Why The Lead Singer of Imagine Dragons Is Fighting for LGBTQ Rights

Imagine Dragons. Photo: Eric Ray Davidson

“I went on a mission because I was like, maybe if I go on a mission, God will talk to me, but he never did. Or she never did, or whatever it is. I only felt emotion, never what people call the spirit.”

Dan Reynolds did everything right. He served as a Mormon missionary and attended the Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He then got married and fathered three children. Reynolds also started a band, and now, at 31, he’s the singer in Imagine Dragons, arguably the biggest rock band in the world. Plenty of rock stars have nontraditional pasts, but Reynolds is different: He’s using his platform as a very famous straight man to advocate for LGBTQ rights, and in the process he’s alienating his band from its fans and himself from his own faith.

Reynolds towers over me and I’m six-foot-one. His tight, brand-new, white T-shirt tucks cleanly into black gym shorts. He doesn’t have long hair, visible tattoos, or any signifiers that he’s in a band. He’s the former high-school quarterback who blows everyone’s mind at the reunion because he’s in better shape now than he was then. His handshake is predictably firm, and he exudes disciplined normality.

I’d made what I thought was a well-informed judgment about Imagine Dragons: They play mainstream, red-state rock music. Their heavy-handed, hip-hop-laced verses tee up anthemic choruses that pulse over Jeep and Microsoft commercials. The first song on their new album, “Natural,” is ESPN’s 2018 official college-football-season anthem. Imagine Dragons embodies middle America and, I’d assumed, middle American values.

Some of the band members are Mormons from Las Vegas, which I knew to be common, as someone who’d lived in Salt Lake City from age 10 to 17. Reynolds recalls the Mormon Church showing interest and inviting him to high-profile events once Imagine Dragons achieved a level of success. “My bishop told me that the headquarters had reached out and been like, ‘What’s his standing with the church?’ I think they check in on their famous Mormons.”

I’m not Mormon, but unlike many non-Mormons in Utah, I’d had only positive experiences living among them for seven formative years. I’ve since been fascinated with Mormon culture and presentation to the outside world.

What I hadn’t realized was that Dan Reynolds is on a crusade that’s antithetical to everything I’d incorrectly assumed about Imagine Dragons. He’s a vocal and powerful advocate for LGBTQ rights who’s started LoveLoud, a foundation and music festival that has raised over $1 million for LGBTQ-related organizations this year. Believer, a documentary about LoveLoud, debuted last January at Sundance and is currently airing on HBO. In his quest to raise money and awareness, Reynolds is upsetting people on both sides of his argument.

“Going into this, I knew there would be people on the far right who were going to be upset. People tell me they won’t allow their kids to go to my concerts anymore; that when I get to heaven, God’s going to be upset with me because I made so many kids gay. And there’s also going to be people on the far left who are upset. Because, who the fuck am I, mister white privileged guy. And I get it, but for me, I have to speak my truth and what I believe is, when it comes to issues like this, everybody has to do their part.”

I meet Reynolds in his hotel suite in Madrid in September 2018, where the next day, Imagine Dragons will wrap up a 116-date world tour. I’m his last interview of the tour, but I feel like his first. Reynolds is energetic and attentive as I spend our first five minutes explaining how my background informs my particular interest in his story. For those five minutes, Reynolds stares me squarely in the eye, only interrupting to offer me a pour from what’s likely a 20 euro bottle of water. An hour flies by and I leave feeling like Reynolds would have gladly continued discussing a topic about which he feels extremely passionate: teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, especially among Mormons in Utah, where the teen-suicide rate is skyrocketing.

“I have seen so much damage done to these families. I’ve met with so many parents who’ve lost kids to suicide. I have so much fire about it. I want change, and I know that I can help make change.” Reynolds becomes emotional when he uses the word kids, which he does often when describing his band’s audience.

