How does a straight white male of privilege go from conservative Mormon missionary, to one of the world’s biggest rock stars, to one of the most dedicated LGBTQ allies of a generation? Well, like many supporters of the community, it all began with an emotional connection.
“One of my best friends in middle school was gay and Mormon, and that was the first time I was really faced with a conflict with my religion,” recalls Dan Reynolds, frontman of Grammy-winning band Imagine Dragons. “I was raised in Mormonism, where you are taught that being gay is a sin, so as a 12 year old I was faced with that conflict of, ‘Well, I have a friend who’s gay and is maybe the best person I know, this doesn’t make sense’. That was the first time I questioned ‘God’s will’ and didn’t feel like God was aligning with what my heart was telling me, which was that my friend’s love was just as valid as mine.”
Dan grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, as part of a devout Mormon family. At the age of 19, he volunteered full-time as a missionary in Nebraska for two years, before landing a place at Brigham Young University, a private university in Utah owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Students are expected to follow an honour code, which prohibits behaviour opposed to Mormon teachings including premarital sex and the consumption of drugs or alcohol. The former was a rule that Dan simply couldn’t adhere to.
Dan wears jacket by Fendi, jeans by Citizen of Humanity
“I was kicked out of college for sleeping with my girlfriend of four years, and it was a really shaming experience for me,” he recalls, explaining how the moment helped grant him empathy with the lives of LGBTQ people living under orthodox religion. “It felt like everyone was judging me and casting guilt and shame on me for simply loving someone. That, on a very small level, is what our LGBTQ youth raised in orthodox religions feel every day, which is that they’re told, ‘Your love is not valid, it’s incorrect, it’s sinful’, and they’re being kicked out of their colleges. There are many people who are gay and Mormon who were kicked out of BYU for ‘acting upon it’.
“That’s the thing with all these orthodox religions, they say, ‘Look, it’s not a sin to be gay, it’s a sin to act upon it’, which is such a silly notion. It’s a salesman way of saying, ‘We are loving you, but there’s a knife behind your back’. The only option they’re giving our LGBTQ youth is to live a life of celibacy, which they know, based on countless studies, is so damaging and leads to higher depression and higher anxiety and higher suicide rates in LGBTQ youth. They’re saying, ‘Stay with us and just be celibate, or be in a mixed-orientation marriage’, which also leads to higher rates of depression and suicide. So there’s really no safe space for our LGBTQ youth, and I realised I have this platform and all this privilege that I’ve been given, so what am I doing with it? Am I using it? Or am I just living a privileged life?”
This acute awareness of privilege is something rarely seen in the Straight White Male, much less challenged by them, but Dan is the first to acknowledge the blessings he’s been given – “I’m a white, heterosexual male in a rock band, I’m about as privileged as you could possibly get,” he jokes – and he’s using his voice to support the plight of queer people around the world. His annual LoveLoud music festival raised $1 million for LGBTQ charities this year, while the recently released documentary Believer examines how the Mormon church treats the LGBTQ community, and how they can become a more inclusive institution.
Dan wears shirt and trousers by COS STORES
“Our culture will not move forward if people of privilege aren’t using that voice and that platform they’ve been given to shine a light on those who have been stigmatised, those who have not been given that privilege,” he says. “So I think that it’s extremely important for straight males especially, who are the most privileged, to speak out and stand up and say, ‘We need to be better’.”
Historically, it’s been female pop stars such as Lady Gaga, Cher and Madonna who have been the most outspoken allies to the LGBTQ community, with male artists either choosing to stay silent on the issue or offering up the bare minimum show of support – which often earns them an exorbitant amount of praise, despite not doing anything of real substance to better the landscape for LGBTQ people. Dan is a prime example of a straight male who’s confident enough in their sexuality to follow their moral compass and support real change for the community, making him something of a rarity in the music industry. So why don’t other straight male artists rally behind equality?
“Well, first of all, you risk losing part of your audience,” Dan puts it bluntly. “I think some artists fear the backlash of intolerant people, and to them I’d say, ‘Those are not the type of fans you need at your show’. It’s more important that you’re literally saving lives by standing up and sharing a message of equality. But I think even more than that, it’s just laziness, it’s people saying, ‘Well it doesn’t affect me’. Or feeling like they’re gonna mess up and use the wrong pronouns, or they can’t remember that it’s LGBTQ, they’re like, ‘I can’t remember all that’, but it’s just laziness. They don’t wanna put the time in to something that doesn’t affect them. It’s like a ‘Who cares?’ attitude, which I think is so lazy.”
Dan wears shirt by Topshop, trousers by Michael Kors
Unfortunately, losing fans because of his support for LGBTQ people wasn’t just a fear for Dan, it’s something that actually happened – and still continues to happen. He’s received letters from parents who won’t allow their children to come to the band’s shows because they’re worried he will ‘turn their kids gay’. Others have put his intentions under the microscope, questioning why a straight man of privilege is so eager to be part of a cause that doesn’t directly involve him.
“I knew that I was gonna get backlash from both sides,” he says with a sigh. “It’s never going to be far-left enough for the left, or far-right enough for the right, but when you’re trying to bridge a gap you have to be somewhere in the middle. There’s gonna be people on the far left who’ll say, ‘Fuck that, you guys are idiots, you need to just change’, and then there’s people on the far right who are homophobic and bigoted saying, ‘Well this is gay, I don’t want anything to do with this’. So you can’t win fully, I know that, and I don’t care, and I’ve made peace with that. I’m not looking to please anyone, I’m looking to create change, and change happens when you listen to both sides and gather everybody together and believe in the goodness of people’s hearts.
