In June 2018, Dan Reynolds — the frontman of Imagine Dragons — wrapped himself in a glittering rainbow flag on the stage of the LoveLoud Festival in Salt Lake City. There, after hours of musical acts and inspirational speeches from figures like Apple CEO Tim Cook, the rocker ally delivered his own urgent message about the need to protect LGBTQ young people, who are more likely to take their own lives than straight peers due to societal stigma.
“I don’t have anger. This is love,” a tearful Reynolds told the crowd of over 30,000 at the Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits mere miles from the headquarters of the anti-LGBTQ Mormon Church, in which Reynolds was raised. “It’s a desire to not lose our youth. We cannot lose anymore.”
“We must change our culture,” he said to the crowd’s cheers. “We must, we must, we must change our culture.”
LoveLoud's plea for acceptance reached millions — thanks in part to its sponsor AT&T, which "powered" the festival by live-streaming it on its social media channels. In addition to providing a safe space for LGBTQ young people and their families, the event also raised $1 million for groups benefitting them, including the Trevor Project, Encircle, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which are all working to make the world a safer place for these kids.
The event, covered in LGBTQ and mainstream outlets alike, may also indeed have helped change the culture. Several U.S. states have banned conversion therapy — the harmful and discredited of the practice of trying to "convert" LGBTQ people to straight — on youth in the past year, bringing the count up to 18. The practice has been shown to double the risk of suicide among those who have undergone it, according to a new report.
Even the Mormon Church has shown some movement in its anti-LGBTQ policies. While the religious group still opposes same-sex marriage, it did overturn its baptism ban on the children of LGBTQ parents earlier this year. The move was met with mixed reactions from activists, but Reynolds saw it as a sign of hope.
“There's a long way to go still, but if you don't recognize steps taken by the [Mormon] community, my leaders, then it doesn't really give people a chance to grow. And that's what we're all about,” the singer told The Advocate in a recent interview. “Sometimes that takes patience and it takes recognizing a small step and saying, 'Awesome, let's continue to sit at the table together and move forward.'”
LoveLoud brings this conversation back to the table in Utah on June 29, this time to the USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The expectations are even higher for this year’s event, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and World Pride in New York City.
In this light, Reynolds and organizers are amping up the music and message of this year's event, with the Imagine Dragons singer saying it would be “the most exciting” yet.
“There's a lot of surprises in store,” promised Reynolds, who praised the announced list of scheduled headliners, which includes Kesha, Tegan and Sara, Daya, K. Flay, PVRIS, Laura Jane Grace, and alternative rock group AJR.
Hosted by Kalen Allen, the event will also feature speakers and performers Emma González, Lena Waithe, Tyler Glenn, Vincint, Parson James, Gnash, Andy Allo, Aja Volkman, Ty Herndon, Brandon Stansell, Paul Cardall, Miya Folick, Shannon Beveridge, Vivek Shraya, Shamir, and Foreign Figures. Matt Easton — the Brigham Young University valedictorian who came out in his graduation speech — and Charlie Bird — the former BYU mascot Cosmo the Cougar — will also make appearances.
For the first time, the event will have a second stage. The fundraising goals are also higher this year. But for Reynolds, who will also perform a solo set, his “favorite part of the day” is when LoveLoud speakers deliver messages that empower LGBTQ youth. In addition to Reynolds, Cook made headlines last year for calling these kids "a gift to the world."
It's these speeches and spirit of acceptance that make LoveLoud special, said Tegan R. Quin, the Tegan and Sara singer who joined Reynolds as a board member of the LoveLoud Foundation in 2018.
“It's impossible to put into words what [LoveLoud] feels like,” said Quin. “I don't think I've ever experienced anything so positive — and I'm not being hyperbolic.”
Quin stressed that the music was just “the icing on the cake” for LoveLoud, a family-friendly event that is more than just about music. “It's not just the festival, it's what the festival provides, which is a safe space, a path forward, language, and a way for these young people to speak to their families and for the families to understand a little more about how to support and love their kids,” she said.
