By Kate Sosin and Nico Lang
Thousands of people will descend on the Usana Amphitheatre in West Valley City, Utah, on Saturday for the third annual LoveLoud Festival. Intended to raise awareness about LGBTQ youth suicide in the conservative, largely Mormon state, the daylong concert features an inclusive, star-studded lineup. Headliner Kesha is performing alongside lesbian indie pop duo Tegan and Sara, nonbinary singer Shamir, and gay country star Ty Herndon.
Last year’s event featured appearances from Apple CEO Tim Cook and Olympian Gus Kenworthy. Ellen Degeneres and Katy Perry pre-recorded a video expressing support for LGBTQ youth. Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds (pictured above), who founded the festival, performed while draped in a rainbow flag.
In its brief, three-year lifespan, LoveLoud has already become a major success. The 2018 concert at Salt Lake City’s Rice-Eccles Stadium was attended by more than 30,000 people, while raising over $1 million for LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organizations like The Trevor Project. Reynolds has said the festival hopes to top those attendance and fundraising goals this year.
But local LGBTQ groups in Utah say the spoils of LoveLoud have not trickled down to all members of the community.
Organizations like Provo Pride anticipated grants of up to $10,000 for tabling at the July festival and providing services for attendees, with most groups requesting the full amount. It took them months to get paid. When their checks finally arrived, they were substantially less than what they say organizers with LoveLoud had “strongly implied” they would receive.
The shortage caused many LGBTQ groups to cut programming for the local community in Utah as a result.
“Some of us are doing really hard work that can’t be done by a large outside organization,” Jerilyn Hassell Pool, founder of the LGBTQ nonprofit QueerMeals, tells NewNowNext. “And so for a lot of people, for myself anyway, it was exciting to be included in something that was on a more national platform. But the impact on us locally was painful because we don’t get to see that money, and we’re the ones doing the hard work here.”
More than a dozen charity partners were invited to table at the 2018 LoveLoud event. In addition to PFLAG, Provo Pride, and QueerMeals, the latter of which disperses free food and groceries to those in need, there was Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Mormons, and the Northern Utah chapter of GLSEN.
According to community groups who spoke to NewNowNext, charity partners were expected to provide an “interactive experience for up to 25,000 people.” The Provo-Utah County Chapter of PFLAG gave out free henna tattoos and brochures for the Family Acceptance Project, which works to combat rejection of LGBTQ youth in their families and communities. The group also sold t-shirts to attendees.
Meanwhile, QueerMeals brought buttons that festival goers could wear to educate others on their pronouns, as well as a button maker to create custom designs on the spot. They also handed out postcards listing suicidal hotlines. Their costs for the day totaled between $800-900.
These amenities had to be paid for out of pocket. Randy Glasscock, the PFLAG chapter’s president, says even a couple hundred bucks adds up quickly for groups that operate on extremely modest budgets throughout the year.
“We don’t really do any fundraising,” Glasscock tells NewNowNext. “We just ask for donations.”
But to offset these expenses, LoveLoud allowed LGBTQ organizations to apply for grants between $2,500 and $10,000. Given the success of the festival, most expected to be paid the full amount. Partner groups hoped to use the funding to expand resources to the community offered throughout the year. Provo Pride wanted to have a gathering at a local library around the Christmas season, a difficult time for many LGBTQ people, where they would hang up lights, bake cookies, and raffle off prizes.
That event did not materialize. Brianna Cluck, president of Provo Pride, says LoveLoud told the group they would be paid out on September 1. When September rolled around, there was no news about when payments would arrive. When Cluck emailed representatives with LoveLoud, she says they told her, “We are working on it right now and we’ll get it to you soon.”
“That’s when it started to fall apart,” she explains to NewNowNext.
November came and went without a check. Community groups reached out to LoveLoud without receiving a firm answer as to when they could expect the money they had applied for. December, January, and February were no different. According to John Gustav-Wrathall, executive director of Affirmation, he sent festival representatives “at least four or five emails” asking, “When did you say this was going to come?”
“I’m sure that this was the first time that they have tried to do something like this so they did not anticipate some of the kinds of challenges that they might encounter in trying to organize this kind of support effort,” he tells NewNowNext.
March was the breaking point. Kesha announced she would be headlining the 2019 LoveLoud concert, even though the festival still had not followed through on paying charity partners from the previous year. Incensed, Pool retweeted the singer and asked followers: “Did you know that the LGBTQ Community Partners that were featured last year have still never received any of the promised money?”
“And that Dan Reynolds, who promised to personally meet with local LGBTQ leaders to address the mess last year, has never followed through?” she added.
