When country singer Chely Wright came out as a lesbian a couple of years (already???) ago, many people I know scoffed. "Who?" was one response, as was, "Who cares?" It was just another example of the tunnelvision through which we see popular culture. If you're young, old people are off your radar, if you're a white suburbanite hip-hop culture might seem foreign (or, conversely, you might be obsessed with it) and if you're not into or surrounded by country music, it barely exists.
But Chely Wright was a major country star for a decade when she decided to come out, which she did with a big media splash courtesy of Howard Bragman—she was on magazine covers, on the radio, on morning shows and she was selling a memoir. Some gay people find this kind of...out-resourcing, let's call it...repulsive, taking offense that an artist's sexuality is being used to make money.
I disagree, and I think watching the new documentary Chely Wright: Wish Me Away—opening from First Run Features in NYC and Los Angeles June 1—a great argument is made for my way, and Chely's way, of thinking. It's not only about maximizing your buck because you might be out of work for a while, it's about using your public capital to draw attention to an important cause rather than squandering it in a completely self-centered, easy-way-out way.
The documentary follows Chely's process of coming out, from homemade video diaries in which she sounds against the idea through her personally triumphant coming-out interviews, capturing truly touching moments between her and her family along the way. With a cold mom, a warm dad, an understanding sister, a not-so-understanding brother-in-law and the support of only TWO famous country singers (neither of which is named in the film), Chely relies mostly on herself. She's sick of living a lie—which included cohabitating with a lover for a long period of time during which nobody in her life knew—and she wants to end it and reclaim her integrity.
I found Wright to be bright, self-effacing (I could've done without her frequent powwows with a spiritual advisor), at times whiny and weak, at other times strong to the point of being an inspiration. But it's her vulnerability, not just her physical beauty, that is so attractive, because it shows her intentions are pure and that she isn't a robot. One of the most honest moments is when she candidly confesses she dreads letting people down and not being popular anymore. Isn't that what even the non-famous fear when coming out?
"Why can't you just shut up and sing?" a redneck radio host demands at one point, as if straight stars don't talk about their families and personal lives. Thankfully, Wright can be honest and sing at the same time. And when the ultimate lipstick lesbian finds herself at loggerheads with her ultimate Manhattan feminist lesbian book editor, it's a compelling snapshot of a divide even within our own community.
The results of her media blitz were mixed—Wright now counts herself as a lesbian activist, but she hasn't been invited to any country-music shows since dropping her bombshell. Still, it seems likely she's opened some minds and hopefully has begun paving the way for others in her field to follow suit.