Every night during Imagine Dragons’ show, Reynolds brings out a bright, shiny rainbow flag, which he drapes over his shoulders. Fans reciprocate by holding up their own flags. Some are store-bought, others are homemade — sometimes from their parents’ color printers. At a time when audience engagement can be measured by how many smartphones an artist can see, the flags are more unifying than any lighter app. They demonstrate more solidarity than a sea of selfie sticks.

“We just played in Turkey. You wanna say scary place to have people bring up rainbow flags? There was a kid right in the front row, and we had this moment where I was looking at him, and he had glitter on his eyes, and he was just this really beautiful, beautiful individual, and I was singing ‘It’s Time,’ which has the lyric, ‘I’m never changing who I am.’ And I’m looking at him and seeing him with tears in his eyes, and it made my eyes well up, and I thought, Wow, this is so real for so many kids. Those are the moments when it’s all just noise to me. Because I’m on ground zero and things are happening,” he says.

The Mormon Church is infamously associated with its support of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in California in 2008. The New York Times stated that the church “tipped the scale” in the narrow 52 percent victory with its aggressive advertising campaign and significant financial contributions.

While the Mormon Church doesn’t prohibit same-sex attraction, its members are forbidden to act upon it. The church recently released a series of official videos under the headline Mormon and Gay that tells the real-life stories of LGBTQ Mormons and demonstrates that it’s okay: You can feel gay and be Mormon. It’s acceptable to feel conflicted … even suicidal. One 48-second video begins with a very clear message: LGBT People Who Live God’s Laws Can Fully Participate in the Church. The church is basically saying: You can be gay, but you can’t be out. It’s a position with which Reynolds takes great issue.

“The infuriating part for me and for all these kids is that it’s actually doing more damage because now what they’re doing is saying: ‘There is a place for you. A safe place for you. Come on in. But here are your options: Celibacy, mixed orientation marriage — so marry outside your sexual preference, or lie, or tell the truth and be excommunicated.’”

The Mormon Church is clear in its definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The church once allowed members to practice plural marriage (or polygamy) — the marriage of one man and more than one woman. The U.S. government threatened to disband the Utah Territory if it refused to discontinue the illegal practice, and in 1890, Wilford Woodruff, the president of the church, received a revelation from God advising that plural marriage cease. Government pressure then dissipated, and Utah was granted its statehood shortly thereafter.

A more recent revelation occurred in 1978, when the church accepted black men into its priesthood, late on the heels of the civil-rights movement — a revelation that allowed black men to physically enter a Mormon temple for the first time. Its 40th anniversary this year received a garish celebration, which was livestreamed and featured a performance by the black Mormon singer Gladys Knight.

Both of these revelations coincided with great political pressure. In 1890, the Mormon Church had existed for a mere 60 years. Its founder, Joseph Smith, had been killed by a mob while jailed in Illinois, and the Mormons were forced to migrate across the United States, finally finding a safe and permanent home in Utah. Refusal to end plural marriage would have been tantamount to suicide for the young religion. Nearly 90 years later in 1978, the church had expanded around the globe and was experiencing rapid growth in South America, where many new converts were of African descent. How could a religion build temples in new countries while simultaneously refusing entry to its newly converted members? God spoke again.

Now, it’s 2018 and same-sex marriage is legal in most states. The most famous Mormon in music, Dan Reynolds, is playing the stadiums of the world, wielding a rainbow flag every night. HBO is airing a documentary about his successful, lucrative festival. Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced Imagine Dragons at this year’s LoveLoud festival in Salt Lake City. Speaking to the crowd of over 35,000, Cook’s introduction began, “I stand before you tonight as an uncle, a sports nut, a CEO, a lover of the beautiful Utah outdoors, and a proud, gay American!” Surely, the Mormon Church is paying attention.

