Chely Wright answers the call

The country music star and out lesbian may be busy with a new album and tour, but she always makes time for her new-found passion for advocating for LGBT equality

Rich Lopez  |  Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Chely Wright
Chely Wright

When Chely Wright came out this summer, the buzz in the music industry was mixed. But as it turned out, she did it at precisely the right time.

Combining her star power with advocacy, Wright has become the face of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and an outspoken advocate for her new-found community. She has stepped up to the plate and used her stature to focus attention on LGBT issues.

The buzz around Wright’s coming out was quickly eclipsed by head-grabbing issues like same-sex marriage rulings, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the rash of gay youth suicides and bullying.

Still, Wright interjected herself into the conversation and people listened, while other gay celebrities were being supportive, but perhaps less vocal. For her efforts, Wright will be awarded the 2010 Media Award at this weekend’s Black Tie Dinner.

“This is what I felt like I was supposed to do, and it would be wrong of me not do this,” Wright said recently of her work in the community.

Black Tie Dinner co-chairs Ron Guillard and Nan Arnold said that Wright was the unanimous choice for the Med Award this year. As the year progressed, Wright’s work with LGBT youth and her public profile narrowed the choices tremendously until she became the decisive choice.

“The breadth of her activity immediately upon coming out was definitely a factor. She faced issues head on and she’s made an incredible impact in reaching Middle America,” Guillard said.

Wright has most recently chosen to become involved in addressing the seemingly skyrocketing rate of bullying and LGBT youth suicides. Her work with GLSEN helped launch the Safe Space Campaign for schools to provide outright support to gay students and end anti-gay harassment and bullying. She joined a panel of celebrities on Larry King Live calling attention to the issue — which she stressed isn’t new.

“What’s going on now is not a shock to me. The problem isn’t a fresh one. It’s just that now, we have the mainstream media’s attention,” Wright said.

She quoted Kathy Griffin from that panel, agreeing with the comedian that bullying is based in homophobia stemming from a bigger picture that paints a distinct portrait to both straight and gay communities. “I hadn’t thought about it until she said

something amazing. She called it ‘trickle-down homophobia,’ where gay issues and headlines meet. DADT is denied, marriage denied and we’re constantly told we’re ‘less than,’” Wright said. “Not only bullies are hearing that, but young gay people are too.”

And that gives LGBT youth a bleak outlook on their future, while at the same time emboldening the bullies, Wright said.

“We can tell people not to bully, but when mandates are coming down against our rights and headlines show that, how can we expect them not to, when Congress is doing it blatantly?” Wright asked.

When she wrote her autobiography Like Me, Wright’s publishers balked at the chapter on hate crimes. She fought Random House for the chapter to be included, despite them telling her it was too dramatic. In the end, Wright won and the chapter, “Hate Crimes are Down?,” foreshadowed the current issue of harassment.

“If you push a young LGBT person to the point where they take their own lives, it’s a hate crime. If you get them to kill themselves, that’s a hate crime. You aren’t connecting dots that are too far apart and now it’s horrific that it’s come to past,” Wright said.

Wright focused on the Rutgers student Tyler Clemente, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge after his roommate recorded him having sex with another man and streamed it online.

Chely Wright
SHE CAN RELATE | Chely Wright says that after spending years hiding her sexual orientation to protect her career in country music, she understands the anguish that young people struggling with their sexual orientation sometimes feel.

Wright said she faced a similar fear of being outed in the middle of her conservative country music career.

“I know what he felt like and it ripped my heart out,” she said of Clemente. “When you don’t want anyone to know that secret, the thought that runs through your mind is to jump, or pull the trigger. I couldn’t bear someone in control of my timeline for that secret,” she said.

Wright has been open about her faith as well, which brings a fairly new facet to the openly gay celebrity. Where most might dismiss religion as a hindrance, Wright seems to want to let people know that being gay and being religious are not mutually exclusive.

But at the same time, she said it is religion that is responsible for so much bigotry.

“Churches are not being held accountable. They tell young people they are damaged goods,” Wright said. “They tell them not to shoplift, which is a question of morality and making the right decision. But when they tell them not to be gay, that sets them onto a path of self-loathing and hatred and it’s contrary to a healthy life.”

Along with GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign, Wright has given her support to the nonprofit organization Faith in America, which works to counteract the discrimination by religious communities toward the LGBT community.

“When you tell a kid he can’t be that way, it’s just a problem. We have got to hold churches accountable,” Wright repeated. “Really, you can be a good Christian and a gay person,” she said.

Arnold sees how Wright’s passion led to the board’s decision to honor her with the award.

“She is setting a wonderful example for people of all ages right now in this critical time. She’s appreciated the community and we appreciate what she’s doing for it,” Arnold said.

With her political advocacy, it’s easy to forget what Wright does best. She is still making music, but now balances what she loves to do and what she’s called to do.

“At the root of what I do, I like to sing and make records,” Wright said. “But we do the most damage as humans with words. And I’m compelled to support kids as they turn into grownups and help them keep their heads on straight.”

