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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In just two weeks, an area of the Midwest that has gone without a place for LGBT people to gather, learn, escape, make community, etc., will finally have one.
Thanks to Chely Wright, the country music star who very deliberately came out of the closet two years ago, and her LIKE ME® Lighthouse project, a new LGBT Center will be breaking ground this month, with a grand opening like no other.
The celebration with related events will spill over three days, flanking the Center's Saturday, March 10, ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Starting on Friday night, with a screening of "Wish Me Away" -- the multi-award-winning documentary that chronicles Wright's three-year path to a very public coming out -- through Sunday, when attendees can join a campaign to eradicate anti-gay hatred.
A native Kansan herself, Wright detailed her midwestern upbringing in her 2010 autobiography, "LIKE ME: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer."
San Diego Gay & Lesbian News got the chance to speak to Wright this week about the project, the Center's grand opening, and the surprising and not so surprising struggles her team endured making this happen.
"This is my baby"
In the fall of 2010, Wright launched the LIKE ME® Organization, a non-profit dedicated to providing education, assistance, and resources to LGBT teens and their family and friends.
An off-shoot of that organization was the Lighthouse Project, focused on the opening of LGBT Centers in places of need.
She was raised in Wellsville, Kansas, a very small, Christian-based Midwestern town, where there absolutely were no resources at her disposal when she began to recognize at a young age that she might indeed be gay. Instead, she stuffed those feelings for decades, all the way up through her very successful career as a country music recording artist at the top of her game.
In fact, right up until she found herself with the barrel of a gun planted in her mouth by her own hand.
Wanting to help others who might find themselves in her same shoes, Wright saw the need to develop and open LGBT centers in places like the Midwest, where the need was greatest. And she has started with Kansas City, Mo., where she was born.
For the last 18 months, with plans and fundraisers driven forward by the board of LIKE ME®, Wright's team of experts and activists are about to see the fruits of their labors: The Lighthouse Kansas City will be a full-scale LGBT Center, smack dab in the heartland where Wright was raised.
According to their website:
The Lighthouse will provide education and support during the coming-out process for LGBT individuals and their family and friends. We provide education, counseling, mentoring, and a forum where people can learn how to assist their loved ones through this difficult process, and how important it is to respect and include LGBTQIA individuals in the community.
Wright sees the word "community" as key.
"This LGBT Center is not just a gay center, it is also for the mom and dad of that 15-year-old boy who just came out. We want parents to feel good about the journey they are about to walk with their child.
"If you think it can't help you, think about your young niece, or the nephew who may yet to be born. The Lighthouse may service your own family in 10 years."
She has no plans to wipe her hands of this project once that ribbon has been cut, either. This will be a second home for her heart for years to come.
"This is my baby," she said. "I will stay incredibly involved going forward. This is just the first chapter of a very long book."
"It was not easy"
You'd think that a plan to open such a welcoming place for the LGBT community would be immediately met with open arms and people would be rallying together to assist and take part.
Not so, she explained. The many challenges Wright and her team faced during the proposal and even through the building stages were difficult to endure; but eventually, all were overcome.
"It was not easy," she said. "I had to go back and prove myself and my sincerity to my own hometown."
As is the case with many LGBT communities, some area activists circled the wagons and were not eager for a center with Wright's mark on it.
"As with activists in any community, we are often territorial," she said. "You're going to get push back. There is always going to be someone who doesn't want progress. We tend to get in our own way."
She had plenty of naysayers and people who even questioned her motives.
"I had people say to me, 'well who are you to come here and do this?' I had to say, 'listen, I was born in Kansas City and I was raised in Wellsville. I've been having sit-downs with [LGBT] people around the country and I get letters every day. I have a finger on the pulse of this community and I understand the human condition. I'm working my tail off and I'm listening.'"
The passion in her voice was unmistakable; although it was also clearly mixed with frustration.
"I'd say 99% [of the local Kansas City LGBT community leaders] were over-the-top excited," she said. "Some others said, 'we got this.' I had to explain that although we were leading the charge on their behalf, their leadership was critical. They are going to be the nuts and bolts of this Center."
Once she got the local community on board, it was full steam ahead. There was a slight bump during construction, however, when a local electrician walked off the job when he found out the "community center" he had been working on, was going to be for gays and lesbians.
"We called the owner of the [electrical] company and he confirmed [the worker] left for that reason," Wright said. "But the owner then came and finished the work himself."
Despite the challenges, Wright couldn't be more proud of the project.
