Queer Country: Chely Wright’s Coming Out

[8 January 2012]

By Jedd Beaudoin

The film Wish Me Away will see its theatrical release in Spring 2012. The Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf-directed documentary chronicles country singer Chely Wright’s life, from her early years in a small Kansas town to her climb to the top of the country world, to her 2010 decision to come out, making her country music’s first openly gay star, to the ensuing backlash and death threats. Birleffi and Kopf admirably champion Wright for her decision and naturally, the film raises questions about why more country musicians haven’t come out.

The film probes the obvious answers: the country community’s close ties to conservatism and a Christian community often vehemently opposed to homosexuality, to say nothing of a nation largely reluctant to embrace the gay and lesbian community. Mainstream, corporate country music doesn’t like subtlety: men are men, women are women, God is the father of Jesus, America is right. The masculine and feminine images projected from the country music world can seem caricatures—unrealistic, outmoded, at times even painfully comic.

Doubtless Wright’s classic beauty helped cement her place in the country scene, where the women are often painfully beautiful and the men painfully handsome. It’s no surprise, then, that her love life became a point of interest for the music media. Wish Me Away contains several archival clips of Wright dodging questions about her love life. She was—rather unsurprisingly—an almost immediate object of male adoration. She attended a 1998 Altoona, Pennsylvania prom with a young fan, the kind of thing that was innocent enough not to raise too many questions and sweet enough to win her a special place in everyone’s hearts. She even had a seemingly bright-burning romance with Brad Paisley that went pair shaped without his ever really knowing why. In those and many other ways Wright behaved like the quintessential country star. 

From her early ‘90s arrival in Nashville until 2010, she did just about everything one could expect from a country musician—and perhaps with good reason. Despite having some standard concerns about having lied to friends, fans, and family about her sexuality, Wright really doesn’t come off as insincere. You even get the sense that, for better or worse, she really meant when she sang on her CD, Bumper of My S.U.V.

It’s a little strange to watch her discuss her decision to come out––in numerous other ways in her life and career she seems decidedly fierce. In her sexuality, she appears, at least initially, insecure. She reveals that over the years she had set many coming out deadlines for herself—telling herself that when she reached this apex or won that award she would finally have the courage to throw the doors open and reveal all. Those opportunities came and went and it was only around the time, in 2007, that she began working on her autobiography, Like Me (2010), that she finally felt certain that she would finally open up about her sexual orientation.

Wish Me Away chronicles the moments leading up to the media blitz that coincided with her announcement and the release of the book. In the months and weeks leading up to its publication the singer meets with her publisher, with a media coach who preps her for the tough questions, she connects with her sister, who offers invaluable support. She also offers up her worries in video diary entries that are (no spoiler here) pain-filled and candid (if also, at times, a little off the mark).

It’s during those moments that the film becomes difficult to watch. You can’t help but feel that, although her experience must have carried with it its own traumas and deep gravity, it doesn’t quite mirror the reality that many gays and lesbians experience. Few if any of them have media coaches or editors to guide them through the coming out process, to help them brace themselves for the imminent backlash. It’s at times hard not to feel angry, knowing how many gay people will not have the same support. Perhaps that’s the intention of the film, to stir up emotions in those moments and incent viewers to feel at least a modicum of outrage.
Wright’s already fragile relationship with her mother suffers as the result of her decision, and surely that mirrors the reality for too many members of the gay and lesbian community. Many of her former friends and colleagues have shunned her since her coming out—perhaps the least surprising element of her story.

There are acknowledgements—by Wright and others in the film—that Nashville has its share of closeted gay and lesbian musicians, but there’s no sense that the film intends to motivate them to come out or for Nashville to rethink its stubborn ways. Not only is it not a surprise that more country musicians have not come out, it’s not a surprise that more musicians at all have not come out. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford has remained one of the few openly gay men in heavy metal for more than a decade and punk rock icon Bob Mould seems to have only recently become truly comfortable with his sexuality, even having emerged from a musical community that has welcomed other gay and lesbian artists.

Perhaps one of the points we’re asked to consider, as we watch Wish Me Away is that our favorite artists’ orientation really doesn’t matter—not any more than whether said artist prefers brunettes or blonds, Shakespeare or Stephen King. Maybe, after all, at the end of the night, it’s really nobody’s business who you go home with or whom you love. At least it’s pretty to think so.

Jedd Beaudoin is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Wichita State University and hosts Strange Currency six nights week for Wichita Public Radio. His writing has appeared in No Depression and The Crab Orchard Review as well as at websites such as Ytsejam.com and Amazon.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/152372-queer-country-chely-wrights-coming-out-nashville-estrangement/