by Jack Silverman
Though our state legislators may be intent on turning the clock back a century or four, time insists on moving forward, and it’s reasonable to assume that a few decades from now (hopefully sooner), the gay rights and marriage equality movement will have taken its place next to the civil rights movement as a fight for human dignity that ultimately prevailed. States can pass all the anti-same-sex marriage amendments they want, but most studies suggest that younger generations have a much more tolerant and compassionate outlook, so it’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings — it’s just up to our leaders to decide which side of history they will join.
And with Nashville Pride Fest this weekend, what better time to explore the current state of LGBT life in Music City? Thus, the Scene’s Nashville Pride issue. Inside, Jonathan Meador tells the story of how Tribe, celebrating its 10th anniversary, helped shape the Church Street gay district. Vanderbilt University Divinity School’s C. Melissa Snarr examines the intersection of religion and sexual orientation. Joey Leslie provides an indispensable guide to Nashville’s LGBT hot spots. And Steven Hale looks at our state legislature’s blatant hostility toward the LGBT community.
But first, a chat with Chely Wright, who in May 2010 became the first major country music star to come out publicly as gay. Earlier this month, Wish Me Away, a documentary chronicling Wright’s experience coming out, received a nationwide theatrical release, and is now available on demand, and at iTunes and Amazon. Wright, who lived in Nashville for 20 years before moving to New York in 2008, made headlines again recently when she appeared on CBS This Morning, in a segment the network posted online under the headline “Chely Wright: Nashville’s quietly rejected me.” But as Wright tells the Scene in an email interview, sound bites can be misleading, and there’s much more to the story:
What reaction to coming out were you expecting, and how has it been different from what you expected?
The reaction has been largely what I expected. Some people are supportive, and some aren’t.
Music Row has a number of gay people in significant positions of authority, some of whom haven’t come out. Did you get encouragement from any of those people off the record or behind the scenes?
I’m not sure how to address this question. By simply answering it, I kind of sign off on the content of the question, which I’m unable to do. I don’t know how one would be able to say that there are “a number of people in positions of authority who haven’t come out.” How would one know that? I would agree that there are several “out” people in the industry, and that is a great thing. I’ve received support from scores of LGBT people within our industry — and remember that our industry is far-reaching. There are songwriters, publishers, producers, radio folks from coast to coast and others who reached out to me, privately to share varying messages of support. Many of them have said plainly that they’re cheering me on — from within the confines of their own closet because they don’t feel safe and able to come out. And I understand that. No one has been more supportive than [Music Row executive] Fletcher Foster. In fact, he is a producer of Wish Me Away, the documentary film about my coming out. Fletcher was in the know about my plans to stand up, and he fully encouraged me.
Has your openness inspired anyone else to follow suit?
I’ve received long, heartfelt emails from people in the industry who have confided in me that my coming out inspired them to come out, on one level or another. Some came out to just one person, and others came out to their families or their co-workers.
Have you heard about any new artists coming up who have seen you as a trailblazer, and have felt emboldened to come out themselves?
I have. I’ve gotten quite a few notes from young artists who aspire to make it in country music who’ve said that they’re just glad that someone came out and they feel more hopeful that there will be a place for them in the industry someday.
Do you feel the way you’ve been treated by the Nashville music industry has been a deterrent to others who might want to come out?
The tone of the question implies that I am wholly dissatisfied with the Nashville music industry. I’ll say it again, people have reached out to me privately, and it means so much. Despite what you may have heard or read about my feelings on the issue, I don’t wallow around in any lack of public support by my industry. The headlines that get picked up and the sound bites suggest that I’m devastated, but I’m not really that hurt by it. When I’m asked very direct questions, I give very direct answers. And my answer has been that I’d love to see some real public support for the LGBT community from my industry. I am frustrated that no one wants to talk about LGBT equality, but it doesn’t pull me off track. In fact, it is particularly what fuels me.
