Unleashed founder Wesley Smoot

Unleashed LGBTQ bringing long roster entertainers, cultural icons and community leaders
to Dallas

CAROLINE SAVOIE | Contributing Writer

After four years of planning and an inaugural event thwarted by COVID, Unleashed LGBTQ, “the gay South by Southwest,” is being held at Gilley’s in Dallas Sept. 22-24. With a roster of some of the biggest names in LGBTQ culture, a slate of film screenings and a musical lineup of local artists, the conference aims to bring the queer community together.

While Wesley Smoot, founder of Unleashed LGBTQ, said the first Unleashed conference had to go virtual during the height of the COVID pandemic, its second iteration will be the first live queer business conference in existence. Smoot said the weekend’s mission was inspired by a gap in the market for queer brands, entertainers and LGBTQ professionals to be in the community.

“It takes a unique group of talented, accomplished and empowering voices to come together and bring the Unleashed LGBTQ vision to life. From A-list actors, athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, industry experts, thought leaders and more, it’s amazing to see how many different brilliant minds will be under the same roof at Gilley’s to celebrate how far our community has come.”

The three-day festival will feature some of the most prominent names in the LGBTQ community in “thought-provoking conversations, endless entertainment and educational workshops to celebrate the brilliance, innovation, and ground-breaking efforts taking place in the LGBTQ+ world,” Smoot said.

Headliners include Antoni Porowski of Netflix’s Queer Eye; Dyllón Burnside and Indya Moore of POSE; Billy Eichner of Bros; former Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims; NASCAR driver Zach Herren; transgender rights advocate Naomi Green; Daniel Franzese of Mean Girls and at least a dozen other LGBTQ influencers and leaders, including Family Equality CEO Stacey Stevenson.

“We are so proud of the diverse array of talent we’ve brought on to partake in this monumental event that will celebrate the LGBTQ community like never before,” Smoot said.

He said the SAG/AFTRA strike presents a unique challenge for actors and writers on the agenda, as they are prohibited from speaking about any current or past projects for studios pitted against the fight for worker’s rights that started on July 14. He said their inability to speak on those projects could hinder conversation, but he thinks it will spark thought-provoking, fresh takes on the queer community’s role in entertainment.

Smoot said he looked at several venues like convention centers and hotel ballrooms, but Gilley’s felt like a natural choice, as it can hold several workshops at one time in a building infused with character and Texan flair. Unleashed is also partnering with the Alamo Drafthouse to host screenings of new LGBTQ content from streaming services, movie studios and television networks.

A full itinerary of the weekend’s lineup is listed on the Unleashed website at UnleashedLGBTQ.com, and anyone interested can also purchase tickets on the site. Smoot said that he wants young and aspiring professionals to have financial access to Unleashed, so he’s offering reduced prices for college students in the area.

With an array of more than a dozen sponsors including iHeart Media, OUT North Texas, Virgin Hotels, Visit Dallas, North Texas LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Dallas Voice, Smoot said the public’s response to the event has been overwhelmingly positive. Dallas Voice’s publisher Leo Cusimano is going to be speaking on a panel about LGBTQ media’s future.

“When I was doing market research, I put out feelers to local businesses, and every one I spoke to about [Unleashed] had the same question,” Smoot said. “‘When’s the date?’”

He said his biggest difficulty in getting Unleashed off the ground came with getting investors for a new kind of business conference. “Unless something is proven in the market, businesses are less likely to invest,” he said. “And because this is the first event of its kind, I understand the hesitation.”

He said after the first Unleashed hosted thousands of virtual attendees, and after he performed more market research in Dallas, businesses were more willing to invest or offer grants to hold Unleashed 2023.

From graphic design and web development to sponsorship acquisition and research, he said he learned invaluable skills during the difficulties of the planning process.

“If you want something bad enough, you’ll figure it out, and that’s exactly what this process has been like from start to finish,” Smoot said. “I can’t wait to see it come to fruition.”