So to speak.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

‘A’ gay

Former Air Force captain Reichen Lehmkuhl has choice words about the Obama Administration and DADT, and the editing on his Logo series ‘The A List: New York’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Reichen Lehmkuhl
THAT’S CAPTAIN QUEER TO YOU! Former Air Force captain Reichen Lehmkuhl is an avid skier, and spokesman for the inaugural Matthew Shepard Gay Ski Week in Crested Butte, Colo., next March.

SHOOT THE BUTTE
Dish at the ilume,
4123 Cedar Springs Road.
Nov. 5, 6–8 p.m. Free.
MatthewShepardGaySkiWeek.com.
Reichen will also host a
meet-and-greet at Woody’s,
4001 Cedar Springs Road,
Nov. 5 at 10 p.m.

…………………………..

If all you know about Reichen Lehmkuhl is what you see in reality shows — he won Season 4 of The Amazing Race, and is currently one of the “gay housewives” on Logo’s The A List: New York — then you’re missing a lot of what drives him.

Formerly an airman in the U.S. Air Force, Reichen (nobody uses his last name) is an outspoken advocate for gay rights, especially the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And on this election week, he has some choice words for the Obama Administration.

“What Obama has done is disappoint all of his voters and really squandered away all of our affection,” Reichen says without hesitation, reflecting his displeasure that the president — after claiming a desire to repeal DADT, nevertheless appealed a California court’s ruling that the law was unconstitutional. “He made a choice he didn’t have to make — one of process over basic values. And he flat-out lied about what his values are. He said he thought all gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve, and when the opportunity was presented to him without any effort at all, he did not support it.”

Reichen knows that, especially within the gay community, his harsh words about the country’s top Democrat might not be popular. But he has too much invested in this issue to remain silent.

“I’m getting a lot of hate mail,” he admits. “I think [some] people are being apologists and are blinded because they are afraid of looking like they don’t support [Obama]. But for those of us on the front lines — and I am — it has just been awful. And I just won’t be an apologist for the president.  I won’t do it. You can’t apologize for people who swore to do what they say they will and don’t.”

He was especially confused when, immediately after the Pentagon announced it would accept openly gay military applicants, the Justice Department filed its appeal in the lawsuit, even though the deadline to appeal (if at all!) was more than a month away. Reichen says the decision was basely political before the midterm elections.

“The day the president appealed the decision, I was asked to go on MSNBC the next day, but I was so baffled I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t want to say something wrong, so I turned down the request.”

All this is a far cry from why Reichen will be in town this week: Promoting Shoot the Butte, a gay ski week starting next year in Crested Butte, Colo., for which Reichen is a spokesperson and attendee (he’s a huge snowbunny, and in fact a certified ski instructor). But the ski event is actually in conjunction with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, for which he is a strong supporter.

And even talk of Judy Shepard steers him back to politics. As a former servicemember, Reichen firmly believes that people have lost sight of the easiest way to advance gay rights: Just let the discharges stop.

“If you stop the discharges and let people come out and say, ‘I am a professional and you can’t assume I am not because I am gay’ … once that happened for 30, 60 days, it would be impossible to reverse the decision,” he says. “Just [this week], the administration ordered that DADT is back in effect so the discharges are continuing.”

He sighs. You can tell it’s something he internalizes and takes very personally.

“I’m really worried about what the president did to the support of so many gay people. He really just slapped us all in the face. He is political and doesn’t believe in equality for LGBT people. If this had been a race issue, would he have put politics before values? No, he wouldn’t. It shows how low he thinks of us as a community.”

You might not expect such political passion from someone best known for playing himself on TV, especially in light of the persona he projects on The A List. But even there, Reichen has his criticisms. When I say he comes off as a jerk on the show, he immediately says, “I hope you put that in your article.”

“I’ve tried to explain that even to the producers,” he says. “What you’re seeing is what they wanna show. They say I’m not gonna come off as a jerk as the later episodes air [but we’ll see]. You see me hit on a guy in a club, but what you don’t see is this guy is a friend of mine for 13 years. And the editing with Austin makes it look like we had some big, long relationship — we spent one day together [in Palm Springs]! I kept in touch with him by text, but that’s it. He says I have a small cock and am a bad cocksucker. The guy’s never seen my cock and I’ve never been near between his legs!”

The show also makes it look like his relationship with boyfriend Rodiney is doomed. He’s contractually forbidden from saying where they stand, although he does reveal, “I saw him this morning. And we love each other very much — I can say that much.” (Not so for Austin, whom he says he ignores now.)

What he does say is not wrong about the editing on the show is what we learned this past week: Reichen looks hot in a dress.

“This is a big secret, but I love to do drag!” he says. “I totally get why drag queens do what they do. I have so much fun, though I look better when I do my own makeup. I have complete anonymity [when I go out in drag] and people are scared of me.”

Scared of him? Sounds like that could be an advantage against an enemy in battle. And maybe one more reason Reichen can list to bring down “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens