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Country singer Chely Wright sees glimmers of light in battle for gay rights

Updated: 2013-11-12T05:25:00Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

More than three years have passed since Chely Wright became the first openly gay country music star. In the time since, she has published an autobiography and been featured in a documentary on her coming out, married her girlfriend, Lauren Blitzer, and given birth to their twin boys, now almost 6 months old.

She has also founded the LikeMe Organization and opened the doors to the LikeMe Lighthouse in midtown Kansas City.

Wednesday night, Wright, who was born in Kansas City and raised in Wellsville, Kan., will be back in her hometown for a benefit for the Lighthouse. Wright recently spoke to The Star from her home in New York about the need for a haven like the Lighthouse and about the changes in her life over the past three years.

The Lighthouse has been open for more than 18 months. Talk about why you opened it and what it provides for the gay community.

After I came out, I realized I would have a position and a voice in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. I was born and raised in the Midwest … so I wanted to effect change in the place I call home, Kansas City. The Internet is great, and online forums and social groups are very helpful. When I was a kid, I knew who I was, I knew I was gay, but I was hiding it. It would have been great to log on and find a community. It would have been a great comfort.

But I felt it was also important to have a physical, brick-and-mortar place for the gay community and their families and friends to go for some face-to-face, physical interaction. The response has been great. It has been very well-frequented and -visited. With every passing week and month, more organizations are coming to the Lighthouse to engage each other.

Your documentary, “Wish Me Away,” was nominated for an Emmy this year. It’s a very raw, personal and candid look at what you went through during the process of coming out. What have been some of the consequences of the release of the film?

When I decided to come out, I wanted to do more than just tweet, “Hey, everybody, I’m gay.” I wanted to tell the very real and layered and complicated story of what it was like to be a person like me. It had very little to do with being a country singer. It was a more universal narrative of what it’s like to feel like you don’t fit in and how to come to terms with that.

It has resonated with so many people. On my public Facebook page, I get private messages from people every day. I have received thousands of thoughtful letters, mostly positive, but some that will tear your heart out. I hear from people who say they’ve never been a fan of mine or of country music, and they aren’t even sure they know a gay person, but they saw the film and it really opened their eyes.

What’s it like for you to watch it now?

Well, it’s pretty hard to allow a film to be made that unearths your biggest mistakes and regrets. It’s still hard for me to watch it. I’ve seen it maybe 20 times. It has been featured at about 20 film festivals. … It’s still hard to watch. It’s painful, but it’s triumphant. It far surpassed all my expectations.

Kacey Musgraves has made some waves for her song “Follow Your Arrow,” which was co-written with Shane McAnally, an openly gay Nashville songwriter. Do you sense that there is a shift in country music when it comes to gay rights?

I haven’t heard the song, but people tweet about it and I glean from those that it’s very pro-gay. I’ve known Shane for a long time — he’s a very successful songwriter, so you can’t deny that some progress is being made.

What’s as important is Kacey is a straight gal talking about equality, and we really need our straight allies to be part of the movement. All voices matter. I wish more straight allies in country music would be more public about it. I have friends who are … but they choose to keep quiet about it rather than say what they believe. And I understand that. Who wants to lose fans? Who wants to have someone tell you, “I don’t like you anymore”?

So, yes, some progress has been made. There won’t be another first openly gay music artist or first openly gay hit country songwriter.

How has coming out changed you as a songwriter?

That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I know the answer yet. It could be more complicated than I even know. Even when I was in the closet, music was the one way in which I felt I wasn’t being dishonest, even if I was singing a he-she love song. Even though the song might have been about a man, I was thinking about my partner and love and hurt … telling an emotional story.

The way I write now feels about the same. I have a story in my head, and I write it down in a way I think I can best communicate it to the masses. Since most people are straight, I try to communicate to them, too.

So, get back to me in a few years. Maybe I’ll have an epiphany on how it has changed me as a songwriter.

You’re the mother of twins now. Surely that has changed you.

Oh, yes. It really does take a village. Even when it’s two babies and two mothers, you’re outnumbered. But it’s so special and wonderful. I live in a state where my family is as fully recognized as anyone else’s. Sometimes, my wife and I just shake our heads: When we started dating, marriage wasn’t even legal in New York. Now we have two beautiful boys who are going to become best friends forever. It’s such a great treat to start to realize the full potential of the family we’ve always wanted.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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