“I believe there are super religious people who are really good people and they want to be loving, they just don’t know how to align that with what they’ve been taught their whole lives. If they were to sit down and hear an LGBTQ child tell their story, and really listen with compassion, then I know they’d be moved enough to change the way they view LGBTQ people.
“It’s about bringing everybody together to understand the differences and to make change, because at the end of the day it’s about our LGBTQ youth and lowering the suicide rate. We need to stop this religious guilt from killing our youth, period, and everybody should be able to agree on that.”
Dan wears turtleneck by ALLSAINTS
In Utah, the centre of Mormon cultural influence, suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 17, and LGBTQ teens who have been rejected by their parents or caregivers are eight times as likely to attempt suicide when compared to those who have been accepted. These shocking statistics form the basis of Believer, the 2018 documentary focusing on Dan’s efforts to organise the LoveLoud Festival in Utah, which supports LGBTQ charities including The Trevor Project, Encircle and the Tegan & Sara Foundation. Inspiration for the film came from numerous places, including friend and openly gay Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn, who recently denounced the Mormon Church over its treatment of LGBTQ people. But it was Dan’s wife, Aja Volkman, who introduced him to a life of activism that brought him to this moment
“The main inspiration for Believer was really my wife Aja – we’re back together now, that’s why I still call her my wife – because she really is an activist. When I met her she was living with her two best friends who are lesbians, and they were all talking about dressing up in wedding dresses and handcuffing themselves to federal buildings during Prop 8. So they were real activists, and then in comes this Mormon boy, so they’re all very wary of me,” he recalls with a laugh. Prop 8 was a statewide ballot initiated with the intention of making same-sex marriage illegal in California. One of the biggest supporters of the movement was the Mormon Church, which offered significant financial contributions to the anti-marriage equality campaign. A heavily religious Dan had some soul searching to do.
“Mormonism was really fighting against marriage equality in the biggest way, and so I was the enemy,” he continues. “That led to a lot of serious late night conversations about gay rights, and it opened up my mind and heart in ways that it needed to be opened. My wife and her friends were incredibly eloquent and took time with me as a person of orthodox faith, who at the time was very religious, they sat down at the table with me and they had conversations that needed to be had, and that I hope everybody continues to have because it changed the way that I saw things. That led me on my journey to become an activist. I had to grow up a bit and learn that it’s OK to offend people and have hard conversations, even with my own family.”
Dan wears shirt by H&M
Aside from his work with the LoveLoud Festival and acclaimed documentary Believer, Dan has gained a loyal following of LGBTQ fans with his everyday support for the community. At Imagine Dragons’ live shows, Dan regularly emerges draped in a rainbow Pride flag, an image that has become synonymous with the singer-songwriter. He also wears a rainbow ring on his hand, which was given to him by a Mormon mother whose son committed suicide over religious guilt, as a reminder to always fight for equality. It may seem like a small gesture – and many people would question its actual impact on long-term equality for the community – but for fans in countries that stigmatise or even outlaw their love, that simple flag is a shining beacon of hope.
“We get to travel to so many places across the world that still to this day are completely unsafe for LGBTQ youth – we’ve played Russia, Poland and Ukraine for example – so holding a rainbow flag up on those stages says a lot,” Dan explains with conviction. “It makes a statement to all those people who are there that, ‘Hey, we’re not OK with anybody at our shows spewing hate, if you want to be part of our culture as a band, then you must know that we stand for equality’. And I can tell you when we played in Russia, there were hundreds of people who at the exact same time had planned to hold up rainbow flags all throughout the crowd, and I watched the security guards feel quite uncomfortable because they didn’t know what to do. One person had pulled up a rainbow flag earlier and security tore it away from them, but when hundreds of people were holding them up there was really nothing they could do. There were so many people with tears in their eyes holding up these symbols of equality and love. It was a really beautiful thing. So yeah, it is more than a simple gesture. It’s a loud statement, in a very public place, to many of these kids who might not get that support at home.”
Dan wears suit by Ports Menswear, shirt by ALLSAINTS, belt by Banana Republic, jewellery by Miansai
Back home in the United States, Dan believes that things are changing for the better. While leaders may seem reluctant to evolve, it’s happened before, given enough pressure. In 1978, the Church declared they had received a revelation from God and allowed black men to ascend to priesthood for the first time. And even if Church leaders refuse to budge on LGBTQ issues like same-sex marriage, Dan believes the wider Mormon community are progressing.
“The actual people, especially the younger generations, they’re tired of being part of something that’s so intolerant, they’re tired of inequality, and so they’re conflicted,” he says. “People are either leaving religion because they don’t want to be part of something so intolerant, or they’re staying but feeling really conflicted. So really, the pressure is on our leaders of orthodox faiths. If they’re ‘talking with God’ and receiving modern-day revelations, I certainly hope they’re praying every day about this, because any God that is loving and kind like they say – I think it’s obvious that this God would believe in equality.” And if not? “Then that’s not any God I would want to believe in.”
Dan Reynold’s documentary Believer is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.
Photography Maxwell Poth
Photography Assistant Luke Fontana
Fashion Gabriel Langenbrunner
Grooming Lauryn Tullio