Love was in the air.
Dancing to the music, 35,000 people gathered recently to accept and celebrate every kind of love at the 2018 LOVELOUD festival.
And what’s the most surprising about this celebration of the LGBTQ community? Its unlikely location: Salt Lake City, Utah, the mecca of Mormonism, which is opposed to homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.
But that’s exactly why Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of the massively successful rock bank Imagine Dragons, picked the location.
Known for monster hits like “Thunder” and “Whatever it Takes,” the band has sold more than 10 million albums in the U.S. alone. But when its song “It’s Time” was featured on “Glee,” some fans in the LGBTQ community started reaching out.
“I would get letters from fans saying, ‘I saw you’re Mormon. … I know that Mormons don’t support LGBTQ rights and equal marriage,'” Reynolds told “Nightline.” “That was not just heartbreaking for me … but it also made me have to search my mind. It’s very easy for a white heterosexual man to be indifferent about gay rights.”
When asked what triggered him to do something about it, he said: “I think from a young age my mom taught me, ‘You love and you love fiercely. And you stand up for those who are underprivileged and stigmatized and at risk.’ So it’s really my Mormon values.”
From 2011 to 2015, the youth suicide rate in Utah was more than double the national average, according to the CDC.
Reynolds said he believes that the strict Mormon moral code could be one of the factors driving LGBTQ youth to the brink. While the Mormon Church accepts those who are attracted to the same sex or identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, it believes that “sexual relations are reserved for a man and woman who are married and promise complete loyalty to each other.”
“It’s not just Mormonism. It’s all orthodox faith … It’s not a safe space [because] their only choices are celibacy, mixed orientation marriage, which is marrying outside your sexual preference, or lie about how you’re living your life and feel guilt — and feel shame,” he said.
Inspired to spark a conversation among Mormons and shake up the church to these alarming statistics, Reynolds, a father of three, decided to take a public stand.
“I just thought, there’s a real problem here,” he said. “There’s just some things that they need to change [because] it’s killing our youth. And I felt like there was something I could do. Here I’ve been given this huge platform. And music is the great unifier so we can get the LGBTQ community out, the far left. We can get the far right out because they like music and they’re like, ‘I’ll come to a music thing. Gay rights festival … I’m not sure about that. But I’ll come to the music thing.’ And then they come in. We’re like, ‘Lock the gates!’ And then we have people get up on stage and share their message.”
Sprinkled in between musical acts like Zedd and Mike Shinoda during the LOVELOUD festival on July 28, were prestigious and aspirational speakers like Apple CEO Tim Cook and grassroots activists such as bisexual Muslim Blair Imani.
“I stand before you as an uncle, a sports nut, a CEO, a lover of the beautiful Utah outdoors, and a proud gay American,” Cook said while addressing the audience at the festival.
“If you move forward in love and in mutual respect, you’ll come to a common ground,” Imani told “Nightline.” “It’s all about the connections and not being afraid of dividing each other. … We have allies here.”
“These kids need to hear that,” Reynolds said. “Because what they hear every day is, ‘You are broken. And you’re flawed. And if you don’t change that, you’re not gonna have the spirit with you.’ That’s what they’re taught. What you’re taught is that when you’re sinning, the spirit or light, as some would say, goes away from you.”
To cast light on his cause, Reynolds tapped his family and friends to help, including Neon Trees lead singer Tyler Glenn.
Glenn left the Mormon Church four years ago after he came out.
“I feel like personally it’s been healing,” Glenn told “Nightline.” “It’s given me a real purpose, because for a while I was living in an angry space, and I felt hurt and I felt betrayed. … Because a lot of us queer people are being told we don’t exist, or that it’s just a challenge we can overcome. But for things like this, at this level to exist, I think it is helping us feel like we are represented, so it’s really powerful.”
When asked whether he had faith that the church would change, Glenn said: “I don’t know. They change issues or they change their mind on issues historically. So I hope for those that feel like they want to stay [in the religion], they do.”
The LOVELOUD festival is in its second year. The genesis of last year’s festival was chronicled in the HBO documentary “Believer.”
Reynolds said he would hold the festival every year for the sake of kids like Savannah Kester.
“I just turned 14, but when I came out I was 12 years old,” Kester told “Nightline.”
She did so standing in front of her Mormon congregation during her testimony.
