Monday, May 10, 2010

Not In Kansas Anymore

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Chely Wright had everything going for her: she was beautiful, musically gifted, and wildly successful. However, a secret she concealed for almost 20 years threatened to destroy her fairy-tale career if exposed; yet keeping it hidden almost drove her to suicide. Chely, an all-American country music sex symbol, was gay. And this month she boldly came out in People Magazine, the publication that had deemed her one of its 50 most beautiful people almost a decade earlier.

Lesbians nationwide asked a resounding WHO?!? as the news spread around the internet. I was one of those people who had to look her up in Wikipedia. But the more I learn about her through TV interviews and her well-written, down-to-earth memoir Like Me, the more I admire her bravery. And the more I talk to friends who grew up in rural areas where country music is the soundtrack of life, I better understand how important this is for dismantling gay stereotypes and prejudice in middle America.

No one who has endured the painful and futile process of trying to deny and change something as intrinsic as sexual orientation can view this as a publicity stunt--foolish speculation that appears in internet comments that vacillate between resounding support and harsh judgement. Wright's account of her high school years, during which she was tormented by crushes on women, and making out with men "bored and frightened" her, will resonate with many lesbians regardless of where they grew up.

Wright also endured the added burden of reconciling her orientation with her strong religious faith. Initially she thought she had a birth defect until she visited a diner with her parents, and while unable to keep her eyes off the waitress' breasts, noticed she was wearing a "God Don't Make Mistakes" T-shirt. The Lord works in mysterious ways!

Coming to terms with ones' sexuality when surrounded by goths who watched the Hunger and hipsters who listened to the Smiths is one thing--confronting lesbian tendencies in socially conservative Kansas is quite another. I hope Nashville supports Wright because it will mean so much for so many kids growing up gay in the heartland.

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