From Opry to Oprah, Dallas Lesbian Festival headliner Chely Wright endured a wild but cleansing coming out process
Jonanna Widner | Contributing Writer
The story is now well-known, but hearing Chely Wright tell it again makes it no less terrifying. “I had a gun in my mouth,” she says. “A 9 mm.”
The morning six years ago when she held a gun in her mouth — that rock-bottom, cold winter Nashville morning — she could feel her thumb squeezing in infinitely miniscule increments of space, just around the trigger, just this close to squeezing too hard. Wright had already achieved her dream: She was a country music star — perhaps not a superstar, but with a solid career, a No. 1 hit to her name (“Single White Female”), a fistful of awards and up-and-comer’s accolades, she was definitely a success.
She was also deeply closeted. She had lied to herself, to the public, to her colleagues, to the press, to good-hearted boyfriends (most famously to former boyfriend and legit country superstud Brad Paisley), to her parents. She watched Logo “with my blinds drawn.” Finally, her four-year relationship with another woman had finally collapsed under the weight of years of deception.
And so she put a gun in her mouth.
But something stopped her. She put the gun down, staggered upstairs to her bed, and collapsed. The next morning, “I got on my knees and prayed to God,” she says. “I didn’t hear a big booming voice or see a dude in a robe, but there’s no doubt in my mind he spoke to me. What I understood was ‘You have to come out.’”
Time, healing, self-acceptance: Maybe these are the reasons Wright can now talk about her suicide attempt so matter-of-factly. She came out almost exactly two years ago, at age 39. Once she made the decision, she approached it with the same fervor she had applied to her career: flying out of the closet, guns blazing, via a cover story in People and the simultaneous publication of her memoir, Like Me. She appeared on Oprah.
Since then, she’s released little music (her last album was 2010’s Lifted Off the Ground), but she’s been open and public with LGBT issues like a house afire, with that special verve enjoyed by the newly free. She’s performed at a number of Pride festivals and been named a national spokesperson for GLSEN. The autobiographical documentary Wish Me Away, which began as a video diary of the days leading up to the big announcement, has been making the film festival rounds since last year. She even married LGBT activist Lauren Blitzer (whom she met two weeks after coming out). In other words, Wright isn’t just out. She’s O-U-T.
But just as important as her sexual orientation is her faith. Her book, interviews and lyrics all are threaded with spirituality. She is at heart a country gal, raised in a Kansas town of fewer than 2,000 people where she spent her childhood with her butt on a pew and the spirit in her heart. If her relationship with Christianity has shifted somewhat, her belief has always been there.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Do you think you’ll go back to a religious practice?’ I said ‘I never left.’ It is my belief that God delivered me from my darkest hour.”
Beloved as Wright may be, statements like that put her at odds with some in the gay community. The tension many feel toward the church is understandable, she says. “When an entire community has been maligned for so long, when you’ve been told [by religious groups] that you are less than a person, why would you want to stick around for that?” she says.
It was partially the specter of God’s judgment — or at least, what she had been told all her life, by her parents, by her church, by the mores of country music itself — that had kept her ashamed of herself, that almost led her to pull the trigger. Wright’s story is a reminder of the silent, suffering souls who struggle still with coming out.
“I marvel at the skill set I was able to develop to tell myself I was happy and OK in regards to the crimes I was committing against myself, against my own integrity,” she now says.
But if Wright’s story evokes the desperation of the closet, it also reminds us of the joyous unshackling that occurs once the door opens.
“Nothing is as hard as hiding who you are,” she says. “You never know how good freedom is going to feel until you feel it in your veins.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 4, 2012.