Chely Wright is a country music singer who debuted in 1994 and achieved her life’s dream by becoming part of the Grand Ole Opry tradition, recording several Top 40 and number one songs, including “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” In 2010, she publicly came out as a lesbian, after 20 years of maintaining the secret of her sexuality from her fans and even from those closest to her. In Wish Me Away, the documentary filmed during the three years before her public coming out on the Today Show and Oprah, among other national media venues, Wright narrates her story, which focuses on her emotional trauma over whether she has the personal strength to make her sexuality public.
In addition to the film shot for the documentary by directors Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, Wish Me Away includes clips from Wright’s personal video diary, unexpurgated moments of real despair, fear, and ambivalence over the major public announcement she works toward for those three years. If Wright hadn’t decided to come out, she most likely would have died. In her memoir, Like Me, and in Wish Me Away, she describes contemplating suicide when living her life as a lie became utterly untenable.
Wish Me Away is a coming out story, but it’s also a testament to a woman willing to trade her music industry success to finally be able to tell the truth. In the conservative world of country music, Wright was the first major performer to openly self-identify as gay or lesbian. On the occasion of Wish Me Away’s release earlier this summer, Wright reported that Nashville has frozen her out since her announcement two years ago.
Just as one of her song-writing collaborators predicted in the film, the country music community didn’t denounce her; they simply leave her name off of invitation lists to visible, influential events. But Wright says she has no regrets; she knew her career might take a hit, but decided to trade certain aspects of her success for a real life.
Two weeks after she came out publicly in 2010, Wright met Lauren Blitzer, an LGBT rights advocate who she married a year later in Connecticut. Wright now serves on the Board of Directors of GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network—and also established The Like Me Organization to advocate for gay and lesbian youth by preventing bullying and teen suicide.
Wish Me Away constructs a teleological narrative, returning to stories of Wright’s childhood and sharing photographs of her family from her early life in a very small town in Kansas. With a population of 1600, Wellsville didn’t provide many options for a girl who knew she was gay by the time she was eight-years-old. Wright grew up very religious, and says she prayed, literally, that her uncomfortable difference from other kids would go away.
Though her god never saw fit to make that happen, Wright says that at her lowest moment, when she contemplated putting the barrel of her gun in her mouth, she did feel suffused with a warmth that persuaded her she was being cared for and looked after by the higher power in which she continues to believe. She came out to her father shortly before her televised announcement; she let her mother, who’s divorced from her father and from whom she’s estranged, find out that her daughter is a lesbian by watching the Today Show.
I watched Wish Me Away on video-on-demand, prepared to be slightly diverted. I didn’t know Wright’s music, although I’m a selective country music fan, but I’m always interested in how people tell their coming out stories. I was quickly entranced by Wright’s integrity and honesty and by her determination to make her personal struggle matter to a larger public, especially to young people who feel the same desperate pain she did as a kid. The film is also an important reminder that despite or perhaps because of all the political rhetoric about same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues fought over in the public eye, many queer people remain in circumstances that require them to be silent about their desire. Wright’s story demonstrates how much is still at stake for so many people in the choice to come out.
Wright’s anguish over her false life is palpable and authentic throughout the film. After obligatory footage of the early years of her career in the 90s, when her big hair and sexy feminine style hid her desire for women, Wright spends a lot of screen time speaking openly about what she fears and how she feels as tears roll from her eyes. Her performance of herself in the documentary is raw and vulnerable and becomes surprisingly captivating. The film is also dialogic; that is, except for the short video diary entries, Wright mostly talks about her emotions and her choices with other people. We watch her learning from the team she assembles to stage her announcement; we see her interacting with her sister, Jennifer, and her supportive aunt; we watch her writing songs and talking to managers; and we see her in a rather confessional but earnest conversation with her “spiritual adviser.” Although she’s obviously aware she’s being filmed, Wright projects an openness and honesty that makes her powerful and appealing. Wish Me Away demonstrates the importance of learning from communities; that is, once she decides to come out, Wright carefully educates herself by talking to others.
Wright also lets viewers see how her persona as a performer is constructed. Scenes of Wright filming a music video and preparing for appearances on television include make-up artists and hair stylists fussing with her face and her hair extensions and her clothing. These images contrast starkly with scenes of Wright leaving her house in Nashville to move to New York, driving herself across the country with her two dogs to an apartment that she paints while her sister lends a hand.
