Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn isn’t quite sure how to describe his brand of Mormonism. Unlike, say, Catholicism or Judaism, where people sometimes identify as a member of the faith without actively participating, Mormonism tends to be more in-or-out. But Glenn doesn’t want to have to pick.
He might not attend church weekly, but Glenn, who served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, identifies as Mormon, as do the other members of the band. He also came out as gay in an article in Rolling Stone in March, something not typically viewed as compatible with the faith.
“I’m a dude that’s fighting between both identities,” he told BuzzFeed.
The reaction to his coming out surprised him. “It was a bigger deal than I expected,” he said. “A lot of people reached out.”
Among those who sent messages were local church leaders. One stake president told him, “This is a good thing you’re doing.” Old mission companions also messaged him, including some who have also come out as gay since their missions.
But not everyone’s reaction was positive. The article was posted on his mission’s Facebook wall, and “there was a lot of negative comments,” he said. It was later removed. Some strangers sent him messages saying he couldn’t be both Mormon and gay.
“I think there are a lot of gay people in all religions that feel that they don’t have a voice,” he said. “The most negativity I got was atheists being mad I still had faith in my church.”
Glenn grew up in Temecula, Calif., a suburban town about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and was raised Mormon. He was aware of his sexuality from a young age, but always kept it “compartmentalized,” he said. With hairstyles that were more aspiring rock star than future president of the College Republicans, he didn’t fit the stereotypical clean-cut Mormon mold.
After graduating high school in 2002, he knew he didn’t want to go to college and was unsure about serving a mission. That summer, however, he read the Book of Mormon and “had a spiritual experience,” and he knew he should serve, he said.
Young Mormon men and women don’t get to choose where they’ll go on their missions, but find out their assignment in a letter sent from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. The opening of a mission call is a rite of passage; friends and family gather and guess where their loved one will serve. Glenn said he began crying after reading he was being sent to the Nebraska Omaha Mission, hoping for somewhere more exotic.
Despite his initial disappointment with being called to Nebraska, he came to love it: “I would buy a house in one of the small towns [there].” If it wasn’t for his band’s success, “I would always say my favorite two years were my mission,” he said.
He shed his wild hair and donned a white shirt, tie, and name tag, but kept an old yearbook photo in his missionary handbook, which he would pull out and show people he was teaching. “I just felt like it added a humanity to it,” he said.
Glenn found his mission to be an escape; for two years, he didn’t have to worry about his sexuality. “It’s a safe zone,” he said. “It’s so non-sexual.” While he was serving as a zone leader, a mission leadership position, another missionary came out to him. Glenn didn’t tell the missionary about himself.
He spent just less than half his mission in Hastings, Neb., a town of less than 25,000 residents two-and-a-half hours outside Omaha. It was there he said he came to feel he’d made the right choice about serving. Knocking on doors one day, he and his companion met a family of four they soon began teaching.”We ended up having a connection,” Glenn said. The family was eventually baptized, and while Glenn was still in the town, they started teaching another family.
On “Living In Another World,” a track off Neon Trees’ April LP Pop Psychology, Glenn sings about coming to terms with his sexuality. “I guess I’ve always been this way / It’s been hard for me to say / Close my eyes, it’ll go away.”
When he returned from his mission, Glenn dated a woman for two years. She broke up with him in a letter, writing he couldn’t love her “the way I need to be loved.” Glenn, who turned 30 last year, now looks back on his twenties with a sense of regret.
“I was always trying to change,” he said. “I wasn’t truly able to date someone and date openly.”
But coming out has been a relief. “It’s taken a giant weight, as it should, off my shoulders,” he said. “I’m way less hard on myself than I used to be.” When performing their 2011 hit “Everybody Talks,” (“It started with a whisper / And that was when I kissed her”) on their current tour, Glenn pauses to tell the crowd, “Well, it wasn’t a her.”
“I think everyone in general appreciates honesty,” he said.
Glenn’s refusal to give up his Mormonism and sexuality is another sign of the greater shift in culture toward acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2014, not only can someone be openly gay and a professional athlete or marry their same-sex partner in a state like Arkansas, but they can be gay and a person of faith.
“When you don’t fit into a box, or you fit in two boxes,” it confuses people, Neon Trees drummer Elaine Bradley said.
But being open about their beliefs has helped fans connect with the band and their music. Bradley filmed a video for the Mormon Church’s “I’m A Mormon” series that highlights members who defy stereotypes.
“I think both Tyler and I hope to dispel myths and prejudices,” she said.
Pop Psychology is Neon Trees’ third album, and their highest charting; it debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Glenn credits Neon Trees beginnings in the Provo, Utah, music scene as one of the ingredients for their success.
“I love that there are all these all-age venues there,” he said. “The audience is so unique because for the most part, it’s sober. You can’t be an average bar band.” He also said Mormon culture is supportive of the arts. “I think they’ve always given musical people an outlet.”
In the band’s recent music video for “First Things First,” Glenn, Bradley, and guitarists Chris Allen and Branden Campbell perform in front of a white screen as photos and videos from high school, their missions, their weddings, and with their kids are projected. “I think it gives [fans] somebody to identify with,” Bradley said of the band referencing their personal lives and identities in their music and in public.
Glenn called Pop Psychology, “the record we feel like we really need to build the band now,” and looks forward to more to come.
“I always want to do music,” he said. “I feel like it’s what God gave me as a talent. I think it’s what I’m supposed to do.”