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Chely Wright on music, activism and coming out
by Sarah Toce
2011-11-09

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A slender breathtakingly beautiful woman with artistic designer glasses and a credit card tucked into her side greeted me in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle. She politely gestured for me to come in for a hug while saying, "My old friend! Sarah, my old friend!" We had met on the phone at least three times before (where our allotted time to chat was 20 mins. and we let the recorder run for two hours) and on the red carpet probably two other times, but had never connected for more than a few seconds in the flesh until that moment.

"Can we start by getting a cup of coffee? I brought my credit card down," she said enthusiastically, touching her side, "and I want to use it!" How could I say no? I ordered an Americano to pair with her Vanilla Latte and we were on our way to begin our timed chat. Once again, as per the standard interview timing guidelines, we were allotted 20 mins. We talked pleasantly for more than 90.

Windy City Times: Congratulations on your marriage to Lauren Blitzer! For readers not familiar with your wife, please tell us a little bit about her.

Chely Wright: She is also in the activist world, but professionally. It's her vocation. She's the development director for Faith in America. I'm a board member as well. We do our best to raise the awareness and fight the harms done towards gay people, primarily youth, with bigotry towards LGBT people. It's much like what we saw in racism during the civil-rights movement—it's the same justification people have that they use the Bible. So Lauren does that and she used to be with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), and that's where we met.

WCT: You released a video in 2010 for GLSEN's Safe Space Kits. Are you still involved with the group?

CW: I'm still very involved. I'm actually still the national spokesperson for the Safe Space campaign, and now I'm officially a board member. So with that goes a lot more responsibility to not just show up for certain events, but stay engaged and involved. It's a challenge that ... there's a fatigue that everyone in any kind of movement when you're trying to push a rock up a hill, we all have to kind of band together and continually put our heads down and continually work and things like these GOP debates that we have.

The first thing I do is get right on Facebook and go to my friends, my fellow board members at GLSEN and at Faith in America and I write on their walls and say, "What we saw on TV today is exactly why we have to keep fighting when there are negative things said about people like us on TV piped into middle America's households that young people are seeing. That's why we've got to recommit and rededicate. Lock arms and keep working."

But it's hard. ... I've been out of the closet now for what—15, 16 months? It makes me really appreciate people who have been fighting for people like us for years. I don't know how they do it, because there is that mindset, sometimes I think, "Is it ever gonna get better?" But then I wake up the next day and pull my britches up and say, "It's gonna get better today and I'm going to help."

WCT: Do you find that you're met with kindness when you're doing this work? Or do you find that your valiant efforts can sometimes be met with hostility?

CW: You know, I'm so accustomed to people being nice to me. Even growing up in a small town in Kansas, people were pretty nice to each other. I was the paper girl. Everyone knew everyone and people were friendly. And in my job of making music and making records, I've lived in a bit of a bubble I have to tell you. And if anyone was ever rude to me purposefully I don't think I ever noticed it. And now I have to say people are mean on social networking, but they're not mean to my face typically. I've only had a couple people since I came out actually say something to my face. I've had people hand me nasty letters and walk off. But as far as negative things being said to my face, it just doesn't happen often. People do it behind a cowardly screen name and that's ... it's not okay, but it's more palatable.

I will tell you, however, that a couple of weeks ago I went to North Carolina to lobby the lawmakers there to not put a measure on the next ballot for May of 2012 to be voted upon that would amend their constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And that was an eye-opener as I stood in the halls of their legislature and had people who were vehemently opposed to people like me. And there was one lawmaker that stood right in front of me and he said, "Yeah I gotta tell you that, you know, I don't want to hurt your feelings, darling, but people like you are the cancer of society." And I was with my friend Mitchell Gold, who is a very amazing advocate. He's a world-renowned furniture maker, one of the most important businessmen in the state of North Carolina, and he's a gay man. He's an openly gay man, and he was there with me.

And for that man to stand there and say that to both of us ... he said, "You're the cancer of society, [and] that God meant for families to be one man and one woman." And I said, "Don't you think that a child ... " and I made all the arguments that we all always make in support of love, loving families, kids being loved by their parents, irrespective of whether it's a man and a woman or two women or two men. And I said, "What about if it's a bad situation? Is that good? What if it's not a healthy environment with a man and a woman?" He said, "Well in that case maybe a gay couple would be a safer environment, like they wouldn't harm the child. But a healthy, happy, loving straight couple is way better than a gay couple, and that kind of love is better." And I said, "So who governs love? Who votes and rules and measures that?" And he said, "You know, you people ... you're the cancer of society." And then he walked away, and someone came up to us and said, "Just so you know, it's not talked about, but his son is gay." His son is seeing his dad go every day and vote against him as a person, as a human. It's just mind boggling.

WCT: I am reminded of the fact that we all have at some point experienced homophobia and/or internalized homophobia. To be that passionate about taking away someone else's rights or denying a community equal rights is mind-boggling.

CW: Well, you know, often ... I don't want to say most of the time because I don't have statistics on me, but it never surprises me when the most outspoken opponents of LGBT people and our rights are found out to be just like us. And I had a great time today with Margaret Larson; I did their show. It was really fun—New Day NW on King-TV. We had a great sit down in front of her live audience today. She's just so great and one of the best interviewers that I've had the pleasure of sitting down with in years and years and on one of the breaks she said, "I don't understand why people don't understand the gay movement. Why would anyone deny two loving people the chance to be a family? I've been married 29 years and a lot of things have threatened my marriage, none of which have ever been the gays." And I loved that.

