Country music singer Chely Wright: "I wanted to be a voice" for gays and lesbians

Chely Wright came out publicly this spring. Before that, she was an award-winning country music star. Now it may appear to some that she is a professional lesbian. But she is so much more.

Her coming out process was very much like a marketing campaign, and Chely planned it that way. She spoke to all the big names -- Entertainment Weekly and People in print; "The Today Show," "Ellen" and her riveting appearance on "Oprah," on television.

Just as she began the publicity campaign, she released both a book -- "Like Me, Confessions of a Heartland Singer" -- and her first studio album in five years, "Lifted Off the Ground."

Together, they tell her story, and her story is exactly what she wanted to tell.

"It was by the grace of God," she told San Diego Gay and Lesbian News this week. "I had no idea I was coming out when I wrote those songs. My intellect was completely suspended."

It became painfully clear that the songs she was writing -- that were literally forcing themselves out of her -- were so deep, dark and personal, they would beg for explanation. Facing that would be difficult. "I thought to myself, 'holy crap, I'm gonna head back out on the road and be asked about my songs, about my broken heart.' I felt trapped by my truth."

Her confession on "Oprah" that at her darkest moment, she had put the cold end of a gun in her mouth stunned millions, but for Chely, it was a wake-up call. How could someone so beautiful, so successful, be in that position? She had everything. Everything, but the truth. She was living a lie every day of her life.

"I knew truth was going to be my only answer."

Closeted gays and lesbians know the drill. You appear to hold animosity for gays, you fake relationships, you live two lives, all the while fearing you will be found out and lose your family, your friends, your job ... and in Chely's case ... her fans.

"My mission and most compelling reason [for coming out]," Chely said, "was to save my own life, but secondly, it was for the youth of our country. If I could put a gun in my mouth ..." her voice trailed off.

"I just decided enough is enough. I'm still that neat gal you like and applaud but I'm a lesbian," she said. "Country music thinks we don't exist."

Once she came to that decision, she decided to jump in with both feet. Her manager, Russell Carter, is no stranger to wading through the struggle, he also manages the Indigo Girls. They put together a "fantastic team and support system," then Chely moved to New York in 2008 and got to work. She spent her days learning everything she could about the LGBT community, the issues, the struggles and literally soaked up the education like a sponge.

"I didn't want to just come out," Chely said, "I wanted to be a voice, so I sought out the information. I wanted to be a gay poster child, because I would have given anything if there had been someone like that for me."

She has taken the bull by the horns and just five short months after coming out, she is the national spokesperson for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Although it became common for celebrities and music artists to go abroad to perform for troops after 9/11, Chely's first visit to the troops was long before 9/11, something she is proud of. She's been back many times and visited wounded soldiers in hospitals around the country.

After coming out, she realized she may not be invited back, but she recently was.

On Sept. 11, she was invited to attend a memorial service in Ohio, where she sang her popular ode to the troops, "Bumper of my SUV." For the most part, she was received warmly, but not by everyone. Many at the reception afterwards made sure she understood that as "conservatives with family values," they didn't approve of her "new lifestyle choice." Still, it was the one soldier in uniform who quietly came out to her that day, that made the trip worth it.

Always an advocate for children, Chely started a non-profit a decade ago, called "Reading, Writing and Rhythm," which raises money for music education in America's schools.

"I started RW&R after Columbine and I started it because I wondered if those boys were marginalized, too; if they were like me," she explained, fighting off the emotion in her voice.

Although many advised her against the risk of starting a non-profit, she is proud of the charity, which has raised over $1 million to date. The organization has an annual fundraiser every year in June, just before the Country Music Awards in Nashville. In the past, her colleagues on the country charts have been gang-busters helping her out, lending their names to the cause, publicizing the event and helping to raise money.

This year, not so much. No one backed out, but the support was clearly no longer there.

"This was the first year in 10 that the charity didn't sell out," Chely admitted. "Only two artists put it on their website and no one would do the media room, which is a first." Apparently, no one wanted to talk about Chely.

Many other country stars who have always appeared to be friends of and regularly spoken with the gay press - and were always friends with Chely - have not even spoken to her since she's come out.

Sales of her new album have also been impacted tremendously, but to Chely, making the album and being able to finally live her truth because of it, has been enough.

"I have fewer headaches and I sleep much better," she said.

In recent months, she has been spending time with the famed singer-songwriter and award-winning producer Linda Perry. They have written some songs and will soon be recording music together, hopefully for her next album. Perry, who is also a lesbian, has offered her producing and songwriting skills to many famous artists over the years, always with great success.

"I didn't realize I'd like her as a person as much as I do, she is so multifaceted. She has an immense amount of talent, which her work ethic matches."

There is also a documentary on the way, but Chely's only involvement was allowing the cameras to follow her around for several years while it was filmed. It is called "Wish Me Away," which is also the name of a song on her latest CD. The film is also about her coming out story and will be released early next year.

One has to wonder with all the media appearances, LGBT advocacy, songwriting, tv appearances, a non-profit to run, touring to support a new book and CD ... when she has time to just be.

But there is more. She is launching LIKEME.ORG - an organization that is completely inclusive. "It's not about being gay, its about how similar we are vs how different we are; individuality but inclusion vs exclusion."

Chely also hopes to open the first LGBT Center in her hometown of Kansas City one day. She feels it is a shame that such a big mid-western city doesn't have a place for gays and lesbians to find support and safety.

But her work with GLSEN and Give A Damn is especially rewarding, given the recent suicides of LGBT youth. When Chely dedicated a chapter in her book specifically to the impact of bullies, her publisher asked if she wasn't being a little "too dramatic."

"It is incumbent upon those of us in the spotlight to shine this light," she explained, "and it is eerie that it came to pass, because this is the reason for these recent tragedies. The only upside, if there is one, is that everyone is talking about it."

What a whirlwind year she has had, and it can only get better from here.

Bookstore tour

In addition to the media firestorm surrounding her this year, Chely has also been busy touring for her book and CD.

This has been a very low-key tour, taking place at Borders Bookstores around the country. These events have allowed her to get up close and personal with her fans, many of which are brand new. She talks, she does a few songs, she answers questions, and she signs her books and CDs.

This Saturday, Chely will be at the Borders Gaslamp, located at 668 6th Ave, from 2 - 4 p.m.

She wanted to make sure fans knew they could still bring her book along if they have already purchased it elsewhere. "I'll sign anything but a check," she joked.

About GLSEN

Founded in 1990 as a local group, The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network went national in 1995. It strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

Chely is very proud of their latest effort, to be officially launched next week called, the Safe Space Kit.

According to the website, the Safe Space Kit "is designed to help educators create a safe space for LGBT youth in schools, provides concrete strategies for supporting LGBT students, education about anti-LGBT bias and ways to advocate for changes."

For more about Chely visit her website or follow her on or Twitter.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext. 710 or via e-mail at morgan@sdgln.com."

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