During those years she was planning her coming out, she very secretly immersed herself into the LGBT community, soaking up everything she could. If she was going to come out, she was going to come out with a purpose, and to do that, she had to educate herself. After all, in the many years prior to her decision to come out, she had spent her entire life on the outside of the community, and of herself.
When she did finally came out so publicly in 2010, she traded her celebrity in Nashville and at the top of the country music charts for a much more difficult type of celebrity, but she has been undeterred. Since then, Wright has put herself front and center in the charge for not only equal rights, but also squashing anti-gay discrimination wherever it exists.
Her high profile marriage to her partner, Lauren Blitzer, in August 2011 (on the same day as Kim Kardashian), was an instant cause célèbre, but while Kardashian's marriage lasted only 72 days, Wright and Blitzer's is going strong.
She has been a powerful voice for our community, traveling around the country speaking out, showing up on Oprah and other television shows; hosting LGBT benefits and sharing her story at LGBT conferences against bullying. But having this Lighthouse Project come to fruition is the most tangible thing she's done as an activist, to date.
"It is so rewarding," she said. "You can wear yourself out trying to do all you want to so as an advocate, but when you are able to manifest something with your team, it is so gratifying.
"This Center will be there in 100 years. It will be as nice as the ones in New York City and San Diego, and it will have a legacy. I believe in Kansas City; it is the crown jewel of the Midwest. People don't realize how progressive it is."
Of course there will be plans for another Lighthouse LGBT Center sometime in the future, but for now, Wright says she wants to get this one right. In the meantime, she would love for you to come celebrate the grand opening of the Lighthouse Kansas City along with her, next weekend.
See below for a run-down of the weekend's events, and watch for a new record coming from Wright in the near future.
Friday, March 9: Benefit screening of Wish Me Away with Q&A
Award-winning filmmakers Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf directed and produced "Wish Me Away," a groundbreaking film that documents the three years that country recording artist Chely Wright spent literally planning her coming out process.
The filmmakers had unprecedented access, following Wright around with a camera, interviewing friends and family, and documenting the ups and downs she experienced on her path out of the closet. They even delved into her life as a chart-topping country star and her deeply seated hidden homophobia.
Wish Me Away is Wright's journey -- to a place that would cause her to lose friends, fans and the respect of the country music world -- but in the long run, give her so much more.
The film spent most of last year on the film festival circuit, winning countless Best Documentary, Jury and Audience awards at LGBT film festivals in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Nashville, just to name a few.
Watch the trailer
The screening on Friday night during the Lighthouse Kansas City grand opening celebration is sold out. Watch for a Wish Me Away screening near you in the coming year, or at upcoming Film Festivals in Pelham, NY; Brattleboro, VT; orr Madison, WI, starting this Spring:
Saturday, March 10: Grand Opening of the LIKE ME® Lighthouse LGBT Center
Come to what Wright describes as a "beautiful building on Main Street" in Kansas City, Mo., for the ribbon cutting at noon with Chely Wright and other distinguished guests and area leaders.
Lighthouse Kansas City is located at 3909 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. For more information, visit or call (855) RULIKEME. Normal hours of operation will be Monday-Saturday 11 am - 7 pm and Sunday, noon to 6 pm.
Also on Saturday: The Celebration Continues with Celebrity-packed Performances
Described as a "delightful evening of music and comedy benefitting the LIKEME Lighthouse," join Chely Wright and her special guests, Alan Cumming, Hal Sparks and Jennifer Knapp, another recording artist from Kansas.
To buy tickets for the grand opening gala performances on Saturday, click HERE. (Note: make sure you click on CHECK OUT to get available seating options on next page).
General Seating tickets are $66, VIP tickets $206.
VIP tickets include a meet and greet with Chely Wright, Alan Cumming, Hal Sparks and Jennifer Knapp from 6 - 7 pm prior to the event.
Sponsors of the event are LIKE ME®, HRC, NOH8 Campaign, and University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC).
Sunday, March 11: Join the NO H8 Campaign
Come see the inside of the new Lighthouse LGBT Center and join one of the largest equality campaigns in the world, the NO H8 Campaign.
This is the first Kansas City stop of the NOH8 Campaign, a national "silent photo protest" in response to anti-gay hate around the world. More than 22,000 people have joined the cause. The Kansas City facility will have the very first display wall of NOH8 photos in the nation.
The open photo shoot with founders Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley begins at noon at the LIKE ME® LIghthouse LGBT Center, 3909 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.
This is first come, first served photo shoot and the line will move very quickly. The shoot is scheduled to finish at 3 pm. Individual photos are $40, couples or group shots are $25 each.
For more information, click HERE.