A small parking lot in the middle of a blisteringly hot summer afternoon may hardly seem like the ideal setting for a party, but on July 27, there was legitimate cause for celebration. Activists, politicians and celebrities alike celebrated the opening of Encircle, a new LGBTQ center in Salt Lake City. The first Encircle house, located in Provo, was founded in 2017 by Stephanie Larsen. Larsen started this charity to provide resources and support to LGBTQ youth and families. Encircle provides counseling services, support groups, service projects, social events and a safe space for youth who may be ostracized or endangered due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In an emotional speech to open the new house, Larsen shared her mission for Encircle. “What brings us together today is that we are united in a common goal of love and equality in Utah for all,” she said. Larsen was inspired to start Encircle after witnessing the struggles of so many families with LGBTQ people. “I thought that my own backyard was one of the hardest places in America to grow up LGBTQ.” Motivated by a mission statement of “no sides, only love,” Larsen’s program quickly grew. Thanks to generous donations and tireless work from dedicated staff members and volunteers, Encircle now has houses in Provo and Salt Lake, with an upcoming center planned in St. George. Larsen believes that her mission is working — she proudly announced, “In the last 18 months, we haven’t lost one of our youth.”
The intimate and unflashy dedication of Encircle felt markedly different than the loud, crowded concert that followed 24 hours later, but the two events shared a common mission. In fact, it was the latter event that made the former possible. LoveLoud was founded in 2017 by Imagine Dragons front man Dan Reynolds to encourage love and acceptance for LGBTQ youth and to raise money for charities supporting the queer community. Since its inception, LoveLoud has received local and national media attention, high profile corporate sponsors and even support from the Utah government. At the dedication of Encircle, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox read a statement from Gov. Gary Herbert officially declaring July 28, 2018 as LoveLoud Day in Utah.
The festival lineup was filled with musicians, artists and activists. The main performers included underground rock singer-songwriter Vagabon, indie-pop musician A.W., Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn, “America’s Got Talent” winner Grace VanderWaal and Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda. Comedian Cameron Esposito emceed the festival. German DJ Zedd performed a crowd-pleasing set that combined remixes of his own hit songs and snippets of other artists’ well-known music. Closing out the show, Reynolds and Imagine Dragons held a lengthy, celebratory performance. Throughout the concert, Reynolds emotionally expressed his love for the LGBTQ community and promoted a message of love and acceptance. Reynolds was especially vocal about mental illness and suicide, issues that disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth. His voice audibly breaking, Reynolds candidly spoke of his struggles with depression and his determination to fight against suicide. “[We have] passion and [a] desire to not lose our youth. We cannot lose anymore. . . . We must change our culture.”
The event was also punctuated with various guest appearances. LGBTQ celebrities such as Justin Tranter, Gus Kenworthy and Carmen Carrera voiced their support for the LGBTQ community. Many activists, including Trevor Project CEO Amit Paley and Tegan Quin of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, also made appearances. A prerecorded video included short statements from many celebrities, including Katy Perry, the cast of “Queer Eye,” David Archuleta, Brendon Urie, Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres. Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a passionate speech with a simple message to LGBTQ youth: “your life matters.” The event even gave a platform for LGBTQ youth themselves — in one particularly moving moment, a chorus of kids from Encircle sang “This is Me” from the film “The Greatest Showman.”
LoveLoud was hosted in a city with a notoriously complicated relationship with the LGBTQ community. Many are surprised to learn that Salt Lake City has a robust gay community — a larger percentage of people in SLC identify as LGBTQ than in Los Angeles. However, many activists have expressed concern for many queer youth as Utah can be a difficult place to find a supportive community. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers sexual relations between two members of the same sex to be a sin, and the Church publicly supported Proposition 8, an amendment to the California state Constitution opposing gay marriage. While Reynolds and other event organizers avoided direct antagonism or hot-button political issues, the event was not free of controversy. Reynolds did not hide his disappointment surrounding Mormonism’s relationship with LGBTQ people, and the Church did not endorse this year’s festival. (The Church endorsed the first LoveLoud festival last summer).
While the festival aimed to promote messages of acceptance and inspire vulnerable LGBTQ youth, LoveLoud was also designed to raise money for LGBTQ charities. This year’s festival donated money to organizations including Encircle, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which advocates specifically for queer women and the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. Using ticket sales, merchandising sales and direct donations, LoveLoud raised more than one million dollars for these charities.
Though Reynolds has received significant attention and praise for his activism and work with the LoveLoud Festival, he insisted that others deserved accolades. “It’s embarrassing to me that a white, privileged straight man is now the talk of LoveLoud. I want to take that spotlight and put it where it should be, which is on people who have done this for a long time [and] on our LGBTQ youth.” Such people will probably never perform on stage for thousands of screaming fans, but at places like Encircle, they have a chance to thrive in a safe, supportive environment. This kind of work may not be as showy as a big concert, but its impact is real and lasting.