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From Mormon Missionary To LGBTQ Advocate (And International Rock Star)

Feb 3, 2018
Originally published on February 4, 2018 1:19 pm

Dan Reynolds is known to millions of fans around the world as the lead singer of the popular band, Imagine Dragons, because of hits like "Radioactive," "Thunder," and last year's chart topper, "Believer."

The spiritual questions at the core of "Believer" are unmistakable, but also deeply personal. Now, though, Reynolds has taken those questions to new, more public terrain — the treatment of LGBTQ members of the church of Reynold's upbringing, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church.

Reynolds wrestles with the church's stance on same-sex relationships in a new documentary, also called Believer. It recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend in Park City, Utah. The documentary follows Reynolds' journey, from Mormon missionary to international rock star to LGBTQ advocate.

Reynolds spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about growing up Mormon, how his view of the church has evolved and why he decided to become an advocate for Mormon LGBTQ youth.


Interview Highlights

On how he began to question the Mormon Church's stance on same-sex relationships

When I was 18, I applied to go to BYU like my six brothers ahead of me — I have eight boys and one girl in my family. All of them went on Mormon missions, all of them went to BYU, and I was the first one in my family who was really on the brink of not getting into BYU. My grades weren't quite as good as my brothers' so I did a lot of after school and I got in by the skin of my teeth.

Then, one week before I was supposed to go, I met with a bishop and told him I had sex with my girlfriend of four years, and got kicked out of BYU — and that was a trigger point in my life. It was the first time that I kind of spiraled into depression. I was told that I had to stay home and all my friends went off to college and my roommate had to find someone else and I felt like a whole community was judging me.

I also felt like God saw me as this dirty kid who was sinful. And I think that was the first time that I started to think, you know, something's not right about this — telling a child that something that is innate, that is natural, that is beautiful, is sinful. And that was really destructive to me, and it's taken me years to see that and a lot of therapy and that's a small level of what LGBT Mormons go through — which is feeling guilt or shame about something that is innate, that should be celebrated, that is their sexuality, that is unchangeable.

Now that I've done the research and seen the suicide rate in Utah being the number one reason of death among teenagers, and LGBT youth are eight times more likely to take their lives if they're not accepted in their home or community, it's kind of been bubbling up for a long time for me.

On putting together the LoveLoud concert to support the LGBTQ community

You know, I think the first knee jerk reaction that I hear from most people that are not raised within religion or got out of religion, they say, 'Well, if it's such a dangerous place, leave religion. Leave Mormonism.' Or, 'Just tell these kids leave Mormonism.' But it's not that simple because you're actually putting kids in a more dangerous position, a lot of times. If you just tell them, 'Hey, leave Mormonism' that could be leaving their home — getting kicked out of their home and putting them in, you know, a place of even higher chance of suicide, depression, anxiety and so, it's not that simple.

The question is how do we provide a safer place for them within the walls of religion until they get to a point where they can make a decision that's safe for them; you know, to either stay within their religious upbringing or leave. And so that's what LoveLoud Festival is about, is bridging the gap between religious communities — specifically Mormonism — and the LGBTQ community. But also, we wanted to do it right in Utah, right next to the church, right next to BYU, which is where I got kicked out of college, so that the church has to see this.

On the backlash he's received after the film

You know, I had this conversation with my wife before we really stepped into this journey and we both kind of got to this point where we said, you know what, enough is enough and we have to follow our truth and follow our heart. You know, I've spent a lifetime trying not to offend people — that's one thing that Mormons are really good at is smiling and shaking your hand and doing everything they can to not offend you. And I have gotten to this point in life where I don't want to live that way anymore.

At the end of the day there are going to be people who look at this and say, "You're not Mormon enough," and then there are going to be people on the other side that are going to say, "You're not coming down hard enough on the Mormon church" and "You should leave," so I'm kind of riding this middle ground that I know is going to be offensive to people. All I can do is just be myself and follow my heart, and this is my path.

On his family's reaction

That's been the hard part. If I were to be honest with you, the comments, all those things, I can let those things go. I've been in a band for years now that some people love and some people love to hate, I'm used to letting those things slide. But my family — that's hard. And my whole family is super Orthodox Mormon. And so none of them are particularly happy with me going down this road.

I sat down with my family member, who I'm not going to name, but they, you know, they said to me, "What if you get to Heaven and God says, 'Look at all these people you led astray and you made it sound like it was OK to be gay, and that's sinful.' " And so we obviously have pretty big ideological differences and theological differences at this point but, you know, my mom and dad came to the premiere and that meant a lot to me.

