At the LOVELOUD Fest in Salt Lake City, the performing artists and speakers remind us that the reason for such an event is just as relevant and important as it was at its inception.
“This is not a fleeting thing,” says Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons and the show’s founder from the red carpet of this year’s festival. “We’re here for the long haul. There are still changes that need to be made. That may take 10 years, 20 years, I don’t know, but we’ve got a lot of life left in us.”
Back in 2017, Reynolds announced he was throwing a music festival in Utah to promote inclusion, love, understanding and acceptance for young members of the LGBTQ+ community.
By then, the high rate of teen suicide in Utah was already national news, and a number of organizations, like Mama Dragons, and individuals, like Neon Trees’ Tyler Glenn, were trying to sound the alarm about the particular risk of suicide among LGBTQ+ kids and teens who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the predominant religion among Utahns.
As an example of the harm the LDS Church was causing the LGBTQ+ members, many pointed to a 2015 church policy that excluded the children of gay parents from baptism within the church until they were 18-years-old (most kids born within the church are baptized at 8-years-old), at which point they would be required to renounce gay marriage in order to be baptized. The policy was later rolled back in 2019, long after the petitions and the events for the mass resignation of church members and after the policy helped prompt Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds to create LOVELOUD, the founding of which is the subject of the 2018 documentary Believer.
“When we played the first year, we saw the miracle of it. You would not think that something as niche as an LGBT event for people of faith would work, especially in Utah, but we’ve seen that it has,” says Glenn, who helped found the festival with Reynolds and remains on the LOVELOUD board. He has been at the forefront of the tensions between the LDS faith and sexual identity since he came out as gay, culminating in his 2016 solo album Excommunication.
The festival was meant to serve as counter-messaging. Rather than messages of exclusion or shame, LOVELOUD, from the beginning, wanted to give LGBTQ+ kids a night where they could feel celebrated and give their parents and families a place to learn more about their experiences and see diverse sexual and gender identities through a new lens.
Singer-songwriter Aja Volkman spoke to religious parents who have kids who might be exploring their sexual or gender identity. She says, “You know your children and you love your children. They are the first and foremost important thing, and where your loyalty lies is with your children and making sure they feel safe and that they feel loved.”
Reynolds, Volkman’s partner, adds, “The biggest thing that we are seeing with these youth is that they are not looking to be just accepted. They’re looking to be celebrated. It’s a celebration that these kids want.”
“All kids want celebration,” agrees Volkman.
Since that first LOVELOUD, some things have changed in Utah. The LDS church rolled back that aforementioned policy, but lawmakers have passed legislation that restricts transgender students from participating in girls’ competitive sports and LDS leaders reiterated beliefs that exclude gay couples and non-binary gender identities. At their conference in April, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “Fundamental to us is God’s revelation that exaltation can be attained only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.”
All of which helped fuel the passion and urgency of LOVELOUD performers and participants.
“Luckily, when people in politics or other leaders are setting up dangerous policies and places for our youth, there are a lot of people who are on the other side,” says Reynolds. “All of these people who are here [at LOVELOUD] have been fighting for these kids.”
Tyler Glenn, performing once again with Neon Trees, says some of those policies that were enacted by the church shook his faith. “I was really angry for a while, and that anger is valid,” he says. “But, what LOVELOUD has done has really healed a lot of my wounds…Hurt and anger are valid, but it has reminded me to lead with love.”
Reynolds says his beliefs and understanding have evolved since the first LOVELOUD as well. “I’m more spiritual now, not affiliated with any faith, but Mormonism is my culture. You know how it is, if you’re raised in Mormonism it’s a part of you. My whole family is Mormon. It’s my foundation. I care deeply about the people, and there are a lot of people who want change who are in the church and are active members and are not happy with what that path is like for LGBTQ youth who are in the church.”
Reynolds also offered a message to those who are struggling with reconciling their faith and identity, saying, “If there is a god, that god absolutely loves you and you are perfect the way you are. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Don’t pray for forgiveness, don’t pray for change—you are perfect just the way you are.”
Singer David Archuleta, who has identified as both Mormon and queer, says he’s come to a point where “I’m just going to let myself be me” after grappling with internal homophobia from growing up in a conservative and religious environment. On stage, Archuleta performed a short set, as he is still recovering from vocal surgery, but he spoke to the crowd about accepting ones’ sexual identity. He says, “No matter what I tried, I couldn’t change that part of me…I hope you can learn to love and have compassion for yourself. This has been such a liberating year for me to not be afraid of myself anymore.”
Local father-daughter musical duo Mat and Savanna Shaw performed as well. At first, the pair worried their style and music wouldn’t be a good fit for the event. “We looked up to these artists forever, and to be here singing with them is crazy. We still look at ourselves as these small town singers,” says Savanna.
But, in the end, what is LOVELOUD about if not acceptance? “I think this crowd, especially, is so accepting and so loving,” says Mat. “It’s a cause we are so excited to support and to lend our voices to the choir who wants to make sure that this community, especially in Utah, feels loved.”
If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.