In her acclaimed memoir, Like Me, country singer Chely Wright captures her life as a young lesbian growing up in a small Kansas town and then as a performer in one of the music industry’s most conservative genres. From an early age, Wright felt she had no choice but to hide her sexuality in order to protect herself. When the strain of living in the closet brought Wright to consider suicide, she realized that it was finally time to tell the truth.
Since coming out nearly two years ago, Wright has emerged as a leading advocate for the LGBT community. Her non-profit organization, LIKE ME©, is dedicated to “providing education, assistance, and resources to LGBT teens and their families and friends.” This March, the organization will open its first brick and mortar community center — The Lighthouse — in Kansas City, MO, to provide resources for LGBT individuals and their families and friends. We recently caught up with Wright to talk about the three-day Grand Opening gala to mark the center’s inauguration the weekend of March 9-11.
AfterEllen.com: You guys are throwing quite a party to celebrate The Lighthouse’s opening. Tell us what you have planned.
Chely Wright: Yes, the Grand Opening weekend is March 9–11. Also on March 9, First Run Features, the distributor of the Wish Me Away film, will screen [the film] again for us in Kansas City. That [event] sold out in a week. Saturday night for the [benefit concert], we have Alan Cummings, Hal Sparks, Jennifer Knapp and me. We also have a regional star Kristie Stremel. We think it’ll be a hot ticket. Sunday, the NOH8 Campaign will be at the center.
AE: Why did you decide to open the center?
CW: I don’t shy away from taking on big tasks. One of the reasons I’m able to have big ideas and to try and pull off big projects is that I’m surrounded by a great team of friends and work associates that like to dig in and to do things that some might think are impossible — like opening a brick and mortar LGBT center in Kansas City. It’s a conservative part of the nation, but Kansas City actually has a very thriving and robust gay community. It’s just that there hasn’t been a place where they can go.
AE: The center will offer people in the Kansas City area community resources and support. In the age of the Internet, where people are no longer as isolated, why do you think it’s important to build a center where people can actually go to get information?
CW: There are different organizations and groups and online communities, but there’s no hub [in Kansas City] and we think that it’s important for there to be a physical presence. It’s one thing for a person to get online and Google what the resources are in Kansas City, it’s really another for a truck driver hauling industrial equipment down Main Street to see the LIKE ME© Lighthouse, an LGBT center. That says a lot about progress and pride and community. It’s important that people see there’s a place to go for resources and social engagements. The community shouldn’t always have to be online.
When we started LIKE ME© we really let our minds wander. My team, the people that helped me start Reading, Writing and Rhythm a few years ago, we thought, “What can we do?” The pie in the sky dream was opening an LGBT center in my hometown. I’m from Wellsville, but I was born in Kansas City. We thought we should go for it and some twenty months later we’re about to open the doors.
AE: Who do you imagine visiting this center?
CW: That was one of things we wanted to be specific about when we carved out our mission statement. The Lighthouse is not just for LGBT people. It’s also for the loved ones, the family and friends of LGBT people. We wanted to have a place where a newly aware mom or dad or aunt or cousin could go and say, “I need to find some information. I think my son might be gay” or “my nephew might be transgender.”
In Nashville, we don’t have an LGBT center. We have a couple of gay bars with no windows.They’re dark, blacked out windows. There’s progress being made everyday and I could be behind the curve of what’s happening in Nashville because I’ve been gone for a few years, but I remember the only thing in Nashville that was gay [had] no front door and no windows and if there were windows they were covered.
The Lighthouse is a beacon of light. It’s open. It’s airy. It’s beautiful. It’s right there on Main Street. It’s a place where anyone can go. It’s welcoming and ingratiates itself to anyone who wants to learn about the community and for an LGBT person who is trying to find a community. It’s a place where they can feel good about being who they are.
AE: How is this similar to the mission of LIKE ME©?
CW: The mission of LIKE ME© is that we’re trying to look at the ways in which we are alike rather than different. People don’t identify themselves wholly as just gay. I happen to be gay and I’m Christian and a country singer and a married woman and I ride bikes and I’m a dog lover. [The Lighthouse] is not just a gay center; it’s a community center. That word community should be underscored.
AE: You recently tweeted that one of the contractors walked off the job when he learned that it would be a LGBT center. What happened there?
CW: Aunt Char [Wright’s aunt] has been involved in every philanthropic organization that I’ve been able to be involved in. She’s working round the clock [on The Lighthouse]. She found the space and has been doing a lot of work and that entails dealing with contractors and working with our great architect Michael Paxton of Rees Masiloni Turley Architectural Firm.
