The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does not condone same-sex marriage. But for Dan Reynolds, the frontman of Grammy-winning band Imagine Dragons, that official position doesn’t mean its followers have to shun the LGBTQ kids in their communities and homes. In fact, Reynolds — the powerful voice behind blockbuster hits like “Believer” and “Thunder” and a Mormon himself — insists that the church is facing a crisis of teen depression and suicide.
“To our LGBTQ youth, I’d say: I’m here in any way possible,” Reynolds says about his current calling. “I promise to be the best missionary I can — a Mormon missionary for the LGBTQ community — and to hopefully use this privilege I’ve been given to give them a voice.”
To that end, he recently released a documentary with Live Nation Productions and HBO, Believer, which follows his path to putting on the inaugural LoveLoud Festival last year in Utah, a charity concert intended to bring together people to “unconditionally love, understand, accept, and support LGBTQ+ youth.” It drew over 15,000 attendees. On July 28 he’ll headline the second LoveLoud Festival in Salt Lake City, joined by major music acts like Zedd, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and young star Grace VanderWaal. (All proceeds go towards LGBTQ+ charities.)
Reynolds opened up to TIME about his own battle with depression and the journey he’s on — as a Mormon and as a musician — to change his church from the inside out.
TIME: How has the response been so far to the documentary?
Reynolds: The most powerful part to me is just getting letters or emails or tweets from kids who have felt like it has enabled them to come out to their families. There are a lot of families that have reached out after watching it together. And that for me is the goal: to get these Mormon families to sit down and have these discussions. I’ve had so many parents ask me, So when should you talk about what it means to be gay or LGBTQ with a child? I don’t think there’s any age that’s too young. We read these stories of princes and princesses to our kids at three, four. As soon as they understand romance, it’s celebrated. In the same way, we have to celebrate our LGBTQ youth.
When did you decide this was the issue you wanted to become a public voice for?
I’ve worked with therapists for over ten years; I was diagnosed with depression many years ago. That’s been a part of my journey too. How you can live your truth, speak your truth: I stifled that for many years for fear of offending family or friends or offending my culture or religion. And it’s just not been a healthy way of life. I think it’s important to express your truth, especially when you’re given a platform like this; it’s a weight I feel often.
How did you first sense this problem, as you see it, in your faith?
In middle school was really where I felt this inner conflict for the first time. One of my best friends was gay and Mormon, and I saw how conflicted he was. It was the first time my faith didn’t align with my mind and heart, and the first time I was being taught something at church that I was like, Hey, this doesn’t seem right. Between that and working with a therapist, I knew I wanted to take a journey and speak my truth. And just a lot of things led me to this point. I lost a couple friends from suicide, I became friends with Tyler Glenn [of Neon Trees] who’s Mormon and gay and the singer in a band that was around me.
And I was shamed, to a much lesser degree, when I was kicked out of Brigham Young University for having sex with my girlfriend, and felt that religious guilt over something that was really a beautiful thing. So that, in a very small degree, is what our gay youth feel every day: that their sexuality, their ability to love, which should be celebrated, they’re told is sinful and that they should change it. It’s unchangeable, obviously, so you’re setting up a child for a life of despair.
So you started this journey with the LoveLoud festival well over a year now; the first festival was last summer. What’s changed since then?
There’s more of the latter, sadly. Having the church endorse LGBTQ anything is a step, because the church is at odds with the LGBTQ world in every other way. It’s a very small step. But it’s definitely not significant enough to stop what’s happening.
We’re losing our youth at a rapid pace in Utah, and in many religious communities around the U.S., due to religious guilt. I do have Mormon leaders coming to me, like a young women’s leader who reached out recently who oversees hundreds of youth. She said after Love Loud Festival happened just that week at church four kids came out to their parents. Hearing things like that, hearing LoveLoud is fostering conversations at the dinner table so these kids are feeling safer, that’s everything to me.
What are you frustrated about that hasn’t changed?
Right now, the kids are left with three options. One, live a life of celibacy, which obviously leads to high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety. Two, go into a mixed orientation marriage, which has some of the highest rates of the same things. And typically the marriage ends in divorce. Or three, live a lie. Love who you want, but then lie about it, go to church every Sunday and feel conflicted. The worst part is that these churches and these leaders are saying hey, there is a place for you — but then the kids come in, and there’s not [actually] a safe place for them. I almost wish the church leaders would say, You know what? Sorry LGBTQ, but there’s not a place for you.
