Provo, Utah, is home to 112,000 people, 61 Mormon churches, four coffee shops, two music clubs – and, on this crisp Friday evening in February, one bleached-blond pop singer enjoying a rare night on the town.
Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees gleams like a fluorescent highlighter as he emerges from the city’s largest rock venue, Velour, wearing a long green coat that’s the color and texture of a tennis ball, plus a Freddie Mercury T-shirt and leather pants. He strides a few doors down to the city’s other club, Muse, to check out a rapper in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles get-up called Atheist. All evening, Glenn can’t make it more than 10 paces without someone, usually a giggling, polite, teenage blonde, asking for a photo.
This happens a lot to Glenn in Provo. Neon Trees are the city’s biggest export, a New Wave-pop powerhouse with two double-platinum singles, a Buick commercial and a couple of big Glee covers. At one point, a bespectacled young guy presses his face to Glenn’s hands and reverently sighs, “I should be on my knees.”
“I wonder how he’ll feel in about a month,” Glenn muses when we clear the throng. In five weeks, Provo – an 88 percent Mormon town, in which rock clubs don’t sell alcohol, only soda – will get the news, along with the rest of the world, that Glenn has been quietly sharing with friends and family for a couple of months: He’s gay, has known he’s gay since he was six years old and has been living a closeted life for decades that choked his spirit and threatened his sanity.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially calls gay sex a “serious transgression” – the same category in which it puts rape, murder and theft – and spent an estimated $22 million fighting LGBT rights in California in the battle over Proposition 8. But, perched on a black sectional couch in his living room, Glenn says that he still identifies as a Mormon.
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“I don’t know what the rumors are, but we’re not taught that ‘homos are going to hell’ on Sunday in church,” he says. “Mostly it’s just about Christ and his teachings.” Glenn lives about 15 minutes outside of town in a cookie-cutter three-bedroom rental, where he spends most of his time either cooking or watching TV. (He also doesn’t drive.) He has decorated the walls with eyeballs, skulls and a life-size cutout of a naked Morrissey (with a 45 record covering his arsenal).
Like Glenn, the other three members of Neon Trees were raised Mormon. And while the band has no overt religious affiliation, it credits the Church of Latter-day Saints’ strict ordinances against drinking and drugs – which the members have adopted as band rules – with helping its rise. The question is: Will Neon Trees’ hometown fans embrace songs like “Living in Another World,” off their upcoming album Pop Psychology, knowing that they are about Glenn’s struggles with his sexuality? “I hope they don’t feel like we’re pulling the rug out from under them,” he says.
Glenn and Neon Trees guitarist Chris Allen were childhood neighbors in Murrieta, a San Diego suburb known for its large Mormon population and scenic vineyards – to this day, Glenn has a surfer-dude stare and proclivity for the word “stoked” that is straight-up Southern California. The second of four children born to a stay-at-home mom and a dad who sold medical devices, Glenn grew up loving pop stars like Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul and taking ballet classes. “All my brothers were in soccer, but I was terrible at sports,” he says. In seventh grade, he became curious about the Morrissey pictures on his Latino pals’ folders, discovered the Smiths and transformed himself from choirboy to New Wave brat. He started listening to the New York Dolls and frequenting thrift stores, where he put together wild outfits that got him called “fag.” By high school, he was playing in a “terrible” garage band and hoping to find his musical soulmate, convinced being a singer was his calling.
Most other 16-year-olds at Glenn’s church, the Alta Murrieta Ward, would stand in front of the congregation and say a prayer over the sacrament on Sundays, but Glenn got stonewalled. “I wasn’t allowed to because of the way I looked – they said I was a distraction,” he recalls dryly. Glenn papered his bedroom walls with images of Bruce Springsteen and sneaked out of the house to try the usual teenage temptations. “I think I felt worse about masturbating than drinking,” he admits. He had a girlfriend and says he was “in love with her, as far as I knew.”
