Five reasons why Chely Wright’s coming out matters

When the Big Gay Blind Item of Cinco de Mayo started floating around, everyone had an opinion about which celebrity would come out in People on May 5th. We didn’t speculate about it publicly at AfterEllen.com, but there was plenty of behind-the-scenes chit-chat going on between our writers. While we all had different guesses (and hopes and dreams) about who who it would be, we were unanimously surprised when Queerty cracked the code over the weekend and called it: Country singer Chely Wright.

And by "surprised" I mean almost everyone was like, "Who the hell is Chely Wright?"

I say "almost everyone" because I was born and raised (and still comfortably reside) in a small town in the northeast Georgia mountains, and the only thing more revered here than country music is Sarah Palin. Chely Wright is on my iPod. (Sarah Palin is not.)

This morning, the news officially broke that Wright is the celeb coming out, which frees us up to talk about it. (Hurrah!)

The response to Chely Wright from much of the LGBT community bemuses me because it falls somewhere between apathetic and angry. Tweets and comments all over the Gay Internet are loaded with disappointment and agitation, mostly because people wanted the Big Gay Blind Item of Cinco de Mayo to be "someone who mattered."

So, from my Southern heart to your empathetic ears, here are five reasons why Chely Wright’s coming out matters.

1) It always matters when anyone comes out.

People who have already come out and are surrounded by supportive communities often forget the dark fog of fear and shame and confusion that lives inside the closet. Some people say that coming out is an ethical obligation, and that if all the closeted gay people in all the world climbed up on chairs and jumped off at the same time, the whole earth would be thrown off-course. Or at the very least, gay people would start to see some civil liberty equality.

And there’s real truth to that, but we do a terrible disservice to our queer brothers and sisters when we forget that coming out is a personal decision that often requires monumental courage.

The exhaustive research of LGBT rights groups proves that the game-changer for straight people is knowing someone who’s gay. So, no: Chely Wright isn’t an A-list movie star or an American Idol winner or a CNN anchor — but she once was closeted and now she’s not. And that changes things.

2) In our society, familiarity with a celebrity counts as knowing someone.

Our culture is just absolutely soaked in celebrity lust. We want to know what’s happening behind-the-scenes on movies, what’s going on in the studio while artists are recording albums. We want to know what celebs’ kids look like, what celebs had for lunch, what kind of pajamas celebs wear on Tuesdays. And through some evolutionary fluke/hole in the legal system, all of that information is readily available to us. So we feel like we really do know them.

If knowing a person who comes out changes the way straight people think about gay people, and familiarity with a celebrity counts as knowing someone, then: congratulations, everyone who has ever sung along to Chely Wright; you now know a lesbian!

(GLAAD’s research backs up this claim: Knowing a gay celeb or TV character has the same affect as knowing a gay neighbor.)

3) Red states are country music states.

I’m not saying that all Republicans are gay-bashers. In fact, I know some lovely Republicans who marched in the Equality March in D.C. last year. But it’s no secret that the Republican party has climbed into bed with the evangelical Christian community, and that — both socially and monetarily — conservative Christian churches are the biggest threat to equal rights in America.

I’m also not saying that every Republican listens to country music. I’m just saying that if you look at a map, red states have the highest concentration of country music radio stations. Georgia and Michigan, for example, both have populations of about 10 million people, but Georgia has twice as many country music radio stations. And if you combined every country music station in every blue state in the northeast, you still wouldn’t have as much country music as Tennessee puts out in a single work day.

Chely Wright is all up in every red state’s business with her music. It’s visibility where visibility matters most.

4) It opens up an important dialogue.

It’s hard not to compare Chely Wright to Jennifer Knapp. Both are resurfacing with new albums after years away from the music industry. For both of them, their sexual orientation contributed to their decision to leave.

We know that loads of celebrities are closeted. We actually know celebrities that are closeted. And for many — if not most — of them, the primary reason they stay closeted is because they think coming out will kill their careers. It’s time that we, as a gay community (specifically) and a society (at large), start talking about that issue. Is it really true? And if it is true, why is it true? What can we do to fix it?

The closet in the country music industry is deep and it is full. Talking about Wright and Knapp can change things; it can set an example. They have given us a specific topic, and a reason to discuss it.

5) The rule of threes.

If you believe in the cosmic rule of threes — that births and deaths and weddings and coming outs happen in triples — that means someone else will come out soon. (You can’t count Ricky Martin, though, if you want the magic to work.) So, if you’re bummed that the celeb you chose in the office pool isn’t the Blind Item Gay, keep the hope alive. We say this a lot, but every time someone comes out, the closet door gets wider.

Maybe even wide enough for all those A-listers we can’t discuss.

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