There were plenty of skeptics when Chely Wright became the first star with a commercially successful history in country music to publicly announce she was gay.
“She’s doing it to sell a book,” some said. “She’s doing it to sell an album.” “She’s trying to revive her career.”
Her associates did, in fact, persuade Chely to wait until she had a product to hawk before she came out. But that didn’t change the fact that her decision to reveal her sexuality was a huge moment in country music and a huge personal moment for her.
Chely’s public confession is the No. 9 entry in GAC’s countdown of country music’s dozen biggest stories of 2010.
“It’s hard for anyone to come out,” Chely says. “It’s hard for a math teacher to come out. It’s hard for a metro bus driver in New York City to come out.”
Even more difficult for a country singer. Some pop artists had publicly proclaimed their gayness, including Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, George Michael and former ‘N Sync member Lance Bass. Canadian k.d. lang had also come forward, but only after she’d left country behind.
The issue has always been difficult in country, where the audience is generally perceived as conservative and Bible-fearing. Even as a child, Chely used to go out to a field at her home in Kansas so she could pray — daily — for God to take away what the church portrayed as a sin. Despite the sincerity of her prayers, it never disappeared. She ultimately decided that God made her the way she is, and she accepted her sexuality on a personal level. Still, Chely didn’t think the world at large could handle a lesbian country singer, so she spent the entirety of her career trying to cover her tracks. She ultimately grew so disillusioned with the box in which she was living that she finally put a gun in her mouth, ready to end it all.
Hitting bottom helped Chely turn it around. She wrote a bundle of songs about that dark period in her life and started writing her autobiography. The book, Like Me: Confessions Of A Heartland Country Singer, was released in May. Now she feels it’s important to make certain that gay teens and young adults realize that even if the rest of the world doesn’t understand them, even if some churches beat them down verbally, they don’t have to let a personal trait hold them back.
“We gotta stop telling these kids that they’ve got to pray this away,” Chely says. “A lot of kids — and I mean a lot — are hiding and slowly killing their spirit. Their spirit is being killed, and some of ‘em are cutting their wrists and taking pills, and some of ‘em, at 36, put guns in their mouth.”
The final months of 2010 illustrated the drama that still surrounds the issue. A New Jersey college student committed suicide after video showing him having gay sex was posted on the Internet. Meanwhile, the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was eliminated in the military. It’s considered heroic for them to die for their country. Now than they can live truthfully. LeAnn Rimes indirectly backed Chely’s message by performing a Christmas show Sunday with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to support gay youth.
“This is,” LeAnn Tweeted to the Chorus, “one of my favorite moments of the year. Love you guys!”
In the meantime, nobody needs whisper about Chely ever again. She’s told the world who she is, and she stands by the decision.
“I don’t wanna be a whisper,” she says. “I’m too proud of myself. I’m too proud of who I am.”