When he left high school, Glenn did something that surprised even his parents: He announced he was doubling down on Mormonism and going on a two-year mission to convert people to the faith. “I was like, ‘I’m 18, I’m either going to go to college, which I have no interest in because I want to be in music, or I have to go on a mission,'” he says. Overnight, he went from a punk whose hair was slathered and spiked with Murray’s pomade to a clean-cut proselytizer in a standard-issue suit. For two years, he lived as a hungry vegan in Hastings, Nebraska. He rose at 6 a.m. and knocked on doors offering lessons in the faith and ultimately baptized 17 people. He held on to his music dreams, though: “You’re not allowed to listen to secular music, so I would go into the closet and jam,” he says.
Before he left for Nebraska, Glenn had gotten amped about continuing to write songs with Allen, who he says was “my other half,” musically. “We knew the band name, we knew the sound we wanted to go for. It was 2002, and the whole post-punk New Wave thing hadn’t really come back yet.” But when he returned, 30 pounds lighter and brimming with ideas, the revival was in full swing without him. “Bloc Party, the Killers, the Rapture – I was pissed,” Glenn says. “This is the sound I thought we would have.”
Devoting himself to God hadn’t erased Glenn’s attraction to men. A month after he moved back home, he finally gave in to his urges and went on his first gay date, nervously meeting the online hookup at a casino, where they had sushi. “That was the first time I’d ever kissed a guy, and I was like, ‘This is exactly what’s been missing in a physical relationship,'” Glenn says. In his early twenties, meeting men online was his only option. “I found myself in situations that I normally wouldn’t have ever put myself into, and that scared me,” he says. “It got dark. It was dangerous.”
In 2005, like many young Mormons seeking like-minded friends, Allen moved to Provo (his day job: masseur) and the 21-year-old Glenn followed, looking for a fresh start. Telling a pool-hall owner they were the band scheduled to play that night, Glenn landed the group its first show, and Neon Trees became part of the small but active Provo music scene; bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley joined soon after. Campbell knew drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. of the Killers from high school, which opened the door to an opening slot with the Las Vegas band. More breaks followed, including a major-label deal, then their 2010 debut Habits and 2012’s Picture Show.
As his band grew, Glenn’s torment about his sexuality – whether he’d make it public, or bottle it up for eternity – started to take its toll. His secret was compounded by an affection he’d developed for a man working closely with the band. “I had my crushes on guys throughout high school, but it was never an overwhelming thing until my twenties,” he says. “Then I’d be dating girls and in love with my straight friend, and it was the worst feeling in the world.” On tour opening for the Offspring in 2012, Glenn started to get aggressive with the unfriendly, bottle-chucking crowds, spitting and cursing at unruly audience members. After an especially rough night in Vegas, Campbell chewed out Glenn for his antics and Glenn fell apart. He didn’t stop crying all the way to Utah, and when he got home, he decided everything simply needed to stop.
“My mom took control and found me a therapist,” Glenn says. Speaking with his new confidante, a Mormon woman, immediately gave him relief. “I felt like a human,” he says. “I could be Tyler from the old days, and I wasn’t ‘Neon Trees guy.'” When his label came calling and sent Glenn into writing sessions for a new album, he decamped for Mexico with longtime collaborator Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult, an old pal who had co-written Neon Trees’ two smash hits. Emboldened by the strides he’d made in therapy, Glenn started to test the waters. Pop Psychology‘s first single, the chiming “Sleeping With a Friend,” is indeed about getting with a straight man. The doo-wop-flavored “Teenager in Love” was inspired by the guy Glenn pined after for three years, while maintaining a two-year relationship with a woman he’d resolved to marry. “She broke up with me in a half-page note that was like, ‘I love you, but you’ll never love me the way I need to be loved,'” Glenn says, taking a breath at the memory. “At the time, I was really crushed, but it was a relief. The last thing I want to do is be that guy that gets married and lives the double life. There’s so many of those people in Utah.”
