“Unleashed LGBTQ” is the first business and entertainment festival of its kind, created by Wesley Smoot with a vision to connect, celebrate, and support LGBTQ+ professionals in an elevated, entertaining setting. After a virtual launch in the midst of the pandemic, this year’s inaugural in-person event is set to happen at Gilley’s Dallas (Texas) from September 22 – 24, 2023. The event will serve as a space for brands, artists, and LGBTQ+ professionals to connect with and learn from their community over several days of panels, performances, keynotes, and workshops. The event’s organizers also proudly welcome iHeartMedia back to activate the programming as the official audio partner for the much-anticipated event.
The star-studded line-up of celebrity talent this year will include Billy Eichner (co-writer and star of Bros, also known for Billy on the Street, and The Lion King), Shangela (from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Drag Race All-Stars, and the Emmy-winning HBO series, We’re Here), Antoni Porowski (Queer Eye, Easy Bake Battle, Let’s Do Dinner), Dyllón Burnside (from award-winning shows Pose, Prideland, and Monster), and Indya Moore (from Pose, Aquaman, and The Lost Kingdom), among many others. Other LGBTQ+ industry talent and thought leaders include Daniel Franzese, Kelly Ann Winget, Brian Sims, Naomi Green, Dr. Carlton Thomas, and more. (The line-up continues to expand, so stay tuned for more names leading up to the event!)
“Our first live, in-person event is going to create a synergy between talent, the business community, and the entertainment industry in a way no LGBTQ event has ever done before” — Wesley Smoot
Aside from the rich entertainment agenda, attendees will also experience the latest products, services, and campaigns in the LGBTQ+ market as they are given the opportunity to network with key players across a variety of industries. Unleashed LGBTQ will also be partnering with the iconic Alamo Drafthouse to host screenings of new LGBTQ content from streaming services, movies, and television networks. Independent filmmakers are still welcome to submit their films for consideration. In dreaming up the event, founder Smoot said, “Unleashed LGBTQ 2023 will have a more informed, supercharged team that will be light years ahead of their brands.” I had the opportunity to pick his brain for some more details to look forward to ahead of this year’s event.
So, how excited are you?
Very. I’m very excited we get to connect again.
It must have been a thrilling year thus far planning for this.
It has been. I’m glad we gave ourselves the extra time. We learned a lot from the virtual event. It was a nice, fun experiment — almost a way to test it on the market. We learned that we could get the LGBTQ+ brands, corporate partners, and queer voices involved, which has given us even more motivation to deliver the best possible experience for all of them.
How do you think the in-person experience will differ from the virtual event?
The in-person programming offers a lot of networking opportunities that we couldn’t quite break through before. Meeting up live, in the real world, has a completely different energy — something I think we’ve all missed over these last few years. I think people are very much going to value these new opportunities to meet and mingle with different people across various industries that often overlap. We’re expecting a lot of attendees from the marketing and advertising world, along with journalists and entertainment industry executives. The virtual events were a bit more challenging to keep people actively engaged and entertained. We live in a world where everything is on-demand, and any virtual experience must compete with whatever other digital entertainment is vying for that attendee’s time and attention. For this in-person event, we have partnered with quite a few companies that are providing experiential marketing and brand activations, which gives attendees fun things to do between the networking and the events.
Tell us about why you chose this year’s event location.
I started Unleashed LGBTQ out of Dallas, and I have a huge appreciation for the community here. Gilley’s Dallas is iconic and world-renowned, so it felt like a natural choice when we saw that it was available. The venue itself is amazing, with 92,000 sq. ft., multiple levels, and several different stages. The space allows us to have multiple events simultaneously that people can pick and choose from based on their interests to maximize their experience and offer the best possible value. One of the larger rooms will host our more popular events, including our celebrity Tower Land. Overall, it turned out to be the best place, and it’s right next door to the Alamo Drafthouse where we’ll be hosting screenings with some cool LGBTQ concepts.