“A testimony is practically like a speech of when you’re trying to tell what you believe in your religion or what you believe in God,” she said.
Soon after she started her testimony, Kester said, the mic stopped working.
“Actually, I thought it was broken and I thought, ‘Oh, why did it have to break on me?’ I turn around, of course, and he (the minister) says, ‘Can you please sit down?'” she said. “Let’s just say I was bottling up my emotions before I did my testimony and after that they just exploded. And I felt so fickle with everything.”
Kester said she still considered herself a Mormon.
“I have my name in the record still as a Mormon but I do not attend church,” she said. “I don’t feel very accepted in my neighborhood anymore.”
When asked whether she ever felt alone or lost, she said, “I always thought being gay was a sin and that I was not normal. And I wasn’t. So I always felt so alone in my life. And this is why I want to be here for those people that do feel alone, so they can see that there are people that you can be happy with … and not feel ashamed.”
She also said she knew of other young people in her religion who were struggling.
“Some of them haven’t come out to their parents, their religions or just their family in general. … And they’re pushing themselves farther into the closet. And it’s very sad,” she said.
Her sentiment was echoed throughout the festival.
“It’s just nice to have, like, a thing that you can go to celebrate yourself, like, being out and proud without worrying about it,” one festivalgoer said.
“I just feel like it’s so hard, this paradox between being gay and Mormon. … It’s hard to fit into that heterosexual normalty (sic), or whatever the language is,” Krista Kendall said. “It’s hard to fit into that. And coming here, it’s like you don’t have to care. I love that they are giving this night to the youth and letting them know that they love them and they support them.”
Tegan Quinn, half of the twin indie pop duo Tegan and Sara, who both identify as lesbian and are known for songs like “Back in Your Head” and the catchy “Lego Movie” theme song “Everything Is Awesome,” took to the stage with Reynolds.
“By showing up, you told the LGBTQ community that you care,” Quinn told “Nightline.” “This is life-changing for a lot of the people here.”
“I believe Dan (Reynolds) is the real deal. We have Pride (month), but this is different. This is about bringing our allies together with us, helping us raise money to give back, to infuse and redistribute in our community, to give them resources and things that they can use to help them get through tough times and connect with each other. And it’s a brilliant, simple idea,” Quinn said.
This year, the festival, which took place at the Rice Eccles Stadium, secured big corporate sponsors and donated 100 percent of its revenue to nonprofit, boots-on-the-ground LGBTQ charities.
“A year ago, we didn’t have a venue. We didn’t have sponsors. We didn’t have anything. And then one year later, here we are. We’ve already done one LOVELOUD and we’re in a sold-out stadium. So it’s like if you’re crazy enough to think you can change the world, you just might win,” said Lance Lowry, LOVELOUD’s executive director.
Lowry said this year’s festival had raised more than $1 million and was livestreamed by more than 7.5 million viewers.
“I think part of the reason I’m so passionate about this now is because I’ve put enough time in now where I’ve sat with enough parents who’ve lost their child to suicide [because] they were gay and they had religious guilt,” Reynolds said. “If you have a heart and you see the statistic — if you don’t accept your child, they’re eight times more likely to commit suicide. That’s it. It’s that simple.”
He also said that he was driven by something weighing on his conscience: the two years he spent, starting at the age of 18, on a Mormon mission proselytizing in Nebraska.
“You’re given that handbook. And when someone asks you a question, it’s, ‘Oh, there’s an answer for everything. Why are we here? Hold on one second. We are here because God sent us here. And it’s our test. And what happens when you die? Oh, what happens ….'” he said. “You’re a 19-year-old kid. You’re like ‘When you die, OK, let’s look here.’ So then [when someone says to you], ‘Hey, I’m attracted to guys. I don’t want to tell my mom about this, Missionary Guy. Hey, Missionary Man who has all the answers. What’s the answer to that?’ [You say] ‘It’s a sin to be gay.’ And so I taught that for two years on my mission. And that’s something I’m gonna have to live with for the rest of my life. And it was part of my journey. Not a part that I’m particularly proud of,” Reynolds said.
During Imagine Dragons’ performance at LOVELOUD, Reynolds broke down when addressing the audience.
“LGBTQ youth, stay with us every day. We need you. We love you. We accept you. Your love is valid. It’s pure. It’s true. It’s beautiful. We stand with you. LOVELOUD will be here. We’re just gonna stay here,” he said.