During Chely Wright‘s Oprah interview today, I’m not sure who cried harder: Oprah, Chely, her dad, or me. Five minutes into their half-hour chat, I was tearing up, and by the time Chely’s dad said he wants to tell every parent of a gay child “Do not close the door, but open your heart!” I was a blubbering mess.
You’d think after a while I’d get desensitized to these kind of things, but Chely Wright’s recent media blitz has been exceptionally moving.
Just like in her memoir and other interviews, Chely was refreshingly candid with Oprah, and I think that’s the reason her coming out has been so affecting. She’s not simply saying, “I’m here and I’m queer (and absolutely gorgeous).” She’s speaking openly about the isolation she felt growing up as a lesbian in the Midwest, and about the shame and fear that kept her in the closet, and the deep terror she felt about coming out.
It’s such an important dialogue, and it’s one in which gay celebrities are usually not willing to participate.
Oprah opened by asking Chely to talk about what led her to the place where she was staring down her reflection with a gun in her mouth.
Layers and layers of betrayal of myself. There wasn’t a cataclysmic event that happened that one night. I wasn’t just so upset over one event. It was layers of a lifetime of hiding and lying.
One of the most interesting things Oprah asked Chely was whether or not she had “a language” for what made her different as a child.
I knew I was different early on. When I was in third grade I knew that I was a lesbian. And by the time I had the gun in my mouth, it was just the layering of shame and self-loathing and fear, and just — how do I get these pieces of my life together? I’m a successful country music singer and I am a lesbian.
While Chely and Oprah (and I) were near tears the whole time, the interview went irretrievably emotional when Oprah asked Chely about coming out to her dad. She said her dad called her one day and asked why they weren’t close; had he done something to make her angry or hurt her? She told Oprah that she’d been pushing him away because she couldn’t be honest with him, but she stayed up all night on her tour bus when she was getting ready to have a concert in his town because she’d decided to come out to him.
I said, “Dad, sit down I have to tell you something.” And he panicked. “Are you OK? You’re not OK. Are you OK? You have cancer; it’s OK if you have cancer. We’ll deal with it.” And I fell apart and I said, “I don’t have cancer. I need to tell you something I’ve needed to tell you my whole life. I’ve been afraid, though, to tell you because I’ve been afraid you won’t love me. And I’m afraid you’ll be ashamed of me. And I said, “I’m gay.”
Chely’s dad was in the audience and he spoke up to finish the story: “I didn’t say anything. I just grabbed her and I put my arms around her and I told her it was all right.”
Chely’s dad went on to say:
Being raised in the Midwest — I’m 64 years old — we were taught that [being gay] was sinful, hellfire and damnation, you know. That it was not allowed. I found out very quickly [voice breaking] that was not true.
I knew her. I knew her heart. I knew her mind. I knew her soul. She’s a good person. And with that being said, you hear a lot of times about unconditional love. Well, in this old man’s world, it’s true. Unconditional. Until you’re in that position, until you become that parent, it’s pretty easy to say some of those negative things. But when you become that parent, you have a gauge. And that is your child. And there’s nothing, there’s absolutely nothing we can’t get through. And I’m very proud of Chely.
Chely echoed his sentiment:
This is who God made me to be. Of course I came out because if I didn’t I would never be whole … but another compelling reason is that young people in every corner of America are being told by their churches — and their parents are echoing what their churches are telling them — that they are damaged goods. And they are not!
The word “lesbian” has been used as an insult about me for a long time. And I’m taking my power back. You can say I’m ugly. You can say my songs are stupid. But I won’t allow the word “lesbian” to be used as an insult toward me anymore.”
The thing that makes Chely Wright singular isn’t just that she’s openly gay in the country music culture, but that she seems to be delivering a message to everyone who is, or ever was, too terrified to come out: I’ve been there and I’m OK now. You are there and you’ll be OK too. We’ll be OK together.
And you know what? I believe her.
What did you think of Chely’s interview on Oprah today?