“Do I think that I’m going to lead to change in the church? If I were even to say that, I feel like the church would dig in their heels even more, and all I want is change so … it’s a complicated answer,” Reynolds says. “But do I think that I have a responsibility to speak to all these kids who listen to Imagine Dragons, and there are so many of them, all these families come to our shows, and to slowly just speak this truth of mine. And whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter, it’s my truth.”

Reynolds spent two years sharing what he believed was his truth when he served as a Mormon missionary in Lincoln, Nebraska, from age 19 to 21. Like all missionaries, he was allowed only two phone calls home each year on Mother’s Day and Christmas.

“You have this little white handbook of rules that are so strict. I followed every rule. Wake up at 6:30, exercise for half an hour. Read personal study for an hour. Companionship study for an hour — reading the bible — super-boring shit. Then, go out and knock on doors all day; eat lunch at 12 for one hour; come home; eat dinner at 6 for one hour. Come home at 9. That’s your day. Rinse, repeat [for] two years. And you’re the scum of the earth — get spit on, get sucker punched.”

“The great thing about it that came from it is, it teaches you to speak your truth, regardless. I stood up on a soapbox in the middle of Old Market in Lincoln and was like, ‘People of the world!’” Reynolds’s volume increases dramatically and his hands naturally open to the sky. “‘I am Elder Reynolds. I’m here to teach you a lesson about Jesus Christ and how he cares about you and loves you. There is a place for you in heaven. I’m sure you’ve always asked yourself the question: Why am I here? Where am I going? Well, there’s an answer.’ That stuff. You become the ultimate salesman.”

On July 18, 2018, the Mormon Church issued a statement assumed by many to show support of LoveLoud, but not in the way that people hope it someday will:

We remain committed to support community efforts throughout the world to prevent suicide, bullying, and homelessness. Every young person should feel loved and cared for in their families, their communities, and their congregations. We can come together, bringing our perspectives and beliefs, and make each community a safe place for all. We appreciate the sincere efforts of many who are trying to prevent suicide, bullying, and homelessness among vulnerable groups, including LGBT youth. We are grateful to be a part of the work to find solutions.

The Mormon Church is not the only organization to respond to LoveLoud. Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, officially declared July 28 LoveLoud Day statewide. Major festival sponsor AT&T created a YouTube series, Turn Up the Love, in which Reynolds has rather incredible conversations with various members of the LGBTQ community. In one conversation, Reynolds ends the segment by telling model and actress Carmen Carrera, “I think you are absolutely beautiful and powerful, and what you are doing for transgender youth especially, I’m sure is, is so much beyond comprehension. You’re amazing.” Reynolds and Carrera embrace, and the screen fills with the hashtag #turnupthelove.

With a new Imagine Dragons album, Origins, Reynolds has no plans to step back in favor of traditional album promotion. “I love the band. I love making music. I love everything Imagine Dragons stands for. But it’s given me a platform to do things that I think are way bigger than the band.” Reynolds mentions with enthusiasm that LoveLoud 3 is already being planned and draws a clear connection to Origins, most of which was written within the past year. “The band broke with this song called ‘It’s Time,’ which was like, ‘I’m never changing who I am.’ Now I’m 31 years old, and I’m like … um … maybe you should change who you are. It’s just funny now, our fourth record, the theme of it really is totally encapsulated in a line from the song ‘Digital’: ‘We don’t want to change, we just want to change everything.’”

There’s a remarkable juxtaposition in Imagine Dragons’ singer using his platform to fight this fight. Much like the lure of statehood and pressure after the civil-rights movement may have influenced previous church decisions, it’s possible that Dan Reynolds and the noise made by LoveLoud will spark the Mormon Church’s next great revelation.

“You get these Mormon missionaries who are so used to people spitting on them and saying you’re a piece of shit, and then just sticking to their truth. So here I am. I know my truth. Resolute. I can bear my testimony about that all day, when they’re bearing their testimony about Joseph Smith — I’ll die on that sword. So, the church made me into this.”

Why Imagine Dragons’ Frontman Is Fighting for LGBTQ Rights