One man’s words are another man’s tears.
Dan Reynolds chokes up as he reads an email from a fan named Tom.
The Imagine Dragons frontman has scads of such messages in his inbox, sent from the band’s LGBTQ following, a number of whom are Mormon, like Reynolds.
“I want to tell you something personal to show you how important you are to me and how much you’ve helped me,” the email begins, as Reynolds reads it aloud. “I’m struggling a lot with self-acceptance and anxiety. This is because of many reasons. There is one big thing that annoys me the most. My sexuality. I hate myself for a lot of this.”
Tom wonders if Reynolds supports gay marriage and says that, while it “means the world” if he does, it’s OK if he doesn’t, considering his religion.
“I know that he is hurt,” Reynolds says, “and is looking for someone from this band that he likes to tell him, ‘No, Tom, I’m not judging you.’ ”
Head in hand, eyes welling up, Reynolds confronts an inner struggle on camera: The duality of being a rock star with thousands of LGBTQ fans while also serving as one of the most prominent faces of a religion that doesn’t condone those sexual orientations.
This is something that I’ve really had on my mind for years, and it’s come to a head lately.
This scene, from May 2017, is captured in “Believer,” a documentary that addresses how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards its LGBTQ members as well as Reynolds’ quest to influence those views.
The film, which premieres Monday on HBO, follows Reynolds as he reaches out to Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn, a friend and former Mormon, who is gay, as they work to put on last summer’s inaugural LoveLoud festival in Orem, Utah.
The Imagine Dragons-headlined concert was launched to promote acceptance and support for LGBTQ people, with proceeds from ticket sales benefiting local and national LGBTQ charities.
In detailing the challenges of organizing LoveLoud — the struggle to find a venue, initially slow ticket sales — “Believer” addresses, among other things, the high suicide rates among LGBTQ teens in Mormon-heavy Utah, which rose a staggering 141.3 percent from 2011 to 2015.
“Believer” also delves into Reynolds’ desire to speak out on these issues while not alienating Mormon friends and family members.
“There’s parts of Mormonism that I really love, but then there’s also parts that I don’t love and, in fact, I think are incredibly hurtful and are even killing our youth,” the 30-year-old Reynolds says. “My goal is to retain the things that I love, but certainly be at odds with the things I don’t love, and hopefully use my platform to at least start a dialogue.
“I can’t change the church,” he adds, “but hopefully I can help start the conversation at the dinner table.”
Finding his voice
Reynolds is used to having doors slammed in his face.
The seventh son in a Mormon family of nine kids, he spent a portion of his youth as a missionary, frequently getting the cold shoulder from those who had little interest in what he had to say.
Years later, though, those efforts would catalyze a crisis of conscience.
“I feel guilt,” Reynolds acknowledges in “Believer,” regretting his role in spreading a doctrine he now considers hurtful to the LGBTQ community. “I feel like I’m standing for bigotry.”
Later in the film, Reynolds apologizes for his past during an emotional acceptance speech for the 2017 Hero Award from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.
“I hold regret about it to this day,” he says. “I wish I could re-knock on all those doors and tell them I was wrong.”
Reynolds says that he had to confront this regret before he could publicly address his feelings on this issue.
“I think a big part of it is losing my sense of religious guilt,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a life of extreme guilt and feeling self-conscious about things, feeling like God was looking at me and was upset about something. When you feel that continually, well, then, you can’t speak your truth.”
Speaking that truth, though, can have consequences, which “Believer” captures. (“Just because you’re a rock star, dude, you can’t change God’s will,” his mother tells him at one point.)
Reynolds credits a therapy session with helping him speak out on the Mormon church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community. It had weighed on for him years, dating to 2011, when he and Aja Volkman were planning their wedding and two of her best friends, who were lesbians, declined to attend the Mormon ceremony. (Reynolds and Volkman announced their divorce in April.)
“I knew that this was something that I’ve been holding back on for fear of creating a strain with family or friends or my culture, my community,” Reynolds says. “I just think that’s not the way to live your life. If it offends people, even if it destroys relationships, I think it’s more important that you live a life expressing your truths and trying to perpetuate change for what you believe in than to live a quiet life of indifference.”
Confronting a taboo
Anita Stephens equates it to losing a loved one.