Wright seems happy to be filmed without her star mask. In a poignant moment from her video diary, she cries because her book editor, a native New York feminist, criticized her for the sexy, revealing pose of one of her pre-coming out photographs. Wright insists that she’s not hiding her lesbian sexuality in the photograph, but that the image with the come-hither expression and lots of bare skin is a version of herself.
The film includes several moments like these, when Wright comments on the malleability of her own gender performance. She says that as a kid, seeing Billie Jean King on television in her masculine outfits and learning that the tennis star was gay made Wright fear that her own tomboy style would “blow her cover.” She knows early on that gender performance signals something about her sexuality. The film shows her performing comfortably across a continuum of masculinity and femininity.
Wright is as beautiful without the feminine glamour as she is with it, but seeing her without make-up, in jeans, t-shirts, and reading glasses, underlines that she’s also an ordinary woman. She worries that when she comes out to him, her brother-in-law will reject her and won’t let her see her niece and nephews. In two of the film’s moving scenes, her sister Jennifer’s children express their regret that Chely didn’t come out earlier. Her nephew, in particular, says how sorry he is that he made fun of gay people before he knew about his aunt. When Jennifer and the boy later ride with Wright in the convertible that escorts her as the Grand Marshall of the Chicago Gay Pride parade, the moment feels like a personal as well as public achievement, given how much Wright had to lose.
Wright hires a team of publicists and managers to stage her coming out announcement, and writes her autobiography to prompt and coincide with her television appearances. When Chely’s handlers lob her hostile practice questions about her motivations and her personal life, it’s clear from her answers that Wright is a smart woman who truly wants to use her platform to speak not just for herself, but for the kids like her with whom she empathizes deeply. She wants kids growing up in religious environments like she did, who’re told that being gay is evil, to know that there are others like them, that they’re not demons. Once she put down the gun she contemplated turning on herself, she wants to reach out to kids who are like she was and smooth their way. She quickly becomes a fervent, articulate activist. And she winds up being a wonderful role model, too. What can I say? I’ve become a Chely Wright fan.
When CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper confirmed the open secret of his sexuality, the media reacted by dissecting how little reaction there seemed to be to his announcement. It’s almost as though the mainstream media has decided that queer people coming out is no longer really a story. I assume if Tom Cruise, who’s long been rumored to be gay, decided to come out, his story would make headlines. But the media seems to pride itself on its current unflappability about sexuality.
Even during the Olympics this week, an NBC feature on U.S. women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe saved its reveal that she’s a lesbian for the last few moments instead of leading with the athlete’s sexuality. [Update: Likewise, I just learned on like that U.S. Women’s Basketball player Seimone Augustus is a lesbian with plans to marry her partner. Hadn’t heard anything about this until today . . .]
More interesting is how many of the female Olympic athletes wear make-up when they compete, and how they femme themselves up for television interviews and features. Is it really still necessary for them to perform non-threatening femininity? These women are so physically adept and strong, with their six-pack abs and cut biceps, that they seem to need make-up to reassure people (fans and potential endorsement dealers?) of their heterosexual femininity. I really wish that weren’t the case. (See also Amanda Marcotte’s smart Salon essay, “Athletes Don’t Wear Heels,” which takes on this issue.)
Wish Me Away and all the internet sites I trolled after I saw the film construct a happy ending for Chely Wright. The filmmakers flash on her marriage to Blitzer at the film’s end. Although I wish marriage weren’t the sine qua non of relationships–LGBT or straight–I admit thinking it’s cool that a deeply religious Christian woman married a New York Jewish girl. Blitzer in fact worked at one point for Faith in America, a non-profit dedicated to ending religious bigotry in the LGBT community (Wright now serves on its board).
Does it still matter, then, that personalities like Chely Wright, Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper, Jane Lynch, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Zachary Quinto, and Cherry Jones, for only several examples, come out publicly? Yes, I think it does. If these announcements become commonplace and the media affects boredom with their revelations, so be it. Because somewhere in Wellsville, Kansas, or in other small towns or religiously conservative communities around the country, there are still more eight-year-old girls or boys like Chely Wright, who recognize their difference and are terrified that they’re on their way to a hell not of their own making. If they can look to someone as talented, smart, articulate, and genuine as Chely Wright and see the role model they need to grow up proud, I think that still matters quite a lot indeed.
The Feminist Spectator