Country star Chely Wright is celebrating her birthday of choice: she officially came out as gay in People magazine and NBC's Today Show. Her coming out coincides with the release of her new extraordinary memoir Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer and her latest release, Lifted off the Ground, (iTunes) her first album in five years.
The public's attention will no doubt focus on Wright's revelation about being gay, something she denied when confronted about rumors by country singer John Rich. But in her book and album - and in her interview with me - Wright talks about a more universal truth: how the self-loathing that comes from keeping a shameful secret can lead to despair and thoughts of suicide - and how telling that secret can lead to a kind of glorious liberation.
At the beginning of our 56-minute phone conversation last week, I told Wright that I started underlining every page of her book. I am older than her, the details of our life experience are vastly different - but she told my story: I, too, am a suicide survivor. I know the depths of despair, the anguish of keeping a secret that gnaws at the very core of your humanity. And then the decision to surrender to the truth - knowing its potentially devastating costs - followed by the fear and joy of creating and finding yourself - like choosing your own birthday. Beyond the burst of publicity about a celebrity coming out - her story of anguish and re-birth many well save lives.
It was in that context of mutual understanding that we spoke, like war veterans who've experienced devastation first hand and feel the importance of sharing their story of survival. We choked up often and laughed deeply. I am not particularly a country music fan but I really enjoyed her album. I told her the song "Snow Globe" reminded me of my old days of dropping LSD. She cracked up, saying she's "very straight-laced" and has never done a drug in her life. It was part of the "deal" she brokered with God so she would pursue her dream of getting to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. She wrote the song "stone-cold sober," so I guess she just has the heart and vision of a poet.
A sense of relief, freedom and gratitude reverberated across the wire. "Isn't that the best thing you can ever imagine that your story can facilitate ease for someone else," Wright says. "I feel so lucky I'm in this spot. I really feel lucky."
I wanted to start with the heart of the matter. I asked her to describe the moment she stood in front of the mirror alone at her home in Nashville with a gun in her mouth, thumb on the trigger - and then deciding not to shoot. Wright said:
"At that moment, I was looking at myself and feeling like I was outside of my body, watching somebody do something that I had made such a harsh judgment about my entire life. I had been so critical of people who had committed suicide; I judged them for being God-less and weak. And I was watching that in the mirror and realizing, 'Holy crap! That's me.'
But as I was about to pull the trigger, I realized I wasn't crying. And I was shocked: Shouldn't I be crying? Don't people cry when they kill themselves? Isn't it supposed to be more emotional than this?
And as I was about to pull my thumb back and do it, I said a prayer to God to forgive me for what I was about to do because I know the gift of life is the most precious thing. And I had some things in my life that kind of flashed through my brain and one of them was sunlight and I thought about my dogs and I thought about music and how much I love music. And I thought about a kiss from my partner, my ex-partner - the only love in my life I'd ever known - and I heard a noise and it was the sound of my heart pounding in my head.
And I looked up in the mirror again and my eyes were just welled up with tears and my cheeks were wet and tears were streaming down. I could barely even see. I couldn't focus because there were so many tears coming out of my eyes. And the dam broke. And my emotions enveloped me and I became one with myself again. I got back into my body. I was no longer outside of my body watching this cold person - this human with a gun in her mouth. I didn't know that I wasn't going to - on the next day - kill myself. I knew on that night I wouldn't do it."
I asked if she lived in a "one day at a time" state of being. I told her I'm in a 12 Step program, recovering from drugs and alcohol and I used to say, "I will not drink, use or kill myself one minute at a time."
"That is kind of how it went. And as I wrote in the book, when I did get out of the bed a couple of days later, I got on my knees. I've always been a prayerful person, but I got on my knees - like when I was a kid when I would say the prayer quietly and then I decided I needed to say it out loud because it would be more powerful. That prayer of 'Dear God, don't let me be gay." A couple of days after I had the gun in my mouth, I decided I've got to get on my knees and pray because I have to say something out loud to God because I have to make sure he understands that I have to fully submit. I have to let him know that I am in trouble.
And I knew that gun was two flights down and I didn't know what I was going to do if I went down there. So I got on my knees in my bedroom on the third floor of my house and I put my elbows up on the edge of my bed and I put my hands together and I stopped praying for a way to orchestrate my career and my life in a way that would be so perfect. And I stopped praying for a miracle and I stopped praying for all these beautiful things - success - I stopped praying for all of that.