The guy who came in last week was there to do some finishing touches with the electricity and started asking about the center. He was told that it was an LGBT center and he said, “What is that?” They told him that it’s a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families can come for information and community resources and book meeting and clubs. He said that he had to go out to his truck, went out and he did not come back. They waited a few hours. The work was delayed. Everything was hinged on him getting this wiring done. Aunt Char called the owner of the company and said, ”
He left when he learned what the center is for. Did he leave because of it?” The owner said, “I’m sad to say that he did.”
Aunt Char said she was shaking. She talked to the owner at length and he said, “I’ll come and do the work myself.” The owner did step up. [It was] his contracted help that walked off the job. Aunt Char was rattled and said she felt [as she did] in the sixties. She was very active in the civil rights movement and then in the seventies and eighties in the feminist movement. She’d seen hateful rants online against gays and lesbians, but she’d never come face to face with someone who walked away and showed their disdain for a group of people. She was upset.
AE: How did you decide to handle it?
CW: There was a lot of chatter online and people wanted us to say who the guy was. We got together and talked about it. I prefer to focus on [the fact that] the owner of the company came and did the work. I don’t have the mindset that anyone who’s not supportive is hateful. There’s a lot of chatter that happens — “What a hateful person.” When someone sends me a nasty tweet, my first thought isn’t, “You’re a bigot.” When I see a bigot, I know it. You give someone enough chances to prove themselves a bigot — or as Maya Angelou says, “If someone tells you who they are, believe them” — and Rick Santorum is a bigot. I have no problem saying that he’s a bigot. But the contractor who walked off the job? It just may have scared him. He may not think he knows anyone who is gay. His church may be telling him that he needs to reject people like you and me. Let’s spread love and understanding. If this guy takes to his Facebook and starts ranting about us, then I’ll call him a bigot. I want to focus on spreading awareness. I want to focus on the fact that the owner of the company said to Aunt Char, “I’ll be there, I’ll do the work,” and he did it.
AE: Has the rest of the community been supportive?
CW: It’s hard to tell. I don’t think we’ve had any pushback. I think we’re going to find that it’s exactly like every community coast to coast. The Religious Right is not going to like it. The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas is probably going to freak out. But I think that people are seeing progress and that equality is spreading its wings. I don’t look for a lot of negative. People also do a lot of their hating behind closed doors.
AE: When you came out over a year ago, you immediately began to work as an advocate for LGBT rights. What has surprised you most in this endeavor?
CW: What’s surprised me most is this repeated phrases I hear from people who really have very few limitations on their liberty: “Okay, we get it. You’re gay. Don’t shove it down our throats.” I posted the other day a video of the young boy being beaten in Atlanta. Obviously, it was a hate crime. I said, “This is why I keep talking about ‘gay things.’” Until there is fully equality and safety, I’m going to keep talking about it.
And the repeated comment, “Why do we need to know what goes on in your bedroom?” Well, I’ve yet to discuss what goes on in my bedroom. I’ve never discussed it. I do, however, talk about my wife and my family. My surprise is the view that all gay people do is go home and have sex. They forget that we go to the grocery store, pay taxes, support our loved ones through stressful times at work, we work hard to build families — we don’t accidentally get pregnant, we work hard to build a family and love a child. They forget that we’re whole people.
Stacey Campfield, the Tennessee State Senator who is pushing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, [was recently on the radio with Michelangelo Signorile]. Signorile was saying, “Why are you pushing this? This is a hateful piece of legislation. It’s homophobic and bigoted.” Campfield [spoke about] how he thinks AIDS was started when a guy had sex with a monkey and how there is no way to get AIDS by having straight sex. It was so off-base and uneducated.
I am for free speech, but when we have lawmakers who think that there’s absolutely no way to contract AIDS by having straight sex and that AIDS was started by a gay man having sex with a monkey, I’m sorry but he needs to be ousted. He is in a position of power and leadership and he should not be able to have that power.
AE: How do you think this kind of center would have helped you when you were struggling in the closet?
CW: I hadn’t thought about that. I think it would have made me less afraid. We’ve received scores if not hundreds of letters from people asking how they can get involved and saying that having The Lighthouse five years ago would have “saved me a lot of heartache” or “division within my family or with my church.” I have to say, though, had [The Lighthouse] been there in 1984, when I was 14, I don’t know if I would have found the means to get up there. But it’s got to start somewhere. If we put down roots in Kansas City, I know beyond a doubt that someone in Franklin County, Kansas, or Wellsville will know about this center and will be able to reach out and connect. The fact that it is in Kansas City will change and save a life.
AE: What can the person reading this right now do to help with The Lighthouse?
CW: They can go to the website and “like” our page on Facebook. And if they’re in the area for that Grand Opening weekend, it’s going to be some party. We’ve got people flying in from the West Coast and New York. Thomas Roberts from MSNBC and his partner. I think Tracey and Stamie from The Real L Word will be there. It’s definitely worth the drive and making a weekend out of it. It’s going to be a good time.