spread organically within the religious community because it sparked dialogue within the Mormon church. Mormon after Mormon hit me up with “I was at church, and someone gave a talk about LoveLoud, and there was this big argument about whether it’s OK to have your child go to it or not,” and I’m like, “Awesome.”
That dialogue is more important even in that one day because the dialogue that’s taking place at home about LoveLoud is what needs to happen rather than the years-long stagnancy within the Mormon church of “let’s keep moving forward and the kids keep taking their lives and the suicide rates keep going up in Utah.” LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to take their lives when they’re not accepted in their homes or community, and that statistic alone is devastating.
Do you write songs with the queer community in mind?
Definitely on Evolve. Justin Tranter (gay producer-songwriter) produced at least three of the song, and he’s one of the biggest activists in the LGBTQ community. Having him around me and the spirit that comes with Justin was certainly inspiring to me, and so there’s no doubt that as we were writing songs, there was a need to make sure that the lyrics were going to reach the underdog and LGBTQ youth. That they would know, “Hey, this is for me.”
I think Evolve has it speckled throughout it, whether it’s the album artwork — the rainbow on the front — or the lyrics. A lot of things are so subconscious in the writing process. But we were talking about politics a lot at the time and how Justin felt like his future was unsettled, and it was going to be less safe for him. So, we had a lot of deep, beautiful conversations that I’m sure impacted Evolve in ways that I couldn’t even know.
There’s an iconic photo of you with a rainbow flag at the Lollapalooza Brazil Festival. Tell me about that moment.
Brazil is an interesting place because it has a lot of people who want change. I believe their pride parade is more populated than anywhere in the world, but it’s still an unsafe place for LGBTQ youth. So, I committed this tour to do everything I can to bring as much color and pride to the stage that a straight man possibly can.
Based on some headlines after that gig, the gay community also didn’t seem to mind the shirtlessness.
(Laughs) Hey, I love it. For me, this whole process has also been my process of coming into my own self and embracing sexuality, period. And celebrating life, and celebrating love. So, it’s been a couple of years of real change for me. All I’ve been trying to do through the process is be true to myself and follow my heart. But that was a really beautiful moment. I’ll always remember that show. It was one of my favorite shows we’ve ever played.
What do your parents, who declined to be in your documentary, Believer, think of the film?
I sent the movie to all my family because I wanted to take that step and not have it be an awkward thing. My mom and dad came to the premiere.
It was huge. I know that for the most part, we all see a little different on this, but with that said, they’ve all been loving and supportive of what I’m doing. But, yeah, there have been rough moments, definitely, during the beginning of it.
It’s tricky because I love my family and I want to respect their privacy, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t say … it’s been a little bit of a rub, yeah. Like I said, my mom and dad came to the premiere, and that meant a lot.
And my uncle, who’s my dad’s brother, he’s gay and Mormon and moved out of the United States years ago because he felt like there was no place for him. He had to get that far away to feel like he could be himself. I haven’t seen him since I was 8 years old, and that was the only uncle I didn’t get to know — my gay uncle — because he felt so unwelcome and couldn’t live his true life without moving a country away. My dad recently visited him, and that was a beautiful thing.
I don’t know. It’s baby steps for me. I know that everybody has their way of coming around to certain things, and it takes time, but the questions remain, how long will it take? And how many lives lost or saved along the way?
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).