Mr. Reynolds Goes to Washington: Imagine Dragons Frontman Takes His Fight For LGBTQ+ Rights to DC
“Before today, I would have told you my mission is to put on a festival every year and try to change the culture within faith in regard to LGBTQ issues. But now I feel like I have a new added mission, which is to try to change legislation and push bills, and make real changes within our politics as well.”
Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragons and notable activist, is taking a moment on Wednesday evening (Feb. 5) to exhale with Billboard upstairs at the DC headquarters of the MPAA at a screening of his 2018 documentary Believer. It’s the culmination of a jam-packed day on Capitol Hill that began with Reynolds addressing the House Democratic Caucus, and incorporated meetings with members of Congress -- including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who sat down with Reynolds hours before he delivered his historic impeachment vote -- to elevate concerns of the LGBTQ+ community.
Reynolds, whose day in the nation’s capital was arranged in partnership with the Equality Caucus, was joined by Carmen Carrera, a transgender woman who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race among other TV, and Tyler Glenn, Neon Trees lead singer and a board member of LoveLoud, the foundation Reynolds started in 2017 to ignite conversations within the Mormon community about loving their LGBTQ+ youth. LoveLoud primarily has focused on gathering communities at arts festivals around Utah in conjunction with local organizations. Until now.
“The path that has led me here has been people living their truth,” says Reynolds, who grew up in Las Vegas “as Mormon as they come” -- missionary trips, door-knocking (his best trick was placing the Book of Mormon above the door jam, catching it as it fell when a resident opened the door and pronouncing, “Look, a gift from above!”), et all.
Empathizing with countless friends growing up and fans today, whose gender identity has rendered them victims of bullying, isolation and worse, lit a fire in Reynolds he says he couldn’t ignore. “It’s the typical story of people who grew up in faith. There was no room for them, no safe space for them,” he says.
“I had to go through a lot of personal pain before I felt OK in my body,” says Glenn, who is gay and grew up in the Mormon church before eventually feeling he had to leave it. “It’s been such an opportunity to come from such a place of hurt and turn it into LoveLoud.”
“Sadly it takes a straight man with a lot of privilege to come in as well, to actually get things done,” Reynolds says. “And I think that’s a damn shame, in 2020 something you’d think would not be necessary. But it’s just a truth of the matter.”
Yesterday’s visit centered primarily around two pieces of legislation: The Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act (H.R. 1981), introduced in March 2019 by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), and co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, and the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act (H.R. 3570), introduced last June by Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D-CA) and vice chair of the Equality Caucus.
So-called conversion therapy attempts to “cure” the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ+ people. Despite this practice being discredited by the American Psychiatric Assn. and American College of Physicians, among other organizations, it continues throughout much of the country. Conversion therapy has been outlawed in 19 states, including Utah, the most recent to join the ban on Jan. 22.
At a meeting earlier in the day with Maloney, Lieu, members of the Equality Caucus and others, to which Billboard was invited, the discussion centered on the nexus of faith, civil rights and family to stem a tragic tide. LGBTQ+ youth in unaccepting homes and communities are eight times more likely to die by suicide and three times more likely to engage in risky drug use, according to LoveLoud.
It’s a conversation that deeply resonates with Maloney, the first openly gay person elected to Congress in the state of New York, who shared his own story about his father’s initial resistance, then change of heart, about attending his wedding to his partner of 22 years. “In the end, it forced the issue, and he chose me, his kid… Talk to your kids. Do it for your kid.”
Much of the impetus behind the LoveLoud fests, Reynolds said, is forcing the conversation between kids and parents. “Our ultimate goal is to bring LoveLoud to all these [other] states,” he says. “Kids are going to their parents and saying, ‘I want to go to LoveLoud,’ and the parents say, ‘That sounds like a gay festival, you can’t go to that.’ ‘Well, my favorite bands are there. And let’s talk about this gay thing anyway.’ These conversations are uncomfortable, they don’t want to have them, but that’s where the change happens.”
“Faith is not the problem. It is, I believe, the solution,” Maloney said. “It is the heart and soul of every civil rights movement that has happened in in the United States. Unfortunately our opponents have camouflaged their efforts with what they call faith in these concepts of religious liberty. But we need to see through that, because we must not create a society where we allow more discrimination against LGBTQ people than anyone else because in that space, practices like this continue to hurt kids. You gotta get clear on when federal law is shielding sincere religious practice and when it is permitting people to use distorted views of faith as a weapon to hurt other people.”
Evan Lamberg, Universal Music Publishing president, North America, who helped orchestrate the meetings, said he believed yesterday’s meetings will kick-start a momentum of acceptance. “If you have faith meeting civil rights at the right cross-section, you get acceptance,” he said. “And once you get acceptance, it moves forward.”
All in the room acknowledge there’s work to be done on both the federal and state levels, as a rash of new legislation in many states openly attacks the gay community. Reynolds says it’s time for others in the music industry with influence to step up.
“We need our artists who are on the far right to speak up and be better allies,” he told Billboard. “We need more country artists to come forward and say, ‘I love our gay community and conversion therapy needs to be done away with.’ That makes a big difference.”
“It’s all about the allies,” Carrera said. “Our community is so much smaller compared with the public at large and at times we are feeling so lost and drowned in this conversation.”
Reynolds drew parallels between elevating LGBTQ+ rights and gun reform. In the aftermath of the mass slaughter at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, Reynolds said he booked a date on the National Mall to host a fest in support of gun-sense legislation.
“We were this close to putting it on. I’m not going to name-drop, but there were big artists on board,” he said. “But we could not rally enough big country artists, and so we didn’t do it because the last thing I wanted it to feel like was the far left coming forward and trying to get rid of guns. We weren’t trying to get rid of guns, we were just saying we need reform. I had a lot of conversations with these big country artists who said, ‘You know what, I actually agree that this needs to happen but I just can’t quite do it. If you can get that person to do it, I’ll do it.’ I chased it around and around. It was frustrating. It’s the same thing for LGBT. We need the far right, we need big county stars to step up and say, ‘I am an ally,’ and to put their money where their mouth is.”
Maloney drew his own parallels on Capitol Hill. “I’d take a few allies in the middle at this point,” he said of the legislation. “We need to get the other political party to say this transcends partisan politics.”
Yesterday’s venture showed some signs of bipartisanship, primarily in the state where LoveLoud’s presence is greatest. Besides Romney, the team met with Republican Utah Congressmen Rep. John Curtis and Rep. Chris Stewart, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-CA), as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Sen. Patty Murphy (D-WA), Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), and Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA). They also held a Congressional briefing in partnership with the Trevor project and NCLR.
Lieu noted the importance of having popular culture figures like Reynolds, “with access we simply don’t have,” on the front line.
“We’re in two-year legislative cycles where Sean [Maloney] and I will vote over a thousand times, and 80% to 90% of those votes we don’t get a single meeting, phone call, fax, email. Congressmen aren’t walking around thinking about conversion therapy. So when people like Dan come up, and force this issue, it’s very important because now people have to think about it. Awareness is a big battle.”