What I prayed for in that moment was, 'Dear God, I need a moment of peace.' And the minute I said, 'In Your name I pray, Amen' - I got it. I got it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I got it. I knew I was in receipt of what I had just asked for. And it wasn't in the form of, 'I have a plan. I know how to make this work. I know to continue to hide and have my career and hits.' That no longer mattered.
And I remember thinking, 'You're kidding me, God. Am I coming out? I'm going to do this?' And at that moment, I didn't know when I was going to come out. It didn't occur to me. But I knew at that moment God was saying - and I didn't hear God's voice - I had an understanding of God saying, 'This is what I've been telling you all along.' And I understood. I had an understanding that God was saying to me: 'I've been telling you, you're OK. You've been OK the whole time. This is who you're supposed to be. And you and I are square - we're good.' And I had such strength. I went downstairs. And I knew, OK, I can get back in the bed or I can do something different. I can show God that I get it.
I went downstairs. I got the gun. I put it back and I got on my bicycle in the snow and I road in my pajamas. And you know what - it may seem crazy - but it was the least crazy thing I ever did."
I laugh and she laughs. She says she knows I understand because I've been there and I understand about building a "monument of gratitude."
"The monument is acknowledging to God every day I won't kill myself today. I'm going to say 'thank you for my life.' And if came in the form of - I'm going to come out. I don't know how I'm going to do it - but I'm going to do it well and I'm going to honor my truth.
And this is just how it came down. This is how it happened. And the day I decided to come out - the day Rodney, my producer and I sat on my front porch and I said, 'Rodney, I am gay and I don't want to talk about it a lot today.' I sent him away. I went downstairs, cracked open my laptop and I wrote the title page of my book, 'Like Me.' That was the day I started my book. It was June 11, 2007. It was the second week of June."
I laughed again. That was Gay Pride in Los Angeles. And ironically, it turns out former basketball star John Amaechi, who publicist Howard Bragman also helped to come out as he did with Chely Wright, served as Grand Marshall for the Christopher Street Pride parade on June 10, 2007. Wright laughed, too. "That's a hoot. Well, that's divine intervention."
I told Wright that I had done Melissa Etheridge's coming out interview and ask if either she or singer kd lang, who had also started out in country, had offered examples of how to be an out star. There was a pause on the phone. What to me seemed a logical question had apparently struck a nerve. It was as if this was the moment when she had to decide whether she was going to tell the truth and keep her pledge to herself - or hedge.
"I dabbled in such internalized homophobia that it's incumbent upon me to explore the truth - the honest answer.
When I first got to Nashville, as I detailed in the book, I worked at a theme park called Opryland and there were gay boys in my cast. I don't know that there were any gay girls. But I was fully aware that I was gay, of course, and I was very sure that God was OK with me. Yet I slung daggers of hatred toward the gay boys because I was so afraid that they might identify something in me that they would be some identifying factor - that they might be able to know that I was gay and I wanted to throw them off in case they thought I might be. And I continued some of that.
When I would go into Tower Records in Nashville, I was recognized by the young kids that worked at the record store. In fact, they would bring records or posters for me to sign. And I was a fan of kd lang's music - but when she came out, I wouldn't purchase a kd lang or Melissa Etheridge record in Nashville because I was afraid for them to see me buying it. That comes with a great deal of shame for me to admit. I'm embarrassed to admit that - but that's how deep the fear and pain went."
I explain that that, too, fearing the eyes of the world are upon us and we'll be found out any minute is also part of many of our stories. She seems relieved at bit.
"Emily of the Indigo Girls is a really good friend of mine. We shared the same manager - Russell Carter - and I confided in Emily last year and Russell sent her my record and she's been a real support to me.
And she and I did an event in Florida in January. And she texted me - we were doing a guitar pool - it was Rodney Crowell, my producer, and Emily and Gary Lewis of the Jay Hawks and myself. And so she texted me early in the day and she said, 'Hey, will you sing 'Closer to Fine' with me? And I wrote back, 'What song is it?" And she said, 'Closer to Fine.' And I said, ' I don't know it but I will learn it today. And I will have it ready.' And she wrote back, 'You don't know 'Closer to Fine?' And I said, 'No, what record is it on and I'll buy it on iTunes.' And she said, 'Never mind. Don't worry about it. I'll see you at the show.'
And she backstage was laughing. And she said, 'You are the worst lesbian of all time! Every lesbian knows that.' She knows I'm new to their music. Poseidon and the Bitter Bug is the first Indigo Girls record I've ever owned. And I'm crazy about it. I think they are supremely talented and I have to say, perhaps one of the reasons that I never got into the Indigo Girls - I never went to a show. Maybe I had a subliminal block. I know definitely about kd lang and Melissa Etheridge, why I didn't buy their records. Maybe that's why I didn't explore the Indigo Girls' music, as well. I don't know. But I was so afraid to be identified as anything associated with gay or lesbian."
