Chely Wright comes out (on film)
Coming out is a private process for many of us, but if you're a celebrity and you make that choice there's always the likelihood of receiving unwanted scrutiny, criticism and just overall attention at a very personal time. How can that be controlled? Country singer Chely Wright came up with a unique solution: she made a documentary of her personal and professional journey when she came out in May 2010.
"Wish Me Away", the film produced and directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, has been sweeping the film festival circuit, having won the Grand Jury Prizes for Best Documentary at both the Los Angeles Film and Frameline 35 Festivals last month. Next up is the showing at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on July 15th and NewFest in New York City on July 22nd.
EDGE's Jim Halterman chatted with the very open, frank and lovely Wright via phone recently to talk about "Wish Me Away," why she doesn't think everyone should come out as well as how coming out of the closet affected both her career and her life.
Not for everyone
EDGE: Let’s talk first about "Out In America" (the PBS documentary aired last month featuring Wright), where you recounted your coming out story. We all love hearing each other’s coming out stories but why do you think it’s important to keep telling and hearing the stories?
Chely Wright: I think it’s important because we have to identify. I think in this day and age a lot of people think that people don’t care if you’re gay but people do. I grew up in Kansas and there are still young people there and older people, too, who feel like they won’t be accepted to be who they are and anyone who feels safe and able with a public voice, I think should do it. I don’t encourage everyone to come out. If you’re working at Target in Alabama and you feel like you might lose your job, by all means don’t come out. And then for those of us who have a public capital to step out and use it correctly and positively and with class and style... I saw an opportunity to be a better human being and that’s why I did it.
EDGE: Many parts of the country are still fairly conservative, so do you think it makes a difference when people hear your story?
Chely Wright: I know with every person like me who does come out and breaks or challenges a stereotype, it has to. That’s how progress happens. My record sales went to a third of what they were and I had a feeling they would. I get some hate mail but it’s okay. What are you going to do? I also get mail that says ’Thank you for coming out. You saved my life.’ I try to focus on those and that really illuminates the importance of coming out. Also, it really needs to remind our straight allies - or people who don’t even know yet that they’re our straight allies - that they should stand out and declare it. As much as we need to come out as gays and lesbians, transgender and bisexual people, our straight allies need to make themselves known. If you’re a politician then you can’t sit around a dinner table with your gay friends and just say "I love you guys,’ you have to go out there with your public voice and say it. If you’re a straight teacher but you’re supportive of LGBT issues than you better get out there and say it because there’s probably a teacher hiding inside the closet.
Story continues on following page:
Watch the trailers to "Wish Me Away":
Sings better now
EDGE: Since your public coming out, how has that influenced your creativity? Has it changed you as an artist?
Chely Wright: Time will tell on that. I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work and now am starting to write for a new record. I think before I came out, I didn’t feel much constraint creatively because the essence of songwriting is role-playing and straight artists do it, too. Not every straight artist singing about divorce has gone through a divorce. Someone singing about the great love of their lives has probably not met him or her yet. We tap into very real emotions, which I certainly had done and I was able to put them in a form of lyric that was applicable to mainstream country music fans and that’s the way I’ve communicated.
I don’t imagine I’m going to write a bunch of gay songs now; the point is to write songs that are meaningful. The thing that I think will change my creativity is I retired from a full-time job and I’ll have more time on my hands. My full-time job of hiding who I am took up a great deal of my headspace and my heart space. Now I can focus on advocacy work and write better songs and getting better sound in the studio and making better records. I did a show in Kansas City recently and I think I sing better now. I just think it’s more fun. I’m having more fun being who I am in all aspects of my life. That’s gotta mean something in going in and making my next record.
EDGE: In your book, "Like Me," you talk about the word "tolerance" and how people use it. Can you talk about why you don’t like that word?
Chely Wright: People use it a lot and it’s a part of the book that people say was a little bit of a light bulb moment. I don’t like the word "tolerance" and I don’t think that the LGBT community likes that word either. What I said in the book is that I don’t want to be tolerated. One tolerates a toothache or traffic or trash in their neighbor’s yard. I want to be fully embraced and appreciated and respected and I certainly think that that word at the offset, at the very beginning, is not a good thing to teach our kids. I don’t like to teach religious tolerance. I think it sets us up for failure.
EDGE: Talk to me about "Wish Me Away" and how the film came to be.
Chely Wright: The filmmakers started following me the minute I decided to come out. I started filming myself first, then once I partnered with them they began filming me. It chronicles the past three-and-a-half years of my life. A lot of people know ’She came out and we saw her on Oprah and the Today Show’ but I think the real story is the real journey to deciding to come out and then actually coming out. That’s where such an emotional, spiritual and physical fortification had to happen and I learned a lot about myself in those few years. It was a painful, isolated, lonely time but also a very illuminating time for me. I became tougher than I ever thought I was.
Own marriage vows?
EDGE: You and your partner Lauren are getting married at the end of the summer, too.
Chely Wright: August 20th in Connecticut.
EDGE: Are you writing your own vows?
Chely Wright: No, we’re not. We’ll be working with her Rabbi and my Reverend. We’ll probably say the same thing together. We’re both very traditional, believe it or not! Two lesbians who are traditional! [laughs] We’ve read different vows that our friends have used but, no, I won’t be springing anything new on her, if that’s what you’re asking. No big diatribe of my love for her. People will know at the ceremony that we have a great love for one another but there will be very traditional vows.
EDGE: Tell me about the Like Me organization, which you are involved in.
Chely Wright: Like Me is a non-profit. You hear the words "grass roots" and "organic" overused in show business, but it (Like Me) really came about because of the groundswell of support and storytelling that was starting to happen after my coming out. People were saying "I am from the country, too" or "I’m a Christian Mom and my son just came out."
We wanted to find a forum where these people could connect and find people like them. It then became bigger and then we said we’d raise money and build a brick and mortar LGBT Center in Kansas City. It’s a great city, but there isn’t one (a LGBT center) and it needs one and so in the Spring of 2012 we are opening the door to the Like Me Lighthouse.
For more on "Wish Me Away", visit the Wish Me Away website. For more on the Like Me Organization, visit Like Me Organization. You can also find out about tour dates and other Chely Wright news at her website.
Watch Chely Wright talk about "Wish Me Away" at the Nashville Film Festival:
Watch filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf talk about their documentary "Wish Me Away":