Do you think it’s emboldened you as an artist?
I guess the most intriguing answer would be “yes,” but my answer is — I don’t think so. I have always felt very powerful and free, artistically speaking. I will say that retiring from my full-time job of hiding (and believe me, it was labor-intensive) has freed up a lot of my headspace and a lot of my time, which is always conducive to being creative.
What inspired you to document your coming-out process on film?
I made my decision to come out in the summer of 2007. On the very day that I made that decision, I began writing my memoir. I was also wrapping up production of an album with Rodney Crowell at the helm that summer, and the songs we were recording had been born in the two years that led up to that moment. So, I knew what a breakdown sounded like to music, I was seeing what my breakdown looked like on paper, and I guess there was a part of me that wanted to document another dimension of the experience. So I began making video diaries. I had no idea at the time that anyone would ever see those video diaries.
The next year, I was in NYC meeting with a marketing guy named Craig Karpel, in whom I’d confided. He had a movie poster on his wall for a film called Be Real. I told Craig that I’d seen that film, a documentary about everyday people who came out of the closet, and that it had really affected me. Craig said, “I should introduce you to the filmmakers. They’re great.”
Then he asked me if I had been filming or if I planned to film my coming-out process. I told him that I didn’t plan on filming it, but that I had been doing video diaries for nearly a year. So the filmmakers and I got together one night, with no real agenda to speak of, and the next day they called me and said that they wanted to make a feature film about my journey. It felt right. My thinking was that not everyone would take the time to read my book, and I wanted to be sure to fully communicate the very nuanced experience that a person like me endures. Films have proven to be an effective way to chronicle the human condition. One thing I find interesting is that I didn’t turn over my video diaries to the filmmakers until about nine months or so after they began shooting. They had no idea what was on the tapes, and frankly, I didn’t either. I’d never gone back and watched any of them.
Was there any point during the production that you wanted to back out of it?
In terms of wanting to back out of the film because of the anxieties of an impending coming out, no. The only time I ever had trepidation was when I learned that the filmmakers had tracked down my mom without my knowing it. That was hard for me. I know and understand that they, as artists themselves, needed to do what they had to do to tell the story. But it hurt me and it scared me. We’re pretty hardwired as humans to want to protect our loved ones, and I didn’t want my mother’s rejection of me to be filmed. Not only because it’s hurtful to me, but because I wanted to protect her and what people might think of her. Nevertheless, we moved forward. It was too important to allow something to derail this film.
Do you think you would have been treated differently if you were a gay man? And if so, how?
I really have no idea. It’s pretty well-substantiated that there are differences in society’s perceptions and feelings of men and women who identify as gay or lesbian, but it’s such uncharted territory in commercial country music to have an “out” artist. It’s hard to say — there’s no data, no control group. I’m sure it would’ve been different, but I don’t quite know how.
Are you afraid you’re going to be pigeonholed from here on out as “The Gay Country Artist”?
Afraid? Fear is not a big part of my life these days. Fear was a main character in my story prior to coming out. “Afraid” is how I felt every day of my life, trying to keep my secret and pursue my lifelong dream of country music. “Afraid” is how I felt in 2005 when the ex-boyfriend of a woman I’d been seeing in Nashville decided that he’d “out” me to get even with her or with me, I don’t know. He wrote and mailed a series of letters to people in the industry and to several local newspapers and publications telling them, among other things, “Chely Wright is a lesbian and I can prove it.” Thatmade me “afraid.” And that wasn’t the only circumstance during my career when I was threatened by someone to be outed. No, I am not afraid of being known as the “Gay Country Music Artist” from now on. It’s more than fine with me, because it’s true.
What do you think your life and career would be like now if you hadn’t come out?
