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Dan Reynolds Is On a Mission: Imagine Dragons Frontman Talks Being a Mormon LGBTQ Activist, Queer-Minded Music & Expanding LoveLoud

Chris Azzopardi
By | 2018-06-11T13:23:27+00:00 May 18th, 2018|Entertainment, Features|

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 queer people who need it most, unconditionally. Hugs for LGBTQ youth from the Imagine Dragons frontman, 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, and Vagabon and A.Q. Proceeds will 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 unconditionally love our LGBTQ youth.”

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 doc “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 and 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 both trying desperately to be textbook Mormons, but I think both of us were finding we weren’t fitting into that box for different reasons. I got kicked out of BYU, and that really shook me up and threw me down a road of feeling needless shame and guilt. For Tyler, it was a whole other level for him of having to live a compartmentalized life and trying to find happiness within the guidelines of an incorrect 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 very kind of glamorous outfit, and somebody in the crowd heckled him. This 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 flicked 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 when you’re raised in a really 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 at all. Even as a 13-year-old, I saw my friends be conflicted 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 just didn’t really talk about it. They were my friends, so I didn’t stop being their friend, but I think we just didn’t talk about it because neither of us had an answer. It was this heavy thing that was lingering over their heads, and I didn’t have any answers as a 14-year-old kid who was going to church every Sunday and being 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 upon?” Which is 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 just dealing with my own guilt complex and feeling bad about being a 14-year-old boy dealing with my own sexuality. Even as a heterosexual and a 14-year-old 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 kid who had, again, the mental capabilities or life experience to get out of an incorrect teaching, but I didn’t. For two years you’re given a white handbook that tells you the answer to everything, so when someone asks you a question, you’re supposed to be this 19-year-old kid who has the answer.

So yeah, I really 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, ever since I was a little kid.

My little girl, she’s raised to believe what she believes in her heart, and so as a little kid who’s raised that way, this is 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 even 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 that a child would naturally know. 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 these gay childhood friends?

Yes, that’s been really one of the most fulfilling, beautiful parts of this process, just connecting with them and them knowing that they have a friend that fully accepts them and loves them and has known them for years through this whole process. Because you have to be Mormon on some level to understand how heavy Mormonism is.

But yes, we’ve connected, with two in particular, and we’ve talked about how they’ve both left the church because there’s really no safe space for LGBTQ youth within the Mormon church right now. There’s just not. There’s no healthy option for any LGBTQ youth (in the church), and that’s the sad thing. I wish I could be giving some options to any Orthodox religious LGBTQ kids.

And you are, with LoveLoud. How would you 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. So many people would look in on this and say, “Dan, you should be preaching with your platform: ‘Hey, LGBTQ kids who are raised in Orthodox faith, leave. Get out of the religion.’” And that is actually a very uninformed and uneducated and unsafe thing to be saying to these kids because a lot of them don’t have a choice. Basically, you’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 really rad to see a lot of people who came from very conservative backgrounds of faith, mainly Mormonism, come out, because it was in the heartland of Utah. Some of them came to the festival already having their minds made up of what it meant to fully love and accept LGBTQ youth, but I think a lot of them didn’t, which is really 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 got tons of emails and messages from people saying, “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 this is a really difficult line to walk. You’re never gonna be progressive enough for the progressives, and you’re never gonna be conservative enough for the conservatives. I’ve literally 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, ’cause I know there’s just misunderstanding. But yeah, those letters mean a lot and they fire me up to just 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 of what it was before. 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 just watching how it spread very organically within the religious community, because it sparked so much dialogue within the Mormon church. Mormon after Mormon hit me up and would be like, “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 way more important even in that one day because the dialogue that’s taking place at home about LoveLoud is what needs to be happening rather than a stagnance that has been going on for years 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 just devastating.

Do you write songs with the queer community in mind?

Definitely on “Evolve.” At least three of the songs were produced with (gay producer-songwriter) Justin Tranter, who’s just one of the biggest activists in the queer community. Just having him in there 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 these lyrics were going to reach the underdog, were going to reach these queer youth. That they would know, “Hey, this is for me.”

I think “Evolve” has it speckled all through it, whether it’s just 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 he felt like his future was so unsettled, and it was gonna be less safe for him. And he was scared. 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 a pretty iconic photo of you holding a rainbow flag at Lollapalooza Brazil Festival in March. 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 a very 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 real changing couple of years for me, and 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 just wanted to take that step and not have it be an awkward thing in the family. My mom and dad came to the premiere.

That’s huge.

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 really loving and supportive of what I’m doing. But, yeah, there have been rough moments, definitely, during the beginning of it, when I was just getting into it. Arguments here and there within the family.

It’s tricky because I love my family and I wanna 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 just felt like there was no place for him. He had to get that far away to be able to feel like he could be himself. I got to talk to him and I haven’t seen him since I was 8 years old, and that was the only uncle I didn’t ever get to know – my gay uncle – because he felt so unwelcome and like he couldn’t live his true life without moving a country away. My dad went recently and visited him, and that was a really beautiful thing.

I don’t know. It’s baby steps for me. I know that everybody has their own way of coming around to certain things and it takes time, but the question is, how long will it take? And how many lives will be lost or saved along the way?

About the Author:

Chris Azzopardi
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 http://www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).