Wright-ing History

Out country singer talks about living openly, playing Michigan Pride and disappointment in industry peers like Reba McEntire and Rascal Flatts

By Chris Azzopardi

Chely Wright is sitting in the sun on the backyard patio of her New York home while her two Chihuahuas run wild. Since making national headlines for being the first major country artist to come out, the Kansas native hasn't had many days like this in the past few weeks. Her recently released memoir, "Like Me," chronicles her journey to live openly, after spending much of her career - which really hit its stride in the late '90s with two country chart-toppers, "Shut Up and Drive" and "Single White Female" - hiding her sexuality under faux relationships with men and songs about them. "Lifted Off the Ground," her seventh CD, is also her first album since coming out, and a documentary due in the fall, "Wish Me Away," will capture her life over the last couple of years.

Wright, 39, spoke to us as a new person, gearing up to celebrate her newfound freedom at Pride festivals across the country - including an inaugural appearance at Michigan Pride as the grand marshal, with a performance at the Capitol and a meet-and-greet following. She revealed what it was like attending her first festival while she was still publicly closeted, defended her decision to come out as something more than a publicity stunt, and criticized country music "friends" for not reaching out.

What have these last few weeks been like since coming out?

Pretty amazing. Chaotic and hectic as far as scheduling, but really great. I've had a few people call me in the past few weeks from Nashville and say, "I just wanted to reach out to you in this difficult time." And I'm like, What are you talking about? This is not the difficult time. The past 16 years of my life in hiding my career - that was the difficult time.

Who's been reaching out? Country stars?

Some. Mostly industry people, but some country artists.

Did it help you come out knowing that several country artists - Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks - have addressed gay issues and their gay fans, affirming that they accept them?

I haven't heard from any of those artists.

No? But knowing that they were OK with gay people, did it make it easier for you to open up about this?

Again, there's a difference in talking the talk and walking the walk. When you say that and then when a gay artist that you know - that you've known for a long, long time - comes out and you don't reach out, I don't know what that means. I don't understand that.

Do you expect them to?

I expected to hear from them, and I didn't.

Maybe they thought doing those interviews with gay publications were enough. But is it?

Yeah, is it? I've been friends with Rascal Flatts. Martina and I have been friends for a long time. Reba and I were on the same label. One would think that in declaring we're good with gays, that when the very first commercial country music artist comes out those people who've made those declarations would send up a, "Hey, way to go!" or something on Twitter - "Sending out some support to Chely!" - to at least send a signal to their gay fans that they do indeed support them, to galvanize their gay fans, not just me - see, we meant it when we said it.

There's been talk about the timing of your coming out and the release of your book and CD. People are calling it a publicity stunt. How do you respond to that?

Oh, I hadn't really heard that. Well, the book is my coming out story, so I have to put that out at the same time (laughs). I can tell you that the publicity stunt is my pretending to be straight my entire career. That's the publicity stunt.

Being on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" recently was very emotional for you, and you explained to Ellen that her mom's book, "Love, Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey," helped you to come out.

It did. As I told Ellen, it was bittersweet to read that book, because I read it well before I came out to my father, and it was torture for me because when I read it I just knew that I would never get to have a parent like that. I would never have the love and support of a parent like Ellen did. And lo and behold, I did.

Didn't Ellen's coming out in the '90s push you farther into the closet?

It did, because I happened to be watching her coming out with my dad and my sister - as I talked about on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" - and my dad flicked off the TV and said, "That's disgusting," and I just had to reaffirm my commitment to myself that, holy crap, I'm never coming out. Fortunately, the minute I did come out to him in 2005, the minute that tiny word gay was attached to his daughter, it changed everything.

I really believe that if we can attach hearts and faces and real people with that little word, the scariness of that little word - to people who don't understand it - can be minimized. That word is made to be something big and ominous and scary and it really changes when it's someone's cousin or son or aunt. It changes everything.