I confess I'm a bad lesbian, too - maybe worse because I met the Indigo Girls at an LA Gay & Lesbian Center event, liked the music they played that night, but I didn't know that song either - and I work in the field. We both laughed.
"I was really shocked. I've been to their shows now. It's not just lesbians. I haven't seen more Yuppie young couples. My naivety was eclipsed by my ignorance when it came to understanding what the Indigos are all about. Their audience is not just a group of lesbians. They have the most intelligent fan base of anything I've ever seen. But 'Closer to Fine' is a gay anthem! When they play this song - at one point in the show, they just take their hands of their guitars and back off from the mike and 7,000 people just sing - and it's very wordy - 7,000 people just sing it back to them for like a minute of the song and they don't miss a lick. It's an anthem and when you really digest the song, you understand why this song is so important to the gay community. Not just lesbians but the entire LGBT community. It's so brilliant. I'm thinking, after I come out, I would like to cover the song. I think I want to put it in my show because it's so empowering."
I refer back to her comment about verbally slapping the gay boys in her show and tell her that's part of our larger LGBT story, too. I've been in 12 Step meetings in the Village in New York City where newly sober gay guys cry and struggle and then confess that they were outright violent gay-bashers to cover their true identity. That's part of being "as sick as your secrets."
"I felt it was really important for me to stand up and admit that because it is so prevalent in our culture, in American society. Because we've got people writing legislation and people in public office, people in powerful positions who have the chance and the opportunity to write policy who are signing paperwork that goes against the gay community and they themselves are closeted. And I thought it was really important that I say, 'Pay attention to those who are the most vocal against gays and lesbians because I can tell you - those who spew the most venom, pay attention to that.' Because I did it.
I've never been a nasty, hateful person. Honestly, at my worst when I spew venom, I'm still pretty sweet. I got the Citizenship Award in high school. I'm a pretty nice person - but I tell you, a couple of things I said to the gay boys in Opryland were, 'That's an abomination. I don't care what you do but get it away from me. That's disgusting.' That's the worst I ever said - but for me, that's venom. Coming out of my mouth, that was nasty."
I asked her about her relationship with God, which is often at the heart of so much pain for LGBT people - especially kids.
"There was a duality happening my entire life. God blessed me with an intellect and God also blessed me with a complete and total understanding that He exists. These are two things for which I am incredibly thankful.
There was a God at church they were telling me to fear. They were using words like 'fire and brimstone,' 'eternal damnation,' 'adulterer, drunkard, thief, homosexual.' So I would have that God they were telling me about who seemed really scary. And then I would go home and on the very same day, and there was this God that cradled me and comforted me and I played outside and I felt this God. I felt the presence of this God and I'm not kidding you - at age four, age six, age seven - every single day of my life I knew this God. And I knew this God to be my best friend. This was the God who sent me music. This was the God that I'd play my songs for. This was the God that was next to me - I didn't see Him in a white robe. I didn't hear a booming voice. But I knew this God. And I talked to this God in dreams and this God never left me.
So I had this battle going on: which God? Do I fear this God or do I pull closer to this God that makes me feel warmth and love? And the God of warmth and light and unfathomable love won. And thank God, is all I have to say!"
Once she knew she was "square with God," she stopped freaking out, most of the time.
"I finally knew - I really am OK. I don't know anyone else like me - but I don't think I'm an alien. I think I'm pretty much OK. But it's not saying that when I was 16, I didn't freak out again at times. For the most part, I knew, I guess I'm OK. But I also knew - you have to hide this because I'm either going to get the crap beaten out of me or I'm going to get in big trouble. And I know I'm not going to fit in in school. I know I'm not going to make it to the stage of the Opry. My band's not going to get hired. My dreams of country music wouldn't pan out.
I understood - God's OK with me but the rest of the world is not OK with me. So God and I are going to keep this a secret. I had to go into a different kind of underground. It was less of a spiritual underground - it became a function, logistical, social, cultural underground."
And your personal relationship with God provided you with the internal fortitude to go on?
That's what I'm saying here. That's why, on the back of my record, I always put causes that matter to me. [She's the founder of the non-profit Reading, Writing, and Rhythm Foundation that helps supply musical instruments to schools.] I have put a couple of organizations in big, big print and their logos and one is FaithInAmerica.com.