On one hand, I think that my career would be more conventional for a person who’d had some commercial success and was transitioning into the singer-songwriter realm of recording and touring. There’s a margin for that in our industry, and it’s a good spot to be, in my opinion. That’s on one hand. On the other hand, I know that had I kept hiding — my physical health, my emotional health and my spiritual health would certainly have continued to degrade. That fact alone makes me imagine that there would be nothing left of me to continue. It was do or die for me. And as far as my life goes, I certainly wouldn’t be a happily married woman living every day in full light.
Tell us about your involvement with GLSEN.
I moved to New York City in June of 2008, and my reasons for doing so were many. My first order of business was to finish my memoir, Like Me. I wanted to isolate myself in a place that was logistically and emotionally benign for me. The writing I’d done up to that point, in Nashville, was proving to be difficult. One can only write so many hours a day. And in the hours when I wasn’t writing, my reality would tend to seep back in on me. I was afraid that I would lose the courage to keep going if I stayed in Nashville. So I moved to NYC. My other agenda was to embed myself with LGBT organizations and LGBT leaders so that I might best educate myself about the equality movement. I wanted to ensure that the minute I came out, I could hit the ground running in order to affect the most change possible and to initiate informed dialogue within circles I felt uniquely positioned to reach. One of the many organizations I sought out in 2008 was GLSEN — The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. It’s a wonderful organization that works to eradicate bullying in schools nationwide. GLSEN was a great fit for me, considering I wanted to be a voice in the movement that sends a message to young people that there are others who care about you and who will demand that you have a safe and welcoming place to learn and grow. I’m proud to now serve on GLSEN’s national board. [Visit glsen.org for more information.]
The stereotype is that country music fans are conservative, red-state fundamentalist types. What kind of reaction have you had from your fans? Did you lose some fans?
The reaction I’ve witnessed from fans has been wide-ranging. Some fans are accepting, some are not, and some are still processing the information — the information that someone they knew and supported is gay. How they ultimately reconcile that and make a decision is to be determined. I will say, however, that my greatest concern is not that they’ll “accept me” as an artist, but rather that they might employ what they’ve learned about how they feel now — that someone they once supported is gay and struggled in hiding. My aspiration is that they’ll understand that there are people in their lives who are like me, whether they know it, want it or not. My coming out wasn’t meant to be a referendum on the Nashville music industry’s acceptance of the LGBT community, but rather an opportunity to speak to our worldwide audience of country music in an effort to change hearts and minds. Although it seems the former has come to pass.
I do think that there are homophobic people in the industry — some of them in power. I say this based on the things I experienced firsthand during my career, the things people actually write on their Facebook pages, and the stories I hear from others in the industry who are out or hiding. However, I feel that the greatest setback that plagues the country music industry is their collective fear of the consumer’s expected homophobia. I call this fearphobia. The industry is afraid of the record buying public’s fear of gays and lesbians. They’re afraid of fear. And that fear is enough to cause silence. And it’s deafening, if you ask me.
And did you gain any fans who came to your music because they were inspired by your coming out?
I gained a lot of people who visited my Facebook page to hit the “Like” button in support of the social statement that my coming out has made. But there’s a big divide between that “Like” button and becoming a fan of the music. Many in the LGBT community have stayed away from country music because they felt that it didn’t speak to them or accept them. Music is emotional, as we all know, and we must, as fans, feel connected to it. Some in the LGBT community have had every reason — for a long time — to feel unwelcome and disconnected from our genre.
Was there any specific act, incident or oversight that you took as a slap in the face in the wake of your coming out?
I wouldn’t call it a slap in the face, but when I hear that someone in the industry says, “What’s the big deal, we already knew she was gay,” it frustrates me. My first reaction is that they didn’t “know” I was gay, but they’d heard the rumor enough to believe it. And my second reaction is that it’s such an arrogant thing to say, and it tells me and everyone else that anyone who says that has a lack of comprehension in regards to the rest of the world and how social change actually happens. Change doesn’t happen unless people stand up. I actually refused to be one of Music Row’s whispers anymore, and anyone who can’t recognize the challenge and the value of my doing that … well, I don’t imagine that those people make it a practice to consider anyone other than themselves too often.