My dad said it so well on "Oprah." Oprah asked my dad, "Stan, what changed for you? How did you come so far when you went from thinking gay was sick and perverted and sinful, to accepting your daughter when she came out to you?" And my dad looked at Oprah and said, "Oprah, I know her. That's the difference."

You're scheduled to appear at Pride festivals throughout the summer. Have you ever been to one?

I was at New York's Pride two years ago.

Did you go in disguise?

I just walked on the sidewalk with sunglasses on - ponytail, no makeup - with my friends. It was really emotional for me; I cried at the PFLAG float.

How will it feel to be at Pride, but this time as a leader?

I can't wait. It will be, I'm sure, very emotional for me. You know, it's so funny - every gay person at some point has hidden. I do know that for sure. No one realizes on the first day that they're gay, and no one comes out on that day. Everyone hides at some point, but to have hidden the way that I've hidden for the different reasons that I've hidden, to come full circle and celebrate it and stand up in hopes to facilitate ease and understanding and education, has been really magical for me.

I'm getting letters from young people that are literally saying, "I was going to kill myself last week and your book saved my life." I can't tell you how many of those letters I've gotten already. So I think it'll be pretty emotional for me. And hopefully pretty fun, too!

Will it be different for you to sing songs with about male lovers, like "Back of the Bottom Drawer"?

Not at all. I'll sing those songs just like that. If I were a concert violinist and an orchestra leader put a piece of music perfectly written in front of me, I would play it as written. I wouldn't interpret it my way. I wouldn't put an inflection in it. And there are some country music songs that were written correctly, and I feel like "Back of the Bottom Drawer" was. "Single White Female" was just as it should have been, too.

I never felt I was being tricky in any song I ever recorded, although I didn't do a lot of videos with male leads in them. If you go over the body of my video work, I think I only had two men in my videos.

On purpose?

Actually, no. I think it was a subtle choice on my part. I never overtly said, "I don't want a male lead." I naturally gravitated toward scripts where I was alone in the video and we had a vignette with another man and woman. But it was never discussed. I never said, "I don't want that because I am gay." But I'll sing songs exactly as recorded; it's not to say I won't do "Single White Female" at a Pride festival and sing "Looking for a Girl Like You." I might do that. I do have a sense of humor.

You said Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls - and now a friend of yours - said you were a bad lesbian because you didn't know their hit "Closer to Fine." Do you feel like a bad lesbian?

(Laughs) I'm getting up to speed. I'm catching up. I went to Melissa Etheridge's birthday party this weekend, so I'm doing my homework.

Before, I wouldn't even buy a k.d. lang record in Nashville because the kids at the record store, they knew me, and I'd go in there and they'd go, "Chely, sign this!" I was afraid for anyone to see me buy anything gay, that's how afraid I was of anyone thinking anything. And I should've been buying k.d. lang records! Not just because I'm gay, but because she's frickin' amazing!

Do you think that your sexuality will define you as an artist now - that you'll be known as "Country music lesbian Chely Wright"?

Probably for a long time. And if the history books say, "Chely Wright, first openly gay commercial country artist" - if that's what it has to be, I'd rather it say that than "Chely Wright, committed suicide at age 36." That's where I was. It was going to be either or.

What do you hope other people can learn from your situation?

That you might think you don't know a gay person, but you probably have someone in your family - one of your really good friends perhaps, or a neighbor that you really adore - who is so afraid to lose your love and affection and friendship that they are hiding this very important part of themselves from you. That if you really knew the truth about that person and the steps they were going through to hold on to you, it would probably melt your heart.

You hear a lot: We're everywhere. Well, we really are. And for some reason there's been a bubble over country music and people have believed that's where you can go to escape anything gay, and it's just not true. We're there. We've been there.

Chely Wright

Noon, June 12: Pride March Grand Marshal

1 p.m.: Performing a song at the Capitol

3 p.m. Performance, Main Stage

4 p.m.: Meet-and-greet/signing

http://www.michiganpride.org

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