Chely Wright, best known for her No. 1 hit in 1999 “Single White Female,” made headlines this year when she became the first country-music singer in history to come out as gay or lesbian.
Wright sat down with DiversityInc’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Barbara Frankel at our black-tie event in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8 to talk about her revealing memoir “Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer,” where the 39-year-old singer describes her personal struggle to hide her own sexuality—and the day she hit rock bottom and nearly took her own life.
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Below are excerpts from the interview:
Frankel: You came from a very traditional background. You grew up in Kansas. Can you tell us about your early life, why you chose country music as a career and when you first realized you were a lesbian?
Wright: Yes, I did come from a very traditional background. Country music is very traditional. It’s very conservative and it suited me just fine because it matched my childhood. I grew up in a small town in Kansas and in a very church-going, slow-moving farm community, population 1,200. At age 4, I knew I wanted to be a country-music singer, and at age 9, I realized, holy crap, I’m gay. The reason I say “holy crap” is because the messages I was getting non-linguistically, subtly, overtly, every message I got from my community, my church and my school was gay was not OK. And there began the struggle and there began the hiding and the fear and the stress, and that stress began at a very young age, and I hid until May 4, 2010.
Frankel: How did it feel to live two separate lives?
Wright: I’m not assuming anyone in the audience is like me. Perhaps someone is like me. But I want to address anyone in the audience who has a secret. Everyone hides something, and that’s where we have a common ground. If you can imagine your one secret might take down your entire career and your social standing in your community and your job and your family, you might try to do everything you could or can to make sure nobody finds out who you were or what you are. So I did my very best to try to be normal when I was in high school. I tried to like boys the way the other girls in my class did. I remember being in the high-school locker room and hearing girls talk about what a struggle it was to not go all the way with their boyfriends, and I was thinking, “Huh, it’s not so hard for me.” And then I went on to Nashville at a very young age, 18 years old, on May 12, 1989, and very much knew I was a lesbian. I knew I couldn’t change it and at the time I was in love and I did have a long-time commitment with a partner, but at that time, the hiding was pulling us apart. I did my best to try to find some other way to exist.
Many of us, people like me, we try to find the best version of a life that we think we can make work. You may see someone in your workplace or towns [and you] think, “He might be gay, but he has a wife and kids.” The head-scratcher guys and gals that you just think, “Something doesn’t seem right.” Well, perhaps they are doing what I did because they are so terrified of not being able to fit in and being rejected by the community or their workplace. So, when I was dating men, it was very painful. The men that I dated didn’t know that I was gay and it was excruciatingly difficult on me and it was very confusing for them. I know that now it probably makes a whole lot more sense to them. It was crazy making on everyone’s part.
Frankel: What made you come out this year, in 2010?
Wright: I hit my rock bottom in early 2006. It was a long story, but the short of it is, I had a nine-millimeter gun in my mouth and I was at my rock bottom. I am not a person who is predisposed to depression … I was senior-class president. I am a go-getter. I’m a Type A personality. I am a person full of faith, but I had very masterfully painted myself into a corner. I didn’t nearly take my life because I’m gay. I nearly took my life because I couldn’t figure out a way to get myself out of this tricky situation. My love of music and the country-music career I had built … and this other very real part of me who is a gay woman, I didn’t know how to make those two fit and I nearly committed suicide.
For some reason that night, I didn’t pull the trigger. I went upstairs and slept a few hours and got up the next morning, and I was terrified to go downstairs where that nine-millimeter gun was sitting on my mantle and all of this was happening in my home in downtown Nashville. I have a lot of friends there in Nashville, and one of the things that happens when you hide is that nobody really knows you. You build up a lot of walls. I see a couple of heads nodding in the audience; you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you know someone who has done this, but no one knew I was in crisis. That morning I was afraid to go downstairs. I didn’t know if I could go downstairs and not pull that trigger, and I got on my knees and I prayed.
The prayer I had always prayed to God my entire career was “Dear God, help me find a way to keep my secret and continue to hide and have everything I have always had.” But on that day, I prayed a very different prayer. I said, “Dear God, please give me a moment’s peace. In Your name I pray, amen.” And the minute I said amen, I knew I had gotten an answer to my prayer. I didn’t hear a big booming voice and I didn’t see a guy in a big flowing robe, but I did get a message from God. I had an understanding that not only was I going to come out, I was going to come out as a gay woman and a proud Christian, which I am, and an advocate for young people so that a 14-year-old kid sitting alone in his bedroom was not going to feel alone [like I did]. That is how I made my decision.
Frankel: Since making her decision to come out, Chely has become a tireless advocate for LGBT causes and especially for LGBT youth. The connection DiversityInc had to bring her here is through GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. I’m on the national board of GLSEN and I want to tell [the audience] something else. We pay some of our speakers an honorarium for coming. Chely’s fee of $20,000, she is donating to GLSEN.
Wright: Quite frankly, I had to go through a physical and emotional and spiritual fortification to prepare to come out publically. I sought out organizations, in particular GLSEN, because I know of the great work they do with young people. I tracked down Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, and I had been working with them on the down low before I came out and made certain that the minute I came out, I could hit the ground running with them so I could be a voice for young people. I am so proud of the work that organization has done and that I am able to align with them. We are launching a Safe Space Campaign and I encourage everyone to log on to http://safespace.glsen.org and pay $20, just $20, and send this Safe Space kit to the school you attended or a school you care about. It really empowers the teachers and educators who want to be there for an LGBT student, for a kid, any kid who is being bullied.