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Somebody Had to Do It

New glory: in Wish Me Away, openly gay country music singer Chely Wright asks her sister, Jennifer: “How can I—in a two, three, or five-hour conversation with my loved ones—offset years of teaching from the church?” Photo by Jan Eric Volz.

‘Wish Me Away’ documents country superstar Chely Wright’s iconic coming out.
by Nancy Ford

There’s something about that gaydar. As early as 2001, country music star Chely Wright’s hair and makeup tech, a lesbian, knew her boss was also a “sister,” so to speak—a fact Wright adamantly denied. Until she could deny it no longer.

The beautiful and talented Wright had been named Best New Female Vocalist at the 1995 Country Music Awards. She had charted top hits like “Single White Female” and “Picket Fences.” She was the first artist of any genre to perform for troops in Iraq. But she was living a lie that had already destroyed one long-term relationship with a partner—a lie that came close to costing Wright her own life. Severely depressed by the reality that coming out may cost her the career she had always dreamed of, she found herself staring into a mirror with a loaded gun in her mouth. A profound divine intervention saved her life.

Rather than allowing the shock-value announcement that she is a lesbian to come between her conservative fan base and herself, Wright instead wrote an intimate autobiography, Like Me. Newly invigorated, she developed a strategy for coming out—a luxury most don’t have—setting out on a campaign assisted by documentarians, supportive family members, publicists, managers, her book editor, and even a spiritual advisor who wryly observes, “There’s nobody quite as mean as people who are being mean for Jesus.”

Filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf were given unprecedented access to Wright’s life as she embraces her role as America’s first openly gay country superstar, interviewing “industry insiders, fans, relatives, neighbors, advisors, mentors, and other confidants” to produce Wish Me Away. The documentary chronicles not only the three-year buildup to the release of the book, but also the ensuing reaction from her unsuspecting fan base, as well as Wright reaching out to the legions of new and grateful LGBT fans she might never have discovered in the darkness of her closet.

The film also captures the unconditional support of some family members (her father set my personal gaydar a-clanging, by the way) while underscoring an estranged relationship with her mother, who refused to be interviewed for the film.

It’s hard not to question if Wright’s coming out was orchestrated and coordinated with a marketing campaign for her book and record in order to get the biggest bang for her coming-out buck. But did it save countless lives of young and not-so-young LGBT people who found strength in Chely’s honesty? Absolutely. And that’s worth singing about.

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