June 9 2010 12:00 AM

Country star Chely Wright speaks out about being a lesbian — even though she knows it might cost her her career


Chely Wright’s memoir, “Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer,” begins with what could easily have been the end of her story: It’s January 2006, and a tormented and heartbroken Wright stands in front of her bathroom mirror, with the barrel of a 9-mm handgun in her mouth. She’s 35 years old, a singer-songwriter who’s achieved her dream of living in Nashville and becoming a country music star; she’s also emotionally shattered, reeling from a breakup with a longtime lover.

And Wright’s lover was a woman.

Wright was raised in a conservative small town in Kansas. She had been keeping the relationship a secret for 12 years, and she’d hidden her sexual identity much longer than that.

In the book, Wright admits the affair continued even after her now-ex-girlfriend (pseudonymously called “Julia”) married a man in order to keep her sexual orientation under wraps.

Wright followed a similar path, immersing herself in a serious relationship with country star Brad Paisley, even though, as she writes, physical intimacy with Paisley often left her in tears.

Wright’s guilt — about being a lesbian and about lying to her family, her friends, her fans and her romantic partners about it — permeates the pages of “Like Me,” hanging over her success story like a storm cloud.

Four and a half years later, and one month after coming out in the media, Wright is singing at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards in San Francisco and serving as grand marshal of Michigan Pride.

Even so, she says she still has to fight the urge to edit her life.

“You hear about a guy who was working 50 years at a plant who wakes up and doesn’t know what to do with himself,” Wright said, calling from her home in New York. “He still has the inclination to do something, but he doesn’t have to do that anymore. That’s how I feel about that fulltime job of keeping secrets; I don’t have that job anymore, but I still sometimes have that little bubble of anxiety that pops up. It’s probably going to take years and years to undo that anxiety of ‘oh, gosh!’’

Much of “Like Me” details Wright’s struggle to suppress her sexuality as she makes a name for herself in the country music world, in which homosexuality remains taboo. Wright, who won the Academy of Country Music’s best new female vocalist award in 1995 and has scored major hits with “Shut Up and Drive,” “Single White Female,” “It Was” and “Jezebel,” is well aware of the price she may pay for being honest.

“I may very well lose my career,” she told the Los Angeles Times recently. “I fully expect to lose my country music career.”

The fan reaction to her revelation has been largely supportive and positive so far. But there have been detractors.

“It’s a conservative fanbase,” Wright said. “There are arguments on my Facebook page. People will make negative comments, and then other people will turn around and attack them. Some of the comments we’ve had to take down because we don’t want anybody to go hang themselves.” She chuckled. “So we’re trying to protect the haters.”

Meanwhile, Wright is trying to overcome that impulse to protect herself.

“I don’t have anything to cover up anymore,” she said. “But I do find myself holding things close to the vest when I don’t have to.”

For example, a few days ago a seemingly innocuous question from a friend — “Who went to dinner with you?” — was all it took to set off those old alarms.

“I did take that moment to assess who gets to know what,” Wright said. “Then I laughed at myself out loud. That compartmentalization just takes some time to get over.”

Discussing the material on her new CD, “Lifted Off the Ground,” has been helpful in that department. The 11 songs were written after Wright’s breakup with “Julia” and they directly address her wounded heart and her misgivings about living behind a façade for so long.

Wright knew she would be out by the time the album was released — she felt it was imperative.

“Who am I gonna say these songs are about?” she asked. “Journalists are gonna ask who these songs are about and what am I gonna do? Am I gonna make up a boyfriend from Argentina?

“Anything less than the whole truth at that point would be the biggest colossal lie.”

Country music and Christianity have long gone hand in hand, and many of those who’ve tried to shame Wright for speaking out about her sexuality identify themselves as Christians.

“The hate people throw around in the name of God,” Wright said, with a sigh. “It gets pretty crazy. And it doesn’t help when you’ve got people like (Fox News personality) Bill O’Reilly two nights ago making comparisons of gay people to al-Qaeda.”

Wright, who pressured her mother to allow her to be baptized at age 6, has a message for those who cloak homophobia in Christianity.

“I would implore a lot of the people who are writing nasty things on Facebook to actually read the Bible and see if they can interpret it. Most people who are swinging it around as a tool of hatred have not cracked it beyond a few chapters in Sunday school.”

In “Like Me,” she notes: “As I have grown older, I have paid attention to those who are so overtly opposed to and vocal against homosexuality, especially those who prop up their arguments with the Bible. An educated guess tells me that some of them who rant are actually gay.”

As for O’Reilly — who compared transgendered people to Ewoks on his program last year — “I suspect he’s waging a war within,” Wright said. “There’s something going on. We’re not that hateable a people, you know? We dress well, we’re fun. How can you hate us? We know how to decorate! We’re not scary people.”

Chely Wright

Marshal of 2010 Michigan Pride Wright will be part of the march to the
Capitol and will perform on the mainstage at Burchard Park in Old Town
at 3 p.m.