Did you know that the LGBTQ Community Partners that were featured last year have still never received any of the promised money? And that Dan Reynolds, who promised to personally meet with local LGBTQ leaders to address the mess last year, has never followed through? https://t.co/8cY2yJw22O
— Doog AF (@AuntMarvel) March 13, 2019
Although LoveLoud claimed all bathrooms would be gender-neutral at its 2018 concert, only two restrooms at Rice-Eccles Stadium were. At least a dozen trans people, whether volunteers, festival attendees, or members of community partner groups, reported experiencing discrimination at the event.
Bobbee Trans Mooremon, a former board member of QueerMeals, says she was turned away from the men’s bathroom. A volunteer said she was in the “wrong” facilities.
“I felt really disappointed and unseen in this concert that was supposed to celebrate LGBTQ people,” she told the LGBTQ news website INTO after last year’s event. “It was supposed to be bringing the community together—it was supposed to be our night.”
The incident was so traumatic, says Pool, that QueerMeals left the event early, as did Provo Pride. QueerMeals also announced the organization would be declining any funds they received from LoveLoud. Forfeiting grant money from the festival represented a significant loss to the group, which relies on donations from the community in order to operate. On its website, QueerMeals explains that a $10 gift buys an LGBTQ young person cereal and two gallons of milk. Fifty dollars gets them three pizzas.
After tweeting that charity partners still had not received their grant money, LGBTQ organizations finally heard from LoveLoud. According to Cluck, representatives with the festival “demanded to speak with Provo Pride immediately.”
Despite the fact that Pool, who is with a different organization, was the one who had tweeted about the issue, representatives asked Provo Pride to issue a statement of support for the festival on a phone call with LoveLoud. They hoped to dispel any negativity surrounding the fest. Because Utah is a one-party consent state, LGBTQ community groups recorded that call, which was shared with NewNowNext.
In a 22-minute conversation, LoveLoud suggested that Provo Pride write social media posts “stating that we’re moving forward.”
Representatives with the festival suggested that Cluck post the following on Twitter and Facebook: “We engaged in discussion and that was it just a simple misunderstanding, but that everything was corrected and we’re therefore working together going forward in addition to all these other amazing LGBTQ organizations and partners in the community.”
At the time of the phone call, Provo Pride still hadn’t been paid. Cluck told LoveLoud that her organization would happily put out a statement after the grant money came in, but not sooner.
Cluck told the festival its request was a “pretty bad look.”
“It’s not really inspiring a lot of confidence,” she told LoveLoud during the conversation. “I don’t want to make it sound super personal, but this has made Provo Pride lose a little bit of confidence.”
Organizers agreed some things had fallen through the cracks but told Provo Pride that the fest’s intentions were honorable. One representative with LoveLoud explained to Cluck that “the decision was taken to support as many different organizations as possible at as many different scales.”
Six months after charity partners were promised their checks, they finally began being mailed out to local LGBTQ organizations.
However, the totals were significantly less than these groups say they initially expected from LoveLoud. Provo Pride and Affirmation received $2,500, the bare minimum of what they could apply for. The Provo-Utah County and Salt Lake City chapters of PFLAG received $2,500 but were expected to split the money between them, meaning that each branch only got $1,250 out of the $8,500 they had requested.
What’s more, many of the checks were originally sent out to the wrong organizations. After the Provo-Utah County chapter of PFLAG “called monthly” to inquire as to when the grant money would arrive, the check they received was made out to Provo Pride.
“I don’t think they’ve been transparent,” a member of PFLAG, who asked their name not be included in this story, tells NewNowNext. “I don’t think that they were forthcoming. That might be because of organizational skills. I mean, they have this huge festival that came out and that was successful, but I don’t think they had the people with experience to know how to manage that.”
Luke Burland, a spokesperson for LoveLoud, confirmed to NewNowNext that checks did arrive late to organizations.
“In our enthusiasm to support our partners, we committed to announcement dates that turned out to be unrealistic given the amount of time it took to collect sponsor donations,” she writes in an email. “That being said, every organization was paid the agreed amount they were owed (everyone signed off on their amount which we have in writing). Also, we did inform each and every one of them of the late payment.”
While all charity partners have now been paid for the 2018 festival, LGBTQ organizations who attended LoveLoud say the damage has already been done.
Although the Provo-Utah County chapter of PFLAG generally meets at a local church on the first Tuesday of every month, it has to find other spaces on occasions when the library cannot host them due to scheduling conflicts. Without the money to rent another space, the group had to cancel meetings three times during the past 12 months. Some attendees didn’t get the message, says a representative with Provo-Utah County PFLAG, and showed up anyway.
“They rely on this consistency and to then go there, knock on the door, and nobody’s answering,” a source with the group says, “it shows them they don’t have the support they thought they did.”