Except that person is still alive.
This is how Stephens explains being a parent of a gay child in the Mormon church.
“It’s almost like experiencing a type of death,” says the mother of six, whose son Tyler came out in 2011. “All of these dreams and things that you’ve placed on your life and your children’s life, when all of a sudden you have a gay child — especially now that they’re really kind of ostracized — it’s like having to watch all of that die.”
Stephens has experienced firsthand what the documentary “Believer” addresses: The tension between being a practicing Mormon and having friends or loved ones who are LGBTQ.
“It’s walking that fine line between still trying to be Mormon and recognizing this deep-seated faith and belief that I have,” she explains, “recognizing the great value that comes from being part of a religious community and having your kids be a part of that, but still having the hurt and the pain that can come when there are polices and teachings that seem so contrary to what you really believe.”
Even finding someone she could share her feelings with as she processed her emotions was a challenge.
“It was taboo. You just couldn’t even talk about that,” says Stephens, a Las Vegas native who works as a personal trainer and fitness instructor. “I didn’t even know anybody who was Mormon who had a gay kid.”
For Reynolds, the overriding point of “Believer” is to open these lines of communication.
“It’s to allow Mormons and people of orthodox faith to say, ‘It’s OK for me to have these conversations. Even if I’m not there yet, let’s at least talk about it,’ because that’s what leads people to change,” he says. “That’s very different than what the dialogue has been, which is … just indifference and saying, ‘This doesn’t affect me, so we don’t need to talk about this’ until some Mormon parents find out their son is gay and they don’t know how to deal with it, the community doesn’t know how to deal with it, and the child ends up taking his life.
“This is the reality right now, in Utah, especially,” Reynolds continues. “The No. 1 reason for death among teenagers there is suicide, and LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to take their life when not accepted in their own community.”
Stephens has witnessed the devastation.
“Sadly, I’ve been to way too many funerals over the last seven years and had to be with way too many moms who’ve lost a child or some type of relative because of this,” she says. “We have to stop it. And I think that by being able to talk about it and get some normalcy that we are living with this, we are navigating it, and it may not be pretty sometimes, but hopefully we can save some lives.”
‘We have a long way to go’
“This is the most important stage I’ve been on,” Reynolds beams, his smile wide, like the mass of people before him.
He is addressing the crowd of 17,000 that fills Brent Brown Ballpark for August’s debut of the LoveLoud Festival.
“It’s like a Mormon Woodstock,” one attendee observes in “Believer.”
Triumphant as the moment feels, the road to this point was rocky.
Two weeks before the show, only 8,500 tickets had been sold. Considering LoveLoud’s affiliation with the LGBTQ community, there was wariness about the event.
Then the Mormon church issued a statement of support for the festival.
“We applaud the LoveLoud Festival for LGBT youth’s aim to bring people together to address teen safety and to express respect and love for all of God’s children,” the statement read. “We join our voice with all who come together to foster a community of inclusion in which no one is mistreated because of who they are or what they believe.”
Within days, LoveLoud doubled its draw.
The fest had a joyous, celebratory aura and the feel of a come-as-you-are communal gathering.
“I want to love myself and not feel shame,” a 13-year-old girl named Savannah announced from the stage.
While the concert may have felt like a win for inclusiveness, the victory was short-lived.
Two months after LoveLoud, during the Mormon church’s General Counsel, a twice-a-year meeting of apostles and prophets, the church reiterated its opposition to same-sex marriage and its stance that homosexual acts are a sin.
Reynolds failed to spark a conversation within the church about reconsidering its views.
“In light of LoveLoud, that, for me, was a dark day,” Reynolds says in the film.
Still, he remains committed to the cause.
The second LoveLoud festival will be July 28 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, with Imagine Dragons again headlining, alongside the likes of EDM superstar Zedd, former Linkin Park singer-rapper Mike Shinoda, Neon Trees’ Glenn and others.
Again, Reynolds has sought the church’s support for the event.
“They sound like they’re open to it,” he says. “They sound like this is something they can get behind. We don’t agree on everything, but we can at least agree that we’re losing our youth at a rapid pace to guilt.”
As a kid, Reynolds got used to having doors slammed on him.