It's been a strange journey and I kind of try to put the family stuff out of sight and mind. Family is everything to me, and so having kind of a strained relationship with my family in this way is definitely the hardest part.

NPR's Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the web. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi this produced this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dan Reynolds is known to millions of fans around the world as the lead singer of the popular band Imagine Dragons because of hits like "Radioactive," "Thunder," and last year's chart topper, "Believer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVER")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) Pain. You made me a, you made me a believer, believer. Pain - you break me down and build me up, believer, believer.

MARTIN: The spiritual questions at the core of that song are unmistakable but also deeply personal. Now, though, Dan Reynolds has taken those questions to new more public terrain, the treatment of LGBTQ members of the Church of Reynolds upbringing, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Church. It's a subject of a new documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival which wrapped up just last weekend in Park City, Utah. The film is called "Believer," and it follows Reynolds' journey from Mormon missionary to international rock star to LGBTQ advocate. And Dan Reynolds is with us now from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Dan Reynolds, welcome back. Thank you so much for speaking to us once again.

DAN REYNOLDS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, you know, when we talked last year, we had talked about your decision to, say, be more public about your struggles with depression and also some of the spiritual questions that you had been grappling with. But it's interesting to think back on that and realize that even as you were kind of thinking through those personal questions, you were also thinking through something a lot more public and that is the whole question about the Mormon Church's stance towards same-sex relationships. So I just wanted to ask if you had a eureka moment or what was it that brought that question to the forefront since you are yourself not gay?

REYNOLDS: Yeah. When I was 18, I applied to go to BYU like my six brothers ahead of me. I have eight boys, one girl in my family. All of them went on Mormon missions. All of them went to BYU. And I was the first one of my family who was really on the brink of not getting into BYU. My grades weren't quite as good as my brothers, so I did a lot of after school, and I got in by the skin of my teeth. And then one week before I was supposed to go, I met with a bishop and told him I had sex with my girlfriend of four years and got kicked out of BYU.

And that was a trigger point in my life. It was the first time that I kind of spiraled into depression. I was told that I had to stay home. And all my friends went off to college. And my roommate had to find someone else. And I felt like it the whole community was judging me. And then I also felt like, you know, God saw me as this dirty kid who is sinful. And I think that was the first time that I started to think, you know, something's not right about this. Telling a child that something that is innate, that is natural, that is beautiful, is sinful. And that was really destructive to me.

And it's taken me years to see that and a lot of therapy. And, you know, that's a small level of what LGBT Mormons go through, which is feeling guilt or shame about something that is innate, that should be celebrated, that is their sexuality, that is unchangeable. Now that I've done the research and seen, you know, the suicide rate in Utah being the number one reason of death among teenagers, and LGBT youth are eight times more likely to take their lives if they're not accepted in their home or community, it's kind of been bubbling up for a long time for me.

MARTIN: The film also describes the influence of your relationship with singer Aja Volkman, the woman who would eventually become your wife. And she converted to the Mormon church so that you could marry within your faith. Would you talk a little bit about that? But then, there's a very poignant aspect of that wedding that you talk about in the film. Do you mind talking about that?

REYNOLDS: Sure. Yeah. She's from Eugene, Ore., raised about as opposite from me as you could get. So we fell in love. And then when I met her, she was living with her two best friends who were gay. And so obviously when she told them that she was dating a Mormon - and this was in the heat of Prop 8 - I was seen as kind of the enemy. I was everything that was holding back their relationship from them wanting to be married. They had all been talking about, you know, handcuffing themselves to the federal building in wedding dresses. And so here comes this Mormon boy to steal her away. And they were upset about that, rightfully so.

MARTIN: And they didn't come to the wedding.

REYNOLDS: Neither of them came to our wedding because they - even if I supported them and I didn't see the same as the Mormon religion, even at that time - though I was kind of conflicted, to be honest. I didn't care, to be honest. I just felt like, oh, this doesn't affect me. I'm not gay. And I have my own things that I'm worried about. And, you know, I just never put my mind to it. But when confronted with it with her, you know, it was the first time I had to really think and dig into my heart and put aside religion and decide what I thought.

MARTIN: So you team up with Tyler Glenn from Neon Trees, who is an out gay man, and you decide to organize a concert in provo to have an awesome concert but also to show love to members of the LGBT community. Tell me, what were you hoping to accomplish with this concert?

REYNOLDS: You know, I think the first knee-jerk reaction that I hear from most people who were not raised within religion or got out of religion, they say, well, if it's such a dangerous place, leave religion. Leave Mormonism. Or tell these kids just leave Mormonism. And it's not that simple because you're actually putting kids in a more dangerous position a lot of times if you just tell them, hey, leave Mormonism. That could be leaving their home, getting kicked out of their home and putting them in, you know, a place of even a higher chance of suicide, depression, anxiety. And so it's not that simple.