Meanwhile, Affirmation had planned to use the extra money for suicide prevention training. Provo Pride was months late in paying security for its annual LGBTQ Pride festival, which takes place in September. The event is held directly across from the Mormon Temple in Provo.
“I’m honestly surprised they didn’t send creditors after us,” Cluck says of the bill. “It was something to the tune of $3,000.”
Not every LGBTQ organization walked away from the festival feeling the sting of being shortchanged. Understanding Same-Gender Attraction (USGA), an unofficial student group at Brigham Young University, only received $500. However, Liza Holdaway, the club’s current president, says it didn’t need more grant money than that in order to hold events for LGBTQ students at the Mormon college.
Notably, major national organizations reported substantial donations from the event. The Trevor Project, which operates a national suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth, received $200,000, according to Kevin Wong, its head of communications.
“The energy was incredible,” Wong describes to NewNowNext, noting that The Trevor Project was featured onstage during a 60-second PSA on suicide prevention.
Maggie Neilson, executive director for Tegan and Sara Foundation, says LoveLoud fulfilled its commitment financial promises to the foundation, by paying in full and on time. Tegan Quin, one half of the music group, sits on the board of the LoveLoud Foundation, and Neilson now works in communications for LoveLoud. According to Neilson, LoveLoud didn’t get checks from its corporate sponsors until December.
“I know the sense on our side was we were happy to wait and get more, so my sense was they kind of closed the books at the end of the year,” Neilson tells NewNowNext.
Neilson adds that the delay in getting local LGBTQ community groups paid out is “totally normal.” “When I’ve done festivals, a six-month window is about what it takes to collect all the sponsor checks,” she says, but did not disclose how much money LoveLoud granted to the Tegan and Sara Foundation.
But LGBTQ organizations in the Utah area say the issue is bigger than how quickly they were paid out. It’s about trust and lack of accountability, they argue. When Pool posted on Facebook about the discrimination transgender people faced while using the bathrooms at LoveLoud last year, she tagged Reynolds in the post. The Imagine Dragons frontman reached out to her and offered to host a roundtable with the trans community to discuss how to make LoveLoud more inclusive in future years.
“Dan commented and apologized and said he would make it better,” Pool says. “In private messages to me, he also said we’re going to fix this so will never happen again. And then I have not heard from him since.”
While Burland says all volunteers for the 2019 event have undergone sensitivity training through Gender Spectrum in light of last year’s bathroom incidents, the culture clash between LoveLoud and the LGBTQ community it hopes to advocate for goes deeper. According to Cluck, last year’s event was catered by Chick-fil-A, which handed out “Chick-fil-a Loves You” lunchboxes to volunteers and charity partners. The organization has long been criticized for its donations to anti-LGBTQ groups.
Burland says there’s a reasonable explanation for the controversial fast-food chain’s presence at the festival. “[O]ne of the most devoted allies to the LGBTQ community,” she claims, “owns a Chick-fil-A in Utah.” She adds that the franchise “wanted to be able to provide a free meal to volunteers in the parking lot on [that] day of last year, so brought sandwiches for them.”
Cluck argues that reasoning is “comically out of touch.”
“They should have known the strained relationship on a national level that the LGBTQ community has with Chick-fil-a,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been hard to get catering from any other fast food place—like Little Caesar’s, that guy donated his money to pay Rosa Parks’ rent. I would’ve been okay with that instead of eating homophobic chicken.”
Everyone interviewed by NewNowNext agreed that they want LoveLoud to succeed, recognizing the event’s singular importance to Utah’s LGBTQ community. After the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a since-repealed policy in November 2015 saying the children of same-sex married couples are ineligible for baptism, local advocacy groups estimate that more than 30 young people took their own lives over the next three months.
Reynolds, who was raised Mormon, has said those losses are what inspired him to create LoveLoud three years ago. He told The Salt Lake Tribune in July 2018 that his end goal is to one day read the headline: “Most Mormon state in the U.S. now has the lowest suicide rate for LGBTQ youth.”
“I wanna show the world that this can happen in the last place you would ever think,” the singer said at the time.
LoveLoud believes that all parties have already begun making progress following the missteps of previous years. According to Burland, more than 20 charity partners which participated in 2018 will be returning for Saturday’s concert. Notably, though, organizers with the festival said they gave 16 organizations money in 2018 on the taped phone call with Provo Pride.
Cluck could not confirm how many LGBTQ charity partners would be participating in this year’s festival but says that when she posted on Facebook to ask who else would be attending LoveLoud on Saturday, the response was “crickets.”
“I do hope we as a community can not let perfection be the enemy of the good,” Neilson says.