In May 2010 chart-topping country singer Chely Wright stunned the country-music world by revealing that she was gay. Her peers and fans were stunned: Not only had Wright portrayed herself as straight both in her music and media appearances, but she had also been in a high-profile relationship with fellow country superstar Brad Paisley, making them the darlings of the country world. Having grown up being taught that homosexuality was a sin and with no openly gay role models, Wright had become so closeted and so adept at hiding her sexuality that she could barely admit it to herself.
But what was more shocking was that being gay in the world of country music simply wasn't done, especially with the genre's seemingly unshakeable ties to conservative Republicanism and the religious right, which both continue to believe the repeatedly refuted notion that homosexuality is a sinful choice or a mental disorder that can be cured with prayer, therapy, discipline, and denial. By being the first pop country star to come out (k.d. lang had come out in 1992 but was outside country's mainstream), Wright challenged not only gay stereotypes but the religious, cultural, and political beliefs that comprise so much of the identities of red-state country fans.
The documentary Wish Me Away follows Wright's journey going public as a lesbian in conjunction with the release of a book and album that deal openly with her sexuality, and not only is it one of the best movies I've seen this year, but it's one I honestly believe will save lives. Watch my ReThink Review of Wish Me Away below (transcript following).
I enjoy most types of music, but the one I have the least patience for is pop country. Musically, I find it unimaginative and bland, and with the open range replaced by high-density feed lots, the whole cowboy affectation and costume used by so many singers and fans strikes me as weird and borderline delusional. But another thing I dislike about pop country is the idea that it represents "real Americans," who are apparently white, churchgoing, military-worshipping, anti-gay, climate-change- and evolution-denying, close-minded, FOX-News-watching, gun-toting, proudly uneducated, Limbaugh-loving, conservative Republicans. The Dixie Chicks experienced this firsthand in 2003 when they dared to criticize George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war, and in 2007 country singer Chely Wright faced that same world of conservative intolerance when she became the first major country artist to reveal that she's gay. That process and the experiences that led up to it are captured in the terrific, incredibly moving documentary Wish Me Away, a film that everyone, especially country-music fans and gay kids living in the heartland, really need to see.
Using interviews, archival and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as clips from Wright's personal video journal, Wish Me Away traces the career of Wright from her childhood in the ironically named small town of Wellsville, Kan. to becoming one of country's hottest stars, with hits like "Shut Up and Drive" and "Single White Female." Wright knew she was gay as early as third grade, but having grown up in a conservative family and told repeatedly in church that homosexuality was a sin, she knew that coming out was simply not an option. So at an early age she gave up on the idea of ever having true love, but being a successful country singer could be what she would call her consolation prize. She threw herself into her career, vowing to take the secret of her sexuality to her grave, a decision that caused her so much anguish that it almost cost her her life.
Even if you're like me and don't know anything about Chely Wright, it's impossible not to be filled with sympathy for the pain and fear she feels, as well as admiration for the clarity and bravery Wright must summon to risk losing friends, family, and her career to do what she knows is right. When you see old photos, TV footage, interviews, or music videos, it's hard not to see signs of a woman hiding in plain sight, and her song lyrics take on fascinating double meanings. While Wish Me Away has a decidedly unpolished look, it fits well with the film's personal, confessional tone.
Country isn't the only music genre with a homophobic streak, but it's hard not to see Wish Me Away as an indictment of a people, mindset, and religion that would teach a person from such an early age to hate herself and others simply for who they love. It reveals the darkness behind the wholesome image of country music and its fans, including within Wright's own family, where family values, patriotism, and God's love aren't extended to gay people, and the intolerance is so profound, ingrained, and accepted that it doesn't need to be spoken to be enforced. And if anything, Wish Me Away provides further proof, as if any more were needed, that conservatives' key claim that being gay is a choice is and continues to be utter, ridiculous bullshit, since no one would choose to experience the pain Wright has clearly lived with, let alone risk all of her relationships as well as millions of dollars and the adoration of her fans.
Wish Me Away is a powerful, important film of heartbreak and triumph that I honestly believe will save lives, providing gay kids in the heartland with a role model, a lesson that being gay doesn't mean being a bad person, and a way to start a much-needed conversation with family and friends. It's also a film that can help straight people of all ages realize the pain homophobia and a life in the closet can cause, which nearly drove Wright to suicide. Chely Wright is a pioneer, and I don't take this term lightly. She's a real hero for what she's done, and I sincerely hope that she and Wish Me Away get all the attention and accolades they deserve.