So the question is, how do we provide a safer place for them within the walls of religion until they get to a point where they can make a decision that's safe for them, you know, to either stay within their religious upbringing or leave? And so that's what LoveLoud Festival is about is bridging the gap between religious communities, specifically Mormonism, and the LGBTQ community. But also, we wanted to do it right in Utah, right next to the church, right next to BYU, which is where I got kicked out of college so that the church has to see this.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you what the reaction has been so far. I mean, I mentioned earlier that the film premiered to a standing ovation and a very emotional audience at the Sundance Film Festival last month. And it played for audiences in Salt Lake City last week. But I have to tell you that some of the letters and comments to the film - there was a film website that reviewed it - have been brutal, saying basically, look, the truth is the truth. You can try to argue with it, but that's what it is, and if you don't like it, get out. And...

REYNOLDS: Get out.

MARTIN: ...I just have to ask, what are you getting? And is this what you expected? And how do you feel about that?

REYNOLDS: You know, I had this conversation with my wife before we really stepped into this journey. And we both kind of got to this point where we said, you know what? Enough is enough. And we have to follow our truth and follow our heart. And, you know, I've spent a lifetime trying to not offend people. That's one thing that Mormons are really good at is smiling and shaking your hand and doing everything they can to not offend you.

And I have gotten to this point in life where I don't want to live that way anymore. You know, at the end of the day, there's going to be people who look at this and say, you're not Mormon enough. And then there going to be people on the other side who are going to say, you're not coming down hard enough on the Mormon Church and you should leave. And so you're - I'm kind of right in this middle ground that I know is going to be offensive to people. All I can do is just be myself and follow my heart. And this is my path.

MARTIN: What about your family? How are they dealing with this?

REYNOLDS: That's been the hard part. If I were to be honest with you, the comments, all those things, I can let those things go. I've been in a band for years now that some people love and some people love to hate. I'm used to letting those things slide but my family, that's hard. And my whole family is super orthodox Mormon. And so none of them are particularly happy with me going down this road, you know. I sat down with my family member, who I'm not going to name, but they, you know, they said to me, well, you know, what if you get to heaven and God says, look at all these people you led astray and you made it sound like it was OK to be gay and that's sinful?

And all, you know, and so we obviously have pretty big ideological differences and theological differences at this point. But, you know, my mom and dad came to this - to the premiere, and that meant a lot to me. It's been a strange journey. And I kind of try to put the family stuff out of sight and mind. You know, family is everything to me. And so having a kind of a strained relationship with my family in this way has been - it's definitely the hardest part for me.

MARTIN: You know, the same week the film premiered at Sundance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon church, appointed a new prophet after the death of the previous prophet, Thomas Monson. His successor is understood to be someone who agrees...

REYNOLDS: Kind of the creator of the new policy.

MARTIN: ...Yes, exactly, who is a person who believes very strongly in this policy. And I just have to ask you, how do you - you had - on the one hand you had this incredible - I don't want to give it all away from the film - but you had this project, this very difficult task and you succeeded beyond your imagination. And yet, in the same week that your film premieres and has this marvelous reception at Sundance, this other sort of sign that perhaps it's a long road. And I just wonder what your thoughts are about that.

REYNOLDS: Yeah, you're exactly right. I think the road feels like it looks a little longer. But with that being said, I don't know, it just gives me more drive. You know, we are going to have LoveLoud two this year, in a stadium this time, and it's going to be in Salt Lake City. And we're going to love loud. It's going to be so loud that the church can't look away. And I don't think it's any coincidence that the same week that the film came out also the church put out a new initiative where they're doing suicide prevention and they're setting up hotlines. And to me, it feels, I mean, it's great.

It's a Band-Aid though. And it's a Band-Aid for something that's not going to get better until the policies change, that the actual doctrine has to change. And if there's any church that can do it, it's Mormon Church. They believe in modern-day revelation. They believe there's a prophet that lives today who talks to God and God says, for the times today, I have a new revelation for you. So I really hope they act. And we're going to do it every year until something changes, until there's no longer a need for it.

MARTIN: That's Dan Reynolds. He's the lead singer of Imagine Dragons. His new documentary, "Believer," just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It will be on HBO this summer. Dan Reynolds, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REYNOLDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVER")

IMAGINE DRAGONS: (Singing) Pain. You made me a, you made me a believer, believer. Pain. You break me down. You build me up, believer, believer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.