“I’ve had countless letters and emails from people of all religions saying that what I’m doing is wrong and that I’m going to make more kids gay,” he says. “It’s just like a closed door in my face.”
The key, then?
“We have a long way to go, and I’m in it for the long haul,” he says. “This is possibly going to be a lifelong battle, because I don’t know that the church is going to change its doctrine anytime soon.
“I’m not about to walk away,” he says. “They have a very determined Mormon missionary on their hands.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.
“I didn’t dare come out until I was about 21. Growing up, my dad was a bishop in the Mormon church for about eight years. So my entire youth, my dad was pretty high up in the LDS church,” says Tommy Bassett, a former Mormon. “I remember asking him when I started having some of these feelings, ‘Where do gays and lesbians actually go?’ And his first response was, ‘hell.’ So right from the get-go, it was already, ‘Why even be on this Earth anymore and have to go through this hell? Why not just take your own life?’ ”
Growing up in Layton, Utah, Vegas-based cosmetologist and life coach Bassett struggled to find someone to relate to regarding his sexuality.
“No one was really overly educated about it,” he says, “and so what you would do is go to a bishop and you would talk. Bishops have no degrees in psychology; they have no degrees in really anything except what the doctrine tells them.
“From there, they send you to a program called the Evergreen Program. They were the ones who were supposedly the people who knew everything about being gay and lesbian. That’s where I was sent when I came out to my parents, and then decided that wasn’t for me. I waited until I was 21 and came out to all the rest of my friends and family.”
Before that, though, Bassett wrangled with feelings of alienation and depression. He attempted to take his own life.
“Not a lot of people really would come out, so you did feel very alone,” he says. “The attempt was made. I’m not ashamed to talk about it.”
He leaned on family and friends.
“I think my family saw the desperation, the depression, the attempt that was made and knew that they had to rally around me and start to figure things out for themselves,” he says. “I come from a big family of seven, and after I came out and things started to happen, they all, one by one, started doing research on the stance of the church and what they believed. Now, none of them are members anymore.”
Bassett got through it all. But not everyone made it.
“I lost a lot of friends,” he says. “There were suicides. A lot of people were disowned, so they had to leave and you never really heard from them again. It was pretty brutal.”
When asked to comment on “Believer,” a representative of the Mormon church responded with a link to a website, mormonandgay.lds.org, that expounds upon the church’s view on homosexuality.
“As a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate. … Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”
The website goes on to explain, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.”
Homosexual church members have two options: To abstain from gay sex or enter into a mixed-orientation marriage, in which, for example, a lesbian might marry a straight man and start a family.
On Nov. 5, 2015, the Mormon church announced that children living in same-sex households could not be blessed as babies or baptized until they were 18. Upon turning 18, they can disavow same-sex marriage, stop living in a same-sex household and ask to join the church.
Furthermore, the policy branded those in same-sex marriages as apostates, which leads to disciplinary action. This could be as severe as expulsion from the church.
That was a very, very rough time for all of us. I almost walked away at that point.
Anita Stephens, recalling the policy change
Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds echoes her frustration.
“You offer a child three choices: celibacy, a mixed-orientation marriage — marrying outside of your sexual preference — or lying about your life to everyone around you. Do you think any of those things sounds like a healthy option for a kid?” he asks. “Do you think all of them are going to contribute to depression, anxiety and suicidality? Well, of course. I don’t think it takes a professor or a survey to figure that out.”
But unlike his friend Tyler Glenn or Stephens’ son Tyler, Reynolds has no plans to leave the church or advocate for others to do so.
“People who are on the outside looking in on this who aren’t Mormon or who don’t come from an orthodox faith, they generally come to the conclusion where they’ll just quickly say, ‘Dan, all you need to do is tell all these kids to get out of this religion, and you should just get out of the religion,’ ” he says. “That’s a very uneducated stance, because you’re telling these kids to leave their homes or the faith that they love. They’re already at risk; you want to have them possibly be kicked out of their home? You can’t just tell a child to leave the faith, but what you can do is try to make it so there’s safer spaces within the faith.
“As for me leaving,” he continues, “what’s that going to do? If I just leave the church, is that going to fix anything? If the house is burning and you walk away from it, what does that do? … My goal is to stay on the inside and try to help put out a fire.”