By the time I reached page 13 of Chely Wright‘s memoir, Like Me, I realized I’d only hinted at the importance of her coming out when I wrote about it earlier this week. The reasons I gave, though valid, were all external: Queer visibility helps bridge the gap of misunderstanding that often separates the LGBT community and society at large. But as I devoured Wright’s book in one sitting this morning, I realized that what she’s saying is even more substantive and meaningful to gay people.
Chely Wright knew she was gay when she was a child. She gathered social clues like a detective, and even though they all added up to inform her that being a lesbian was tantamount to being a perverse sexual deviant, she couldn’t rid herself of her attraction to women. She fell in love with her third grade teacher, and she felt sick on Friday afternoons when she was forced to leave her for the whole weekend. She was smitten with her second cousin, and she stole her photo from the refrigerator and hid it so she could gaze upon it lovingly when no one was around.
One of my favorite parts of Like Me is when Wright explains how she couldn’t bring herself to look away from a waitress’ cleavage when confronted with it at the age of twelve:
I suppose our waitress informed our family about the dinner specials that night, but I can’t be sure. After being fixated on those breasts for a good two minutes — a long time for a 12-year-old girl in Wellsville, Kansas to be staring at a seventeen-year-old girl’s boobs — I got a sign. I finally actually noticed the words ironed onto her t-shirt. Written in red capital letters was the message GOD DON’T MAKE MISTAKES.
I felt, on that night, that I was okay. I had hope and some comfort, for a while at least, that I was just as I was supposed to be.
The beautiful young waitress turned to me and asked me for my order, and I shouted, a little too enthusiastically, "Salisbury Steak Dinner, please!"
She smiled. "Okay, sweetie," replied God’s buxom, cheerful messenger. Then she tapped me on the head with her pencil and bounced off toward the kitchen.
Of course, Like Me is not all cute anecdotes; even when writing about her childhood, Wright admits that she felt personally responsible for every tragedy that befell her family, as if God were punishing them because she was gay. Because she was hyper self-aware at such a young age, her entire memoir — from grade school to the Grand Ole Opry — is viewed through the lens of that shame and fear. She is always "torn between not wanting anyone to notice [her] and wanting everyone to notice [her]."
Wright is candid when she writes about her relationships, from her first sexual experience with another woman to her persistent efforts to fall for a man to her first girlfriend, a relationship that lasted 12 years — though they only told two people they were a couple during the entire time they were together.
The climax of Wright’s story comes when she is forced to choose between staying closeted and keeping her career, or coming out and saving her relationship. She chose her career and lost her partner — and the emotional turmoil of that decision led her to the bathroom one morning where she stared down her reflection with a 9-millimeter handgun in her mouth.
I say a prayer to God to forgive me and understand why I can’t go on anymore like this. I beg God to realize that I will never be able to fit into the life I’ve created, that I will never be accepted.
I pick up the gun and put the end of it in my mouth. It’s cold. I hold it steady and get my right thumb on the trigger and prepare to pull by pushing it outward.
I close my eyes … thumb still on the trigger.
My mind goes a million miles an hour. I think of my family, my dogs, my friends, my fans, the sun, a kiss from Julia, and music.
Wright’s story has a happy ending — or, at the very least, a happy new beginning. And much of her genesis is now being played out for the media.
In an honest, moving interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wright talks about her fear of being "frozen out" of the country music industry:
At least in high school you knew who the bully was. You knew who was kicking your ass. I wrote about that in my book, that I looked online at something nasty written about me, and I vomited. It made me sick. Not what I read, but that I couldn’t defend myself. That I couldn’t say, "Yes I’m gay, but I’m not a f–king whore. It doesn’t make me promiscuous or deviant! I had a partner! We had a home! We had a garden! We had dogs and fish!" And it made me so angry that I was not in charge of my story. That’s the most compelling reason why I decided not to just do a video blog and say, "Hey! Ta-daaa! [sing-song] I am a gaaaaaay!" I wanted to tell my story.
In her Curve cover story interview, Wright speaks about staying closeted:
I almost died. The hiding almost killed me. I had pretty masterfully … painted myself into a corner. I’d made a deal with God early on that I’d go without love in my life, just give me music, but when you’re 9 years old and brokering deals with God about what you will and won’t do, and you don’t realize the importance of love and companionship in your life — one really shouldn’t be held to those deals.
In People, she addresses the moment she decided not to take her own life:
I’m a prayerful person and so I stopped praying for a plan to magically make my gayness and my career intersect; instead I prayed for a moment of peace. The minute I said "Amen," it washed over me. I said to myself "Am I coming out?" The seed was planted. I started to honor the moment and stopped trying to make this grand plan.
And on Today, Wright was as open and warm as she was frank about sexuality.
So, yes: Chely Wright’s coming out is important because visibility really does matter. But it’s also important because there are gay people all over the world who are trapped in the closet because they can’t reconcile their faith and their sexuality, or their careers and their sexuality, or their familial obligations and their sexuality. And when a person is engulfed in that kind of shame and fear and agony, it can make a literal life-and-death difference to see a celebrity who has made it through to the other side — especially one who is so honest about how hard it was to get there.
Maybe you’ve never held a gun to your head. Maybe you were simply a tween who was fixated on a softball player’s rack in a t-shirt. If that’s true, her story is just a retroactive hug for your twelve-year-old self. And it feels good to hugged by someone who understands (and is as stunning as Chely Wright is when she’s tangled up in a sheet).
Usually when celebrities come out, they say the same thing: "Yes, I’m gay. But I’d really rather talk about my art."
What Chely Wright is saying — in her book, in her interviews, and in her presence — is that yes, she’s gay. And it permeates her art, it drives her art — and it’s something she just can’t keep inside anymore.