It’s almost more harmful.
Yeah. It’s more harmful to say, I love you, but not that part of you. Your most innate, beautiful part of you, that we celebrate in heterosexuality. That part of you? Leave that at the door.
How do you reconcile your personal faith with this issue of the church’s doctrine?
I’ve also had a lot of people reach out and say you’re doing a disservice by remaining Mormon. You should leave. Stop whining. To them I would say, first of all, what good would come from me just saying, You know what, I’ve had it with Mormonism, I’m out? I wouldn’t be the first celebrity to leave their religion. Maybe to me [personally] that would be beneficial, but would it help these youth? No. Because Mormons, when we’re mocked or yelled at or laughed at, we just close our door. When we’re told we need to change, we just close our door. So the only way real change is going to come about, even if the doctrine isn’t going to change, is just creating a safer culture.
Have you ever felt threatened by the church or others in the faith, or felt unsafe yourself?
In the last six months, I have felt more fire and passion from people in both ways. Either they’re passionate about the cause, or they’re passionate that I’m doing wrong. I’ve gotten parents come up to me and say, When you die you’re going to see God, and God is going to be so upset with you and tell you that you made more kids gay. It’s awful; of course I hate it, especially [when it comes from] people I’m close with.
And on the flip side, there are people who are going to say, You’re a white, privileged, heterosexual male. They think I’m trying to capitalize on a cause. I knew going into this it was never going to be progressive enough for the far left, or conservative enough for the far right. That’s the line I have to walk to try to bring people to the table. I’ve chosen to walk this line. It’s just the journey I need to be on.
When you look forward, what are you hoping to accomplish? Is there a way to draw this thread into your music?
It kind of is the same, because in my music I have always written all the lyrics from a place of self evaluation. Even this record, the first single “Believer,” it’s all about me working on this journey. I knew I was going to speak my truth and it was going to offend some people. The first line in the song is, “First thing’s first, I’ma say all the words inside my head / I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been.” That’s been my year. I’m tired of living the vanilla, non-offensive life. I think that’s a really sad way to spend my life, and I lived it like that because that’s what I was brought up in, taught to not rock the ship. Especially as a Mormon missionary, you’re rocking the ship as little as humanly possible.
You also mentioned that you worked with a therapist and experienced depression and anxiety. That’s become a popular topic among musicians. Why do you think it’s become such a trend in conversation?
I just had a songwriter event — it was the Songwriter Hall of Fame last year — and they were showing statistics, and it was something in the ballpark of 70% of artists and musicians experience depression.
Do you think that has helped you relate to the experience of LGBTQ youth?
Having dealt with depression opened my heart to have more empathy for people in general. The first time I really had depression was when I was kicked out of college. I had to go back home and live with my parents. My community found out about it, and I was seen as this bad kid by all of the Mormons. It devastated me; it felt like God hated me. Before then, I always thought depression was like being sad. And it’s not, there’s so much more to it. It’s this greyness and numbness. I just sat in that for like a year. It opens your heart up.
When it comes to your parents and siblings, has this been a journey you’ve taken with them to get them to understand where you’re coming from?
That’s a really great way to explain it: it’s definitely been a journey. My family’s all very active conservative Mormons. So there have been difficult conversations. With that being said, my parents came to Sundance and they watched the premiere. I think that was a moment for both of us to say, Maybe we don’t agree on everything, but let’s have a conversation about this. We can at least agree that this is a problem and we’re losing youth to this.
This is not just an issue in the Mormon faith, but in a lot of other communities, whether political or religious. What would be your advice to young leaders looking to open up that door to conversation?
Try your best to stay within the community if it’s safe for you, if you’re happy and you’re healthy. You can be an atypical Catholic, an atypical Republican, an atypical Muslim. We need that. Because those are the ones who push and create progress. So if it’s safe for you, stay there and work and have conversations and do everything you can with what you’ve been given to try to open hearts and mind. At the end of the day, I think it’s OK to disagree.
What’s the one thing you wish you could tell everyone who reaches out to you in their moment of need or confusion?
What I want to impart, especially to our LGBTQ youth, is that they are perfect. In Mormonism, love is the first principle of all. One of the first hymns I was taught when I was a little kid was this one: “If you don’t walk like most people do, some people walk away from you but I won’t, I won’t. I’ll walk with you, I’ll talk with you, that’s how I’ll show my love for you.”