What’s the most encouraging thing anyone’s done for you or said to you since your coming out?
When someone tells me that my coming out changed or saved their life … that’s pretty strong stuff. That might not be the kind of encouragement you were referring to, but that’s the kind that keeps my compass pointed north.
How long did you live in Nashville?
Where do you live now, and where did you get married? And did Tennessee’s laws against gay marriage encourage you to leave?
I live in New York City, in Manhattan. And no, the current anti-LGBT legislative policies that exist in Tennessee didn’t cause me to leave.
Would you consider living in Tennessee again?
I remain very connected to Tennessee. I still own many properties in Nashville. I began investing in real estate early in my career, and it’s become a passion of mine. Nashville is a wonderful city — filled with great art, great music, sports, universities, cutting-edge medical facilities, communities of faith and just some really nice people. As easy as it would be to glean from the headlines that “Nashville has broken my heart,” the truth of the matter is that Nashville, Tennessee, is also the town that made my dreams come true. I’m still pretty involved in the happenings of Tennessee, although most might not hear about it.
As far as my residing in Nashville again — I wouldn’t be able to do that right now. My marriage to my wife Lauren is legally recognized in New York, and until Tennessee’s laws provide that right for us, we’ll be staying put here in NYC. I do miss Nashville and my bike rides on the Natchez Trace with my bike-riding friends. There’s so much to miss about Nashville.
What does country music have to say to GLBT audiences?
Well, had I answered these questions yesterday, I’d have to say “not a lot.” But times, they are a-changin’. It seems that Carrie Underwood stepped forward in an interview she gave in London and endorsed marriage equality. This is huge. This is what I was longing for from my industry. Someone that would say something beyond, “I love my gay fans, I don’t judge.” To that point — I’m sure they love their fans who have been convicted of crimes, but don’t judge them either. That’s quite different from the statement that Carrie just gave. You see, if you’re a country music artist and you say things like, “I love my gay fans, I don’t judge” or “I love my gay fans, they’re so crazy and fun”… well, that’s insufficient, and at some point, it becomes offensive. LGBT people are not a novelty, and by virtue of your saying that “I love them even though” or “they’re fun and crazy,” it doesn’t make you cool and progressive. No. It makes you look ill-informed and out of touch. LGBT people are not a novelty, a Beanie Baby to be collected, if you will. Either you believe in freedom for all, based on real human equality, or you don’t. If you do support it … say it. Say it clearly and unequivocally, with no caveat. And if you don’t support the LGBT community and our rights for full equality — well, just keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll hear you loudly and clearly, whether you’re saying anything or not.
Carrie Underwood’s beautifully articulated statement of support is profound. It will do so much for the LGBT community, but I have to say that it will do as much for the country music community.
We must remember — societies are known by their majority, but they are defined by the way they treat their minority.
What are you doing now? Do you have a new record coming out? What’s going on with the documentary?
I am currently writing, and I should begin recording this year. I’m also writing a screenplay. And of course, I am heavily involved in advocating for equality on local, state and national levels. My days are full, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Wish Me Away, as of June 1, 2012, has marked the milestone of having a nationwide theatrical release, which is a huge accomplishment. It’s also now available on other viewing platforms, such as Video On Demand, iTunes, Amazon and others. And beginning in the month of October (National Coming Out Month), Wish Me Away will be on Showtime.
The ability for people to view this film at home is a really important component of this film’s potential to create change, in my opinion. Not everyone will feel compelled or safe to go to a theater, so I’m thrilled that folks can see this film at home.
The filmmakers, Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, have had a great run so far with Wish Me Away. It was on the film festival circuit most of last year, and I think it won more than a dozen awards. We’re all so proud of this project, and we’re thrilled that the film is being seen during this critical juncture of social change in our nation.