As the record progressed, Glenn felt an overpowering itch to tell Pagnotta what he was really writing about. The producer’s response to his coming out still makes Glenn tear up. “He was like, ‘Tyler, I love you, and I’m so excited for you.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘Really? Wait. It’s OK?'” he remembers, his voice shaky with emotion. “It blew my mind. This changes everything. And of course then I wanted to tell the person next to me on the plane.”
Pushing a tiny cart loaded with avocados through an organic supermarket alongside his friend Adam, a local musician with a swoosh of pink hair and red tartan-plaid pants, Glenn has a hard time containing himself. “I was going to learn to drive for my 30th birthday, but I came out instead,” he announces a little too loudly to the grandmothers in the melon aisle. He called a recent red-carpet look “‘gay Brooks and Dunn’ realness” on Instagram.
“I’ve always made jokes off and on because I do wear extravagant things, especially onstage,” he says. “I also want the world to know I’m not gay just because I wear a glitter suit.” (He wears a lot of everything; one room in his apartment houses his giant wardrobe, in heaps of clothes that look like a scene from Hoarders.)
Now Glenn sees an opportunity to reshape the idea of a gay rock star. “I’ve gotten tired of kind-of gay or straight people being pop culture’s gay [spokespeople] – like Macklemore,” he says. “It makes me wonder, ‘Are we ready for an actual gay pop star and not just the safe straight guy saying it’s OK?’ I appreciate the fact that Michael Stipe was able to just be who he was, and it rarely overshadowed the music.”
At the group’s purple-walled rehearsal space in an abandoned video store, Bradley, the band’s most devout Mormon, admits the subjects of Glenn’s songs never piqued her curiosity before. “He’s always been good at writing lyrics that aren’t overt,” she says. “I think the only anxiety for me comes from people assuming things because I’m religious or assuming things because he’s gay. I worry about people not understanding that he’s neither angry at the church nor distanced himself.”
The Mormon church has certainly been slow on the social-justice tip. Blacks weren’t permitted to become priests until 1978. A transgender member recently blogged about returning as a woman, noting fellow worshippers were friendly, although she is “not allowed to use the restrooms at the chapel.” Though more and more Mormons are coming out of the closet and congregating on websites to share their stories, their church continues to fight same-sex marriage. Provo hosted its first-ever pride march last September.
Glenn’s supportive mother, Debbie, now a seminary teacher back in California, is one of many Mormons I encounter who insists Glenn’s sexuality doesn’t create a conflict with her religion. A boisterous woman with a streak of magenta piercing her short blond hairdo, she says she thought Glenn was joking when he came out to her, then gets weepy. “He said, ‘I don’t want this to change your perspective with the church, I don’t want it to tear apart our family,’ and I just said to him, ‘It won’t change anything.'”
Glenn isn’t quite that naive, though, and recognizes that Mormons around him are “compartmentalizing” in a big way. “There are some things we definitely are going to have to face,” he says, “especially with Elaine being actively LDS,” a.k.a. Latter-day Saint. “If there are more political situations that come up where the church gets involved, I wonder what that will do.”
But right now, Glenn’s primary concern is performing for the first time as his whole self. Glenn’s songwriting on Psychology mines familiar ground (angst-y longing), but with a new sense of urgency and cleverness. “I refer to a lot of my youth in my songs,” he says. “Being a teenager, you’re so emotional and trying to find yourself, and I still feel like most of my life has been me trying to find myself. But I think I need to finally break away from that and be an adult.” Glenn says these days everything around him is becoming more upbeat. The band is comfortable enough to joke about dildos and sugar daddies during rehearsals. He happily announces that he’s partial to Josh Brolin, whose rugged face graces his laptop’s desktop.
Considering its salacious title and backstory, Psychology‘s “Sleeping With a Friend” is relatively tame. “The song’s not overly sexual – that’s the kind of sex song I know how to write. Like, I’m not Prince,” Glenn says with a laugh. And he hasn’t told the song’s subject about his big coming out. “We’re not really as close as we used to be, so I don’t know if I’ll hear from him.”
Striking one of his mischievous smiles, he stretches out a tattooed arm and adds, “It’ll be curious if I get a message.”
This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.