How many people are you expecting to attend?
The venue can host up to 7,000 at a time. With all of the activations and everything we will have set up, we can fit about 4,000 people comfortably, so that’s the number we’re aiming for. We are quite optimistic, especially given the level of celeb talent that’s been confirmed to attend, plus the educational elements, the entertainment options, and the networking we’ve baked into the agenda. The local community has helped set us up for success, also, with some great hotels blocking off rooms for attendees, support from the city of Dallas, and promotion via Visit Dallas. We expect a solid turnout and an amazing experience.
What are some key takeaways or experiences you want people to walk away from the event with?
I want them to feel like they’ve learned something. That they got an early, firsthand peek into some of the most meaningful, promising, and entertaining things that are coming out of the LGBTQ+ community. Yes, we will have celebrities that can draw in a crowd on their own, but we will also have leaders there who will discuss diversity and inclusion, new methods of effective marketing, artificial intelligence, etc. We’re going to be digging into it all, and my hope is that it leaves a lasting impression in everybody’s mind as they walk away from the event.
In terms of talent, you have some of my very favorite people confirmed to attend (especially Shangela, who I love to death). What exactly can we expect from these star appearances? Autograph signings? Live Q&As with the audience? Tell us more.
Many of the stars will be interviewed on stage — and we want to cover as much of their stories as possible while we have them there. We want to explore how they got into whichever field they’re in and what their experiences in it have been, especially as LGBTQ individuals. In Shangela’s case, we want to learn more about what it was like being on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and what it feels like to now have a show on HBO Max. We are also hoping to do a nice little drag show, plus a live cooking demonstration with Antoni Porowski, who has multiple cookbooks and multiple shows out on Netflix. I’m actually really excited about that one. I went to Austin to see Antoni live in person, and he’s so engaging and charismatic. He brings up a member of the audience to help him out, and it’s just really fun and special. We also have some musical performances queued up that we can’t quite disclose yet but will definitely entertain. Of course, you can also expect to see some great panels and one-on-one interviews with some big LGBTQ voices.
What do you think the talent will take away from participating? What’s getting them excited?
We want everybody who participates to be able to use Unleashed LGBTQ as a platform to promote any new projects they are working on or releasing, whether that be a movie, TV series, book, album, you name it. We will also have different speakers every year to help share and showcase other stories, perspectives, and projects, as well.
What are you most looking forward to, personally?
Billy Eichner. I’m sure he’s going to be hilarious. I can’t wait to hear the story behind how he started out at Universal Pictures with the largest budget that’s ever been given to a rom-com. His movie, Bros, is actually one of my all-time favorite movies. Also, Shangela, who is local to the area. I’ve met her quite a few times, but I never get tired of running into her. Ultimately, I’m really looking forward to seeing people’s reactions. We’re getting a lot of really good feedback about this as a business, and hopefully, we are able to pull off a really successful event.
Is there anything I didn’t cover that you want to talk about?
We’ll continue announcing new speakers and celebrity talent leading all the way up to the event, which people should stay tuned for. We’ll also have a few surprise walk-on guests that we’re really excited to feature, and I think the audience is really going to appreciate that element.
How would you say your event is different from DragCon?
Our event is made specifically for LGBTQ+ professionals. I’ve gone to DragCon, and I really appreciate what they do. I felt like a 12-year-old boy in full drag with his mom enjoying every last bit of the experience. Unleashed LGBTQ is definitely catered more for professionals who are looking to connect and collaborate on important, entertaining, and timely issues rising out of the LGBTQ community. I think queer community needs more of those environments and conversations. Ours is a mix of business and entertainment, and it has already been heralded the ‘Gay SXSW.’ As a guy from Austin, that’s really cool to me, and I want our event to serve the same needs as SXSW with a focal point on the queer community. That’s definitely how we’re different from all other events that currently exist in this space.