There is a robust discussion in our society today about religion and LGBT issues. Since it's Pride Month, I'm eager to weigh in on the conversation. My journey began in the fall of 1970. Being born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in the very rural parts of Kansas led me to believe that everything was simple, everything made sense and that anything was possible. In the first decade of my life, I came to know and love God, as I was raised in a Christian home and community. My basket of dreams was overflowing.
But the older I got, the more I began to understand that not everything was simple, not everything made sense and the things that once seemed possible, began to feel impossible. I started to take inventory of that basket of dreams and I felt forced to throw some of those dreams away.
As a young girl, there were the obvious messages about what girls could and couldn't achieve. And to compound the limitations I felt being leveled upon me, I realized at the age of nine, that I was gay.
I was truly experiencing a chasm of discord and struggle within myself as I walked the halls of the Wellsville Public Schools. I was a young, gay, Christian, farm girl from Kansas with dreams of becoming a Country Music Star. Can you wrap your head around that? I really couldn't. So began the most difficult chapter of my life which would last more than 25 years; and the storyline was me, committing repeated crimes against myself -- against my emotional, physical and spiritual self. Those crimes would take their toll.
My struggle was well hidden beneath the many accomplishments I was able to enjoy. And yes, I did enjoy them. I viewed my successes -- my good grades in school, my being elected President of my Class of the High School Band, my position on the Sub-State Championship Basketball team, my jobs in music which led me to Nashville and ultimately led to my landing a contract with a major record label as ... well, I viewed those things as concession prizes to some degree. I knew that I would never get to have what everyone else gets to have -- love, real love -- so my resolve was that these "door prizes" would have to be enough. I wanted them to be enough, I really did. And then I fell in love.
I had to change my strategy a little bit. I went from "I'll go without love" to "I'll hide my love". That's pretty tough to do when, at the very root of who I am and at the core of what Country Music seems to be about -- is honesty, openness and accessibility. But I had to close myself off in order to survive. I kept going, working hard in my career, reaching those milestones of success -- tours, hit records, hit videos, TV, radio, nominations and awards. Still, I hid. More and more people in the world were knowing my name, yet no one really knew me.
Some of you reading this might know my story, as I've had the chance to share it with the world for little over a year now. For those of you who don't know my story, well ... my life took a scary turn in early 2006. My life had fallen apart. Not that anyone would have been able to notice the predicament in which I found myself. Remember, I'd created this existence where no one really knew me and my skills of hiding my true emotions were finely tuned. As far as anyone could see ... I was always "a-okay". But I wasn't -- I was in trouble.
I could no longer make sense of these crimes against myself. I had lost the relationship that had once meant so much to me -- the secrecy had torn us apart. When one hides such a critical part of one's self, everything becomes hidden. It's not like I could have real and meaningful friendships, but just leave out the "gay thing". Imagine your straight, married friends having a substantive friendship with you while never mentioning their spouse -- ever. You just can't pick and choose parts of yourself to share and expect any real degree of validity.
I was alone, I was tired, I was hopeless and I was done. Early one cold winter morning in Nashville, I nearly took my life with a gun. Let me be clear, my decision to take my life was not because I am gay. I had long understood, since my late teenage years, that God had made me exactly as I was supposed to be. And may I add what a huge comfort that has always been to me. The reason I was ready to end it all was because I didn't know how to be me in this life that I'd carved out -- this gay, Christian, farm girl from Kansas who sang Country Music. I just didn't know how to make those pieces fit.
I didn't pull the trigger.
"When I finally got out of bed, days after holding a gun in my mouth, I didn't make it much farther than the carpeted floor by my bed. I'd been saying prayers to God since the day it all began, but on this day my approach to prayer was different. I actually knelt by my bed, put my elbows up on the edge of the mattress, clasped my hands together, and rested my forehead on my hands. I prayed a different kind of prayer. I began to speak to God out loud. As I forced the words to come out of my mouth, I realized that my voice was scratchy and weak. I knew God would hear me even if I didn't speak the words, but I wanted God to know that I was committed to my plea. I didn't ask Him to stop the crying or the pain for good. I simply asked for a moment's peace. "Peace" I'd heard that word used my entire life in so many contexts -- war and peace, a peaceful meadow, peace be with you -- but I never really knew what it meant until that moment." (From Chely Wright's "Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer")
When I finished my prayer, something happened. Peace washed over me and warmed me from the inside out. I immediately knew that I had been given a massive gift of mercy and an understanding of what I believe God had been whispering in my ear for a long time. "Stand up and speak".
I knew that if I could find myself in such a dark place, that surely there were others at such a critical crossroads. I was hopeful that in telling my story, I might be helpful to others. I have felt ripples and waves of progress from my declaration and have been moved to tears to learn of the ways my story has impacted others. I have found such joy lifting others up, in particular young people. Indeed, my basket of dreams is overflowing like it once was so many years ago. Anything and everything is possible because I am now entirely me. All of the pieces finally fit.
Religion has been used to malign and condemn people like me for generations, we all know that. There is a rumor floating around out there about LGBT people and it's not good. A lot of folks think that we're Godless and that we're "this way" because some of us don't flock to houses of worship with the urgency and frequency that would satisfy those who judge us so harshly.
I like analogies; perhaps it's the songwriter in me, so if you'll indulge me, I'll offer this one. I liken the notion that we (the LGBT community) are a Godless people to a scenario on a grade school playground. Remember when you were in 3rd grade, when it was time to choose teams for a game of kickball during recess and all of the favored, obvious players were chosen first? This left the same players to be chosen last or to never even get a chance to kick or take the field -- essentially giving a message to that kid, "You're never going to get to play. You're not good enough. You don't belong." Remember that happening to the same kid over and over? Well, eventually that kid would stop hoping to be chosen for either team. And eventually that kid would probably develop an aversion, perhaps even a life-long, deep loathing for the game of kickball. It's a protective mechanism that humans employ to preserve the most tender parts of their psyche. That's what it feels like for an LGBT kid in a place of worship. That kid is repeatedly given the message that he or she will never, ever fit in and be acceptable to God or to the congregation. Why would anyone subject themselves to that kind of spiritual rejection and spiritual violence on a weekly basis? Why would that LGBT kid grow up to seek out the same type of negative messaging as an adult?
But there is something positive happening in communities of faith regarding LGBT issues and it's exciting to witness. In addition to LGBT clergy, we have straight allies in the clergy who are championing our freedoms too; amazing leaders like Rev. Welton Gaddy, Rev. Jimmy Creech and Rev. Mark Tidd, among many others. Their efforts and the work of so many others is the very reason I'm so proud to be a board member for Faith In America, a non-profit dedicated to ending religion-based bigotry and the harm that bigotry does to LGBT people. Important and exciting work, indeed. We're out there, you know? LGBT people of faith are strong in numbers; we want our houses of worship back and we would like to implore those who practice such acts of religious based bigotry to realize that God is not theirs -- God is for all of us.
It is my deep belief that someday I will meet my maker and I will be asked who I am and what I did for others.
Everyday, I am working hard, preparing my answer to be, "I am a gay, Christian, farm girl from Kansas who sang Country Music and I did the very best I could do -- to know God and to share God."