AE: Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf from TVgals are filming a documentary about your coming out experience. How did that come to be?
CW: It started when I started my book. I had been chronicling my breakdown, which I call my breakthrough now, in musical form and in songs that I had written. Mind you, I was making this record before I decided to come out. Rodney didn’t know I was gay. I didn’t come out until halfway through the creation of this album, so these songs weren’t written after I decided to come out.
I had an audio version of this emotional experience and I had started writing a book about it, and I guess I wanted to see what it looked like. So I put a video camera up on my mantle a couple of days into starting the book and I did a video blog diary for myself. I have one in particular where I’m talking about the day that I started writing about my partner in the book. I was crying. I was saying that I was writing about her — and, of course her name is not Julia, I changed her name — I was crying and I said, “I’m writing about her and I’m not crying because I’m sad, I’m just crying because I’m so emotional.”
When I went to visit with a guy in New York [to talk about marketing to a gay audience], on the wall there was a poster that said, Be Real, and I said, “Oh my gosh, I saw that film on Logo. It stunned me and inspired me.” He said, “I know the women who did that film.” I said, “Well, I’ve been doing video blogs of my experience,” and he said, “You have to show these women.” So I made an appointment to meet with them. What were just simple video diaries became the unfolding of, basically, “We have to film this, this has to be a film.” That’s how that began. I didn’t have the concept for a film. I just had a video compilation of my experience with coming out, just my personal video diaries.
AE: Actually, I was watching some of the older video blogs on your website from before you came out and I know this might sound odd, but after watching you on Oprah and hearing you at the reading the other night, it occurred to me how much more articulate you are right now. Maybe this is just the benefit of hindsight, but it almost seems like in those earlier video blogs you’re not fully revealing yourself or you’re almost physically holding something back. It struck me that it must have been difficult to keep this a secret while working on the book.
CW: Well, you’re probably pretty damn perceptive, Heather. I’m not surprised that shows up in my video blog. It’s really hard to try to be open with people, yet hold that back. You’re trying to video blog to your fans, “Hey, here’s what’s going on today. I went to a show and did that,” but meanwhile eight hours of that day I was writing a book about coming out. Can you image the duplicity? I’m trying to be an honest person. I’m trying to be forthright with my fans — “I can’t wait for you to hear my record” and “I can’t wait to get back on the road”— but, really, at the root of it all, what’s bubbling and brewing is that I’m about to come out. And that’s the lie that I was working with my entire career. It’s hard.
One of the things that’s been so hard for me since I’ve come out is that I’ve had a couple of people say to me—they don’t know that it’s such an insult but it is, and you’ll understand this because you’re a woman who at some point hid your being gay—but I’ve had a couple of people say to me, “Oh, I could never have hidden that. I’m not that good of a liar.” They don’t realize that that’s such an insult to me [but] I want to say to them, “If you had to be a liar, you would’ve been, if you had to for your survival.” It’s like saying to someone, “I could never shoplift and steal.” Well, if you had starving children, you would go into a store and steal food to feed your children.
Do you think, in my nature, that I’m really that good of a liar? I was such an honest kid. I was the kid who woke [my parents] up at midnight, crying, and said, “I’m the one who left the lid off the jelly jar.” That’s who I am in my heart. But when you’re forced to lie—told you’re going to get the crap kicked out of you and you’re not going to achieve your dreams and society hates your guts without ever having met you—and you have to lie, [then] you have to become a skilled liar. You know what I’m saying?
AE: Absolutely. On the flip side of that, I also think it’s remarkable that for so many years you didn’t tell your closest friends that you were gay because you didn’t want them to have to lie for you. There’s profound loneliness and aloneness in that — loneliness and aloneness are two different things, of course, but in a way you experienced both.
CW: Yes, and I know that they don’t mean it to be an insult, but it cuts me completely to the marrow of my bone.
AE: Oh, Chely, you’re going to hear a lot of things from well-intended people who don’t “mean” to insult you.
CW: That’s why it’s just so good that I stay off-line. There’s some nastiness out there. Friends of mine from high school will email me and go, “I can’t believe so and so wrote this on your webpage,” and then they’ll copy and paste it in the email and I’m like, God, please don’t send me that. I guess someone wrote, “I question someone’s motives who would come out with such a shocking news announcement on the same week that they have a book and a record coming out.” Well, the book is my coming out story.
I kind of want to say to those people in Nashville, or anywhere, who are saying that this is a publicity stunt — because I’m a smart ass at heart and I’m trying really hard to just keep taking the high road — but what I really want to say is, Okay, you, too, can pull this “publicity stunt” off. I’ll show you how: First of all, you really have to be gay; second of all, you really have to have hidden your entire life; third of all, you really have to lose the love of your life; fourth, you have to hit rock bottom; fifth, you have to write an entire record — not eleven songs, but forty songs and then pare it down to eleven songs; then you have to move to New York City from your amazing home in Nashville to a one bedroom apartment; oh, and by the way, then you have to start a book without the promise of a book deal; you have to go on blind faith that someone is going to buy your book; you have to crawl on the floor in your emotions and write a book that doesn’t really make you out to be a hero; you have to confess your crimes against other people; you have to admit all of the bad s–t you’ve done; and you have to come out as a gay woman — that does not help your record sales, contrary to what people may accuse you of—and you have to step forward and be ridiculed and be called a “sinner” and a “pervert,” and you, too, can do this. That’s all you have to do. But you really have to be gay.
AE: That’s the first step.
CW: [Laughs]. That’s the first step. But if you really want to pull this “publicity stunt” off, knock yourself out.
AE: I agree. I think you’ve actually addressed that accusation pretty clearly here. To be honest, I find the “publicity stunt” comment pretty shallow and lacking in emotional intelligence. If I were you, I wouldn’t even address it.
CW: You’re right.
AE: Not that you’re asking my opinion, but there it is.
CW: [Laughs] But I really am gay.