AE: Do you have any other musical partnerships in the works?
CW: I want one with Emily Saliers. Can I will it into being? I want to write with Emily so bad. I’m a huge fan. I’m a new fan, but, oh my gosh, I realize that there is just not anything that they did that I’m not in love with.
AE: Their new live album is pretty impressive.
CW: I know. And there’s this song of theirs that I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with called "Leeds." Do you know this song?
AE: I don’t.
CW: You have to hear it. I emailed [Emily] about it and she wrote back and said, "Will you please tell me why that song is important to you." And I did. I wrote this very long letter and it had to do with—while I was in LA, something happened and I finally let go of something. That song was really the impetus for that. I gave my interpretation of what the song meant to me. It’s always interesting as a writer to hear what other people think your song is about or how it affects them. She sent me back a really great email, not saying, "Well, you’re crazy, that’s not what that song is about," it was just basically, "I love this, I love that the song helped you in that way." I think I’d give seven out of ten toes to write with her. I think I could get by with three toes.
AE: That would make for some difficult Manhattan walking.
CW: All right, maybe I’ll give up three.
AE: How about you keep the outer toes so that you can maintain balance, but maybe give up the three middle toes on each foot?
CW: Yes, I’d do that.
AE: I interviewed Amy Ray a few weeks ago and she talked about wanting to collaborate with Outkast.
CW: That would be awesome.
AE: I thought so too.
CW: The thing about the Indigo Girls is that they don’t stop growing. They have an incredible body of work and they’re still getting better if you can imagine it. They keep hitting a higher and higher mark. I feel sad when I look back and think about how my life would have been so much better if I had known about them. I feel sad for the time I didn’t know them. I’m mourning that.
AE: Speaking of influence, Stephanie Miller credits you as her "coming out coach." When did you learn that she was going to come out on air?
CW: I met Stephanie at Melissa Etheridge‘s birthday party. She walked up to me and said, "Chely Wright?" I knew who she was, I had seen her as a talking head on CNN and MSNBC for a long time, and I said, "You know who I am?" She said, "Of course I do. I love your book, I love that you just came out. I’m a huge gay rights activist and proponent of equality and I’m really proud of what you did." Later, she said, "Call me when you get home next week, come into the studio and we’ll go on the air."
The next week, I went in and we did the show and had a great time. We had a visit afterwards and a good talk. I became aware of her situation at that time. In my coming out I’ve been asked a lot, "Do you encourage people to come out?" I don’t. I would never be so reckless to across the board tell people to come out. Not everyone feels safe to do it and it’s personal.
So I would just listen [to Stephanie]. This began a friendship between us. I like funny, smart people and they don’t get funnier and smarter than that woman. She was very interested in my story and would ask, "How do you feel now? You’re glowing." We had a mutual respect. We got together when I was in LA and went to dinner. I’m steadfast in my beliefs that there’s a difference between saying you’re for something and saying you are something. She’s said that I was annoying in my peaceful protest. She would say, "The gay community, I think they all know."
AE: I didn’t know.
CW: That will make her feel good for having done it. She would say that she did so much for the gay community and I would say, "Look, I’m not saying that you’re not hugely helpful to the movement, you’re incredible." If gay people around the world did half the things she did for the gay community, we would all be in better shape. But there’s a difference between cheering from the sideline and suiting up and saying, "I am this." But again, I told her, "I don’t judge you and you do have to think about whether you’ll lose your voice. Are you willing to lose your voice?"
On Friday at about two in the morning my time I got a text that was basically an SOS. She called and said, "I’m going to come out today." I said, "Please tell me that you’re not doing this out of fear, that you don’t feel threatened by anyone or anything." She said, "I’m doing this for me." She asked if I would stand by her and I said, "You know I will." So we spent the next couple of hours and went through some things that she was going to say. I would say, "Okay don’t say that!" [Laughs] My friends at GLAAD would be so happy that I did this meeting with her before she came out. I haven’t listened to how it all went down but I hear she did a good job.
AE: She did.
CW: Great. I didn’t know how to pull up the audio of it, but I looked at people typing in and I was so happy to see that she was getting so many different types of responses—"We love you" and "We had no idea." One of the things I had been telling her for a while is that even if people think you are, they don’t know it until you say it and it’s powerful when you declare it.
There’s a particular brand of shame that women and men who can hide have and it all came to a head for me at Capital Pride in DC and Chicago Pride and at the San Francisco Pride Awards. I finally was able to articulate it to a very large crowd. I had to say I felt incredible pride… I’m happy to have your applause, but I want you to know I stand on your shoulders. I’m here because you have been here for so long.
This was the crux of my conversation with Stephanie in LA. I said, "We give ourselves too much credit to think we can come out and change everything. In an arc of a hundred years, we are just one little blip." I said, "Are you going to be a blip or are you not going to be a blip?" And she said, "I want to be that."
The folds of America are deep and for some people the gay conversation hasn’t even reached their county. When I do these in-stores, I have people say, "I drove five hours to be here. I think I’m the only gay person in my town." It’s something we have to be aware of.
Mitchell Gold and I had dinner the other night and we were having this discussion about progress and how much more progress we still need. He asked me how I felt [about coming out] as oppose to how I thought I’d feel and I said, "I am over the moon." I’m a thousand times more fulfilled than I ever thought I would be and it’s because of the people who come and sit by me. It’s not because I’m comforting them. With each person who puts their bottom in a seat next to me, I continue to be comforted because I spent 39 years of my life feeling alone. With every person that sits next to me, it’s somehow healing an old wound. It’s retroactive. It’s healing my old broken heart.
I’m involved with GLSEN, [the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.] I did a GLSEN summit a few weeks ago at the media center with seventeen kids that were chosen from around the nation to participate. These are gay and straight kids. There was one kid from Pennsylvania who was trying desperately to start a gay-straight alliance in his school and a teacher who was helping him finally came to him and said, "I can’t help you do this because I’m afraid the other teachers will think that I’m a lesbian."
AE: How devastating. The person he turns to for help says she can’t because she fears people will think that she is like him.
CW: I’m crying now just thinking about it. Here’s the worst part: though she wasn’t gay, I’m sure there are gay teachers at that school and they would be the ones most organically compelled to help him, but they won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. They are the ones who know they have to be involved, but they can’t.
Everything I had been talking in the press about the plight of young LGBT students was based on what I had read, basic supposition, but now after having spent three days with these kids, now I know. I sat at the LGBT Center downtown for hours with these kids. I was in their workshop and I did more listening than I did talking. I really wanted to hear what they had to say. I’m going to go back and start a chapter of GLSEN in my hometown of Wellsville, Kansas.
AE: Now that sounds like an amazing challenge.
CW: Stay tuned.