Last month, for the first time in the history of country music, an established country singer came out. In the May 17 issue of People magazine, Chely Wright discussed how she knew she was gay by age 9, but thought she had to hide it to succeed in music — living a lie that drove her to consider suicide in 2006.
Wright had her biggest hit in 1999 with “Single White Female,” which went to No. 1; made People’s list of Most Beautiful people in 2001, and dated fellow country singer Brad Paisley. In her People interview, she described how she decided to come out when making her new album, “Lifted Off the Ground.”
Wright also has a new memoir, “Like Me,” and has spent the days since the People story hit newsstands in a whirlwind of interviews, from Oprah to Larry King,
She performed at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards on June 5, and is scheduled to serve as grand marshal of Michigan Pride on June 12 and headline Capital Pride in Washington, D.C. on June 13.
She is also headlining Chicago Pride and recently joined the board of Faith in America, a nonprofit group that works to end “religion-based bigotry” against LGBT people.
“Chely’s decision is creating an opportunity for the voices of acceptance and equality to be heard and history has shown that those voices reflect the true hearts and minds of most Americans,” says FIA founder Mitchell Gold.
In an interview, Wright talked about growing up closeted in rural Kansas and her assertion that it’s possible to be gay and a Christian.
“I knew that I was different, but from the minute that I realized what the difference in me was, I went into hiding. It was an undefined prison without bars. I thought I had a birth defect or that I was possessed by the Devil,” she said.
“I spun my mind around all day long trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Then, I had that preacher standing there telling me what was wrong with me and that I was going to hell. I was being told that I would never fit in anywhere.”
She added, “The most compelling things that I have been told by the LGBT community is, ‘Thank you for coming out and for talking about your relationship with God.’ My faith defines me more than anything else.”
The country music industry is considered conservative, so many LGBT advocates have praised Wright for bravery in coming out.
“It was a result of my finally submitting to God. In my new book, ‘Like Me,’ I detail the tipping point for me was getting on my knees the day after I had a gun in my mouth about to kill myself. I prayed, ‘Dear God, give me a moment’s peace. We’ve been doin’ it my way for 36 years. Now, I’m ready to do it your way. Show me the way.’
“His answer was, ‘OK, You’re going to stand up and tell your truth.’ … Not only do we damage ourselves when we hide, but we wreak havoc on those around us. I detached from my family and it confused them. I tried to have relationships with men that hurt them. It’s a no-win situation. People get hurt when you lie.”
She continued: “When we try to be in a relationship that we know we’re not supposed to be in, whether it’s having sex or just going to the movies and holding hands with a man when we know we’d rather be there holding hands with a woman, that’s a lie. It’s wrong.
“I just got a letter from a man who came through an autograph line. He said, ‘I’m a gay man and I’ve been married to a woman for 15 years and I’ve ruined her life. I haven’t made love to her in years. She’s been eating herself into oblivion and now weighs over 300 pounds, she’s depressed, and she feels ugly. She’s a beautiful woman trapped inside of a fat body because of what I’ve been doing to her. Your book has made me realize what I’ve done to her. This isn’t going to be easy, but I am going to come out to her.’”
Washington Blade: You made a statement when you were on Oprah where you were talking about the gay children in this country who are hearing churches preaching that they are damaged goods and that their parents are echoing that in their homes.
Do you think that if the parents and churches would just let these children know that they are unconditionally loved and accepted, they wouldn’t grow up thinking that they must attempt a “normal” life where innocent people are dragged into their attempts to “be normal” like this poor man and his family?
Chely Wright: The parents are quite as culpable as the church. When parents take a child to a church and say, “This is my baby, help me raise them,” they’re well-intentioned. I don’t want to point fingers but I do want to identify where we are going wrong. We need to start looking at churches where kids are hearing this message of “You are broken.” This whole “Love the sinner, hate the sin” — I’m so tired of that. That’s a problem for me. Isn’t that so empty?
Blade: Yes, because a gay person rarely, if ever, sees any “love” from someone who uses that phrase.
Wright: Sin is decision-making. I don’t have a choice to love a man. It’s a sin for me to try to love a man. I will mess a man up. I will mess me up and I will leave a wake of carnage behind me.
Blade: Do you get the feeling that country music was ready for your coming out?
Wright: Not entirely. People who are supportive are so excited that there is someone who has finally stepped out. That’s been so amazing that people are posting positive comments on my Facebook page.
On the other side, people really hate quietly. Let that not go unnoticed. Some of the most damaging hate in history has been done privately behind closed doors or with hoods over their heads.
For the first time in 10 years, my charity concert, “Reading, Writing and Rhythm,” [on June 8] isn’t sold out. Only about half the tickets have been sold. It could be that because Nashville had the flood, people might just be all charitied-out.
I can tell you this, though: We’ve been begging the other acts to please put the event on their social networking sites. That’s never been a problem in the past to get them to help us advertise it to their fans. Other than Rodney Crowell, SheDaisy and Jann Arden, nobody else is telling their fans that they are performing at my event.
Blade: That’s eye-opening.
Wright: Isn’t it? I think that they don’t want to cancel because what would it say about them if they canceled? So they just want to quietly slip in, sing their few songs and get out of there.
Blade: Next week is Fan Fair in Nashville. [The official CMA Music Festival is June 10-13.] Are you expecting to get a better feel for the reaction from country fans when you’re there?
Wright: Nashville whispered about me for years. I didn’t come out to confirm it to the people in Nashville who had heard that I was gay. I came out for the 14-year-old kid sitting in church being told, “Don’t be that, because you’re doomed to a life of ruination. You’re not going to be a good human being if you’re going to be that.”
Blade: When you and your dad recently appeared on Oprah, your dad spoke of his immediate change of heart when you came out to him.
Wright: When I told my dad that I was gay and he heard that word “gay” next to his daughter’s face, name and heart, it changed that word for him. My dad was more effective in moving a million small mountains on the Oprah show than I was.
Oprah asked him, “Stan, what changed? You went from thinking that gay meant sinful, perverted and sick to being accepting the moment Chely said she was gay. What changed?”
He looked at Oprah and he said, “I know her heart.”