It’s a musical movement that both plan to see grow exponentially for years to come — beyond Salt Lake City. “Obviously, this isn't the only city in the world that needs this,” said Reynolds, who hopes to one day see LoveLoud festivals in cities all over the world. Raised Mormon, Reynolds’s journey to becoming an ally and criticizing the Church of Ladder-Day Saint’s role in this plight, captured in the acclaimed HBO documentary Believer, was the catalyst for his 2017 launch of LoveLoud in Provo, Utah. “We have lofty goals, but I believe we can get there," he said.
Despite LoveLoud's continuing growth, however, Reynolds believes the mission of the festival has remained the same since its inception. “It's always been: celebrate our LGBTQ youth," he said. "And I love that word above love almost because there's no mistaking what that means. … Because when you celebrate someone, there's no question that you love them and there's no question that you accept them.”
That LoveLoud also falls on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the event that is seen as launching the LGBTQ rights movement, was not originally the intent. It was just where the event fell on the calendar, but Quin called the timing “unbelievable luck.”
“I can't think of a better date to be celebrating LGBTQ youth,” said Quin, who said Stonewall will be a “major focus” of this year’s speakers and programming. Reynolds agreed and sees it as a teachable moment for queer people and their families as well. “This is a great opportunity with LoveLoud, to be able to talk about an important historical moment,” he said.
These lessons are essential for 2019. Although there have been positive changes in the culture, the Trump administration continues to attack the LGBTQ community in the present — particular trans people and their right to housing, health, and service in the military. It has never been more important to speak out against injustice, stressed Quin, who expressed admiration at the work Reynolds, who is straight, has accomplished in the realm of LGBTQ advocacy
"LGBTQ people are under attack again, especially trans community members. And I think that it's important to use the power and privilege that you have [to fight these attacks]," said Quin. "I feel compelled to do it and I feel like everyone should and I'm just so impressed that Dan does."
"I really put a lot of pressure on allies and our world, not just the celebrities, but all our allies to get out there and speak out," she added.
LoveLoud itself has been forced to confront some of these injustices. Last year, a trans woman was told she was "in the wrong bathroom" by a male volunteer at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Afterward, she came forward to say she was made to feel “very frustrated and very unsafe" at LoveLoud due to the experience.
The incident sparked an internal investigation at LoveLoud as well as some introspection. “I think that last year there were some things that were not within our control. It was a huge venue. Obviously, we did a sensitivity training with the first ring of staff, but it was a stadium,” said Quin, who praised the team’s response to the incident.
The event asked for feedback online about how to improve itself and make the festival more inclusive. This year’s volunteers will undergo sensitivity training on gender identity orchestrated by Gender Spectrum, a group that specializes in these courses.
“I think that that's the heart and full of LoveLoud, which is let's try to make every year better,” Quin said. “Let's try to learn from our mistakes. There are always going to be things that come up and it's about how you handle it. And I personally feel very proud of how LoveLoud handled it.”
The event overall has also been a learning experience for Reynolds, who has worked to expand his board to include more diverse voices.“As a cis, heterosexual, super privileged white male, there's so much learning to be done here," said Reynolds, adding, "Absolutely, when something goes wrong or somebody's hurt or somebody didn't get the experience they want, it's heartbreaking." He vowed to continue "to learn and try to make it do all I can to make [LoveLoud] as safe as we can. And that's what our team has done as well."
Reynolds — who wears rainbow rings as a daily reminder of his commitment to the cause — is not yet sure what he will say when he takes the stage this year at LoveLoud. But he does have a message today for LGBTQ youth.
"I love you, celebrate you. I promise to use all my power to try to continue to make a better community for them and use my platform to try to make a safe space for them," he concluded.
LoveLoud Festival Powered by AT&T will take place Saturday, June 29 at the USANA Amphitheater in West Valley City, Utah. The event will also be live-streamed that day thanks to AT&T, a longtime corporate ally of the LGBTQ community. Learn more at LoveLoudFest.com.