[Faith In America founder] Mitchell Gold wrote a book called Crisis that changed my life. It was after I moved to New York. I was in the Village and I was looking for a book to help me understand the gay society - I was trying to go to Gay School 101. I thought I would go in and buy these books about facts and figures and the book I picked up was Mitchell Gold's book, Crisis. I thought I knew what I wanted but God put in my hands the book that I needed.
And I took it home and I read it and it leveled me. I had never read a book like that. I had never read a book with everyone saying we have to stand up and make sure these young kids coast-to-coast, north, south, east and west understand that what their churches are telling them, is wrong! It's wrong! They are conflicted. And churches are responsible. They have blood on their hands. And I know the parents that are taking them to churches - they think they're doing the right thing. And when they're sending them away to be 'reformed' through 'restorative therapy' - to 'pray the gay away' - I know their parents think they're doing the right thing but they're not. They're doing the opposite of the right thing. God is OK. God made them this way and that's why I have aligned myself with Faith In America. That's why I have [Interfaith Alliance director Rev. Dr.] Welton Gaddy as my spiritual advisor. We speak on the phone every day.
I am so lucky to have these people in my life. I'm on the board of Faith In America. GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network - is on the back of my record. These are the organizations with which I am aligned because I'm going right to the heart of the matter. I am a kid from Wellsville, Kansas who was told by her church that I was a build-block of sin and evil-doing and had I been inclined to be into drugs and alcohol and had I not had the dream of music and had I not had God whispering in my ear that you are OK - I would be dead. I would not be here. We've got to do something because - I talk about it in the book about hate crimes and kids getting killed and getting the crap beat out of them - but it's still a murder when you get the kids to do the hate crime on themselves.
Wright says she's aware of the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention helpline for LGBT and question youth and she is "eager to become involved" with them.
"I don't feel like I'm coming out. I feel like I'm coming together. I feel like my birthday is next week. I feel like I get to start living my life. [Chokes up]
I'm so excited. It's incumbent upon those of us who can stand up. I don't care that we don't talk about my record because what is germane in my story - it's not about my being a celebrity. It's about everybody hides something. Our secrets shouldn't take us down. There's so much in the world that's so painful - this shouldn't be one of them. This shouldn't be a reason a kid goes into his basement and puts a gun in his mouth. This shouldn't be a reason a 45-year old man takes a bottle of pills but he does.
I know a man who lives in a small town in the Midwest who has never had a partner - he's a friend of mine. He's miserable and he's depressed and he takes pills everyday to keep his nerves calm and I know what his situation is. He can't even say it. He has a sign above the threshold of his front door that says 'Prayer Can Change Anything' and I know the prayer he's praying and I want to tell him - You don't have to pray that prayer. It's OK. I can't wait to mail him my book and talk to him.
People are going to tell me I'm going to burn in hell. I know it. There are a certain number of fans that are going to say they're disappointed in me and that being said is a sin. I know the sin I've committed. Since I was a kid, my parents have looked me in the eye and said, 'It's a sin to lie.' Yes, it is. It's a sin to lie and I've been lying this whole time. It's a sin for me to try to be with a man and wreck havoc on his life and devastate him. It's a sin for me to lie down in a bed and try to be physical with a man knowing that I'm never ever going to be able to love him the way he loves me. That's a sin. I can't do it. I've done it and I know what it does to him and I know what it did to me.
I can't lie and if I can't stand up and tell my story and perhaps a young girl in Bakersfield, California - I'm not assuming she'll want to buy my record - but my story will exist in a book. Perhaps her dad saw me in Bagdad [Iraq singing for the troops] - perhaps her dad says, 'I love that Chely Wright. She's a heck of a gal.' Maybe I'm his favorite country music singer. And maybe she's the Homecoming Queen in her school. Maybe she will buy my book and say, 'Daddy, I need you to read this. I need to talk with you.' [She chokes up]
What kind of a person would I be if I didn't do this.
This is what God has been whispering in my ear the whole time. And I knew it but I just kept going, 'Yeah - but God you don't understand.' I kept telling God - 'I'm sure you're busy - you have no idea...' [She laughs] And the whole time, He's saying, 'Oh you poor thing.' I kept subcontracting myself as the general manager of the project and God was whispering in my ear the whole time" 'You're gonna see. This is what I'm telling you do to.' And when I finally just got on my knees and said, 'OK God, we've done it my way. 'I'm ready to do it your way - this is what happened."
What happened was that Chely Wright got to have another birth-day. Happy Birthday.