One of the things that my friend Mitchell Gold said was, "Something to keep in mind: those who really oppose fairness and equality ... they want to view what I want as special rights. I don't want special rights. I want equal rights. And they think that we're going to take something from them." And I'm so thankful that I have come out, because I couldn't have done this from the darkness of a closet. I couldn't have engaged.

WCT: I know that we can't really ask anybody to come out until they're ready, but Harvey Milk said, "If you're in the closet, come out, come out and stand with us." Do you believe that to be true? Or do you feel it's not necessarily better to be out of the closet than to be in?

CW: I have a lot of thoughts on that. And I think my thoughts are ... well, I know my thoughts are evolving and changing and recalibrating themselves as I get a better handle on what's happening out there.

I can tell you that it's my experience for me that being out is better. That being said, I wouldn't have this forum had I come out when I was 19. I would not have been able to become a country music star. I also am painfully aware that not everyone is safe and able. And I think I may have shared this thought with you, it's something I believe passionately about, to not just all willy-nilly for us on the coast to tell people, "Come out, come out wherever you are!" because not everyone is safe and able. I started an article on the plane for the Huffington Post. It involves Hollywood actors dodging rumors about being gay instead of owning that they have a platform and should use it for good, especially when there are still gay youth dying.

I know what it was about for me. It was that I wanted to keep my job. I wanted to keep making records, and I wanted to keep writing songs, and I wanted to keep being successful and making the money I was making and having the security I was having.

WCT: How do you feel about the stereotyping in the country-music industry regarding LGBT fans?

CW: People ask me a lot about fans of country music and they say, "Well country music fans are all conservative rednecks and ... " I said, "You guys don't know how many gays and lesbians listen to country music, yet we don't as an artist community recognize them. There's no reciprocity in the fans and artists like we don't talk about them until me now. They're an ignored group of our fan base. And a lot of fans leave because they feel like they don't fit in to country music. But it's huge! We have a lot of lesbians and gay fans of country music.

WCT: You know, having your music out there—especially your last CD, which I thought was amazing—is a great avenue for everyone regardless of sexuality or domestic partnership. I remember reading through your lyric book before our first interview and thinking, "These words can be related to anyone. It's country music, but it can resonate with every single person." It's not about a man singing about his wife, and then he shot a dog, or whatever. It's not that, it's more universal.

CW: There's only one song inkling on the record that suggests anything gay, and it's the song "Like Me" - and then you'd have to really think about it. But that's what I love about the record—and I wasn't trying to cloak anything in the songs—it was just ... I didn't really think anyone would ever hear these songs. And I think that's the great thing about extending one's intellect. That's how you really get to the heart of good artistry. And I think that's kind of always the thing that's held me up, I always over think everything, so having a breakdown for me was awesome!

I've often been asked, "Can you sing those old songs still and not feel like you're betraying yourself?" But there's something about even singing songs where there's a male and a female, it didn't feel like a betrayal because ... the role of the country singer, there's a long-standing tradition of singing. ... Tammy Wynette didn't experience everything she sang about, either.

There's something about taking on the role ... it's a performance. But the difference for me was, when I would perform a song that I had just written that may have been a real love long, fans or the band, my band might say, "That's amazing! When did you write that?" And instead of saying, "I just wrote that about my girlfriend, or I wrote it because of this", I'd just say, "Oh it's just been something I've been working on." Now, I can say I wrote it for Lauren, or I wrote it for her for Valentine's Day, I never could ... I'd just have to make everything really slip, just casual, and now I can talk more candidly about the process of writing songs.

WCT: What is your favorite part of the songwriting process?

CW: Well anytime there's an arc. I guess the life of a brand-new baby song, when you get an idea in your head. You might be on the toilet when you get it, you might be in the bathtub, and there's that fascinating experience as a writer when you get the idea and then you write it. And my favorite time, by the way, is in the middle of writing the song. I even try to prolong the process; I hate finishing songs. I like the middle of anything. I like the middle of a kiss. I like the middle of dinner. I like the middle of a book. I hate for a good book to end. I hate finishing a song.

When you finish a song, it's kind of still yours and no one else knows about it, and then you go and you make a record on it and all these other people are engaged and they play on it. And that's a unique feeling—unique to any other experience. And then you go out and play it, and the crowd absorbs it and you sing it to them, and that's the arc of it … or you hear it on the radio and people love it or they don't like it. That's typically as far as it goes.

There's a reverberation that happens with the human voice. Just to sing with two people there's a buzzing that happens with two voices that go together, and then you've got 12 voices in a half moon that's amazing, but then you've got 200 behind you? It's hard to describe. I've never done drugs, but I imagine that's what that feels like.

WCT: Why would you need to do drugs if you had that feeling by singing, by having that experience? I think many people just...

CW: Why do so many singers do drugs?

WCT: Oh I don't know! This could spiral off—

CW: I know, I know.

WCT: Very curious thing. Well I won't take up any more of your time; I mean, I would love to sit here and chat with you all day.

CW: Oh, I do love talking to you.

WCT: The feeling is mutual.


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