As the first country music star to come out as gay, Chely Wright’s recent announcement has both historic and cultural significance. In her new memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, Wright captures her struggle to accept her sexuality as a young girl growing up in rural Kansas and as an acclaimed singer/songwriter in Nashville with chart-topping hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.”
This lifelong struggle ultimately led Wright to lose her partner of twelve years and to contemplate suicide. After suffering a breakdown, which she now refers to as a “breakthrough,” Wright has reemerged with a new perspective, a notable album and an inspiring story to tell.
AfterEllen.com recently spoke with Wright about her memoir Like Me, her new album Lifted Off the Ground, and why her coming out is not a "publicity stunt."
AfterEllen.com: This was not a tentative coming out. A new album on Vanguard Records produced by Rodney Crowell. A book published by Random House. What has surprised you the most about your coming out experience?
Chely Wright: I didn’t realize how many people would identify with my story. So many people have handed me letters or stood on line and told me that they have read their story within my story. When you’re in hiding — and I don’t know if you’ve ever been in hiding, Heather —
AE: Of course I have.
CW: Right? I don’t guess that anyone gay has an easy time with it. We’re all so the same. But when you’re in hiding, what you long for is to identify with somebody. I’ve had so many people, young and old, say to me, “I would have given anything to have been able to go to a library and check this book out. It would have been so comforting to know that there is another human being who had a story like mine.”
I named the book Like Me for that reason because I knew it would be of some comfort to a young person to read a story and to see that there was someone else like them. But it’s blown my mind how many more people like me there are. It’s been bigger than I thought it would be — and more emotional.
AE: In Like Me you capture how isolated your life was with your partner Julia because you two felt you couldn’t reveal your relationship. During that time, did you ever seek out books or films that featured lesbian characters? If only to have that reflection or confirmation of identity? Did you watch The L Word or, I don’t know, secretly read Sarah Waters?
CW: There was one bookstore in Nashville that had gay books and I would never have walked in the front door of it. I’m not that well versed at ordering books online so as far as buying books, no. But when The L Word came out, my partner and I — God, I can remember how crazy this was — we would go to a place in Nashville and sneak in and buy the box set of the L Word. We would always buy it around Thanksgiving and it was what we would do during the holidays. We would catch up on the season before. I remember our being strategic about going to the checkout counter. I would walk to the car and she would pay for it. That’s the degree to which we would hide.
I wouldn’t even buy a kd lang or an Indigo Girls record in Nashville. If I were to go into Tower Records at that time, the kids who worked there would say, “Chely, can you sign this record?” or “Sign this poster from the in-store that you did three years ago.” I was recognized.
So when my partner and I would go buy the box set of The L Word, we would walk in, look around and grab it, and she would pay for it and I’d go to the car. But we reveled in watching it because we would see our story, we would see our togetherness, a glimpse of our life in those storylines. So, yes, we did seek that out. It was tragic in a way. It was almost torture to see those storylines; comforting and torturous.