Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Like Me, Chely Wright

Celebrity autobiographies are often a sanitised exercise in self-promotion. If that is what I was expecting from Chely Wright’s Like Me, it’s not surprising its first pages left me in shock.

I’ve been a Chely Wright fan for around ten years, since I discovered her album Single White Female. At the time my wife liked Faith Hill and pop influenced Country music and I was on the lookout for similar artists who might interest her. I found SWF at an HMV store in Sydney, listened to it, and bought it for myself. After that I tracked down all of her earlier albums, even the almost impossible to find first album Woman in the Moon.

It had been a few years since Chely’s last album but I remained in touch with her career through regular email newsletters. I pre-ordered both her new album and her book as soon as they were announced earlier this year and wondered what insights the book would give into her life and her career. I definitely was not prepared for what I read in the first sentence and later on the first page:

“Dear God, please don’t let me be gay.”


“I’m a proud Kansan, a loving daughter, sister, friend, a child of God and a lesbian.”

Those statements contain most of the elements of the book that have had me wrestling emotionally, intellectually and spiritually since I started reading her story.

The revelation that she is gay was completely unexpected. I was not exaggerating when I said earlier that I was left in shock. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been throughout her life, working in an industry she loved, knowing that she could lose everything she had worked for if the news of her homosexuality got out. And she went to great lengths to keep it secret, at times straining friendships and business relationships. The fear of being exposed could not be ignored. She particularly notes how the conservative nature of the members of her industry, and their idea of God’s view of homosexuality contributed to her fear.

On the other hand Chely developed an understanding of God that allowed her to accept who she is, even when she was not ready to share that fact with those around her. Adapting God to suit our own particular situation is perhaps a common survival move, allowing us to come to terms with who we are and what we are and at the same time maintain a sense of acceptance from the Divinity we choose to follow. Such a practice can be a strong comfort as we try to come to terms with those parts of our lives that may cause others offence.

The weakness with that strategy is that we ourselves can create and trust a Divinity based on our own subjective needs instead of trusting a real God with a firm and objective foundation. Needs-based faith is a growing reality within a society where each person determines what is truth for themselves, not requiring a standard outside of their own experience and desires to give their “truth” a secure foundation. The irony of this is that the initial idea of God has usually come from an outside source – whether it is from a church, from the bible, or from a cultural viewpoint; but that initial idea is merely used as a starting point for something that suits us personally: a God that can be shaped and moulded to suit our own requirements. The source of that initial awareness of God can be abandoned for something more suitable to our human need, taking us away from a God who has his own demands and expectations.

But can such a God give any genuine security beyond providing a temporary sense of self-justification? What lasting value is a God who can be changed according to our own whim? More than once Chely states that God made her the way she is. Is God so contrary? Or is it more likely to be our human nature that is fickle, wanting to cling to both God and those things He (according to the Bible) is said to abhor.

Chely refers to several occasions where discussions in her presence were focused on God’s condemnation of homosexuality. Homosexuality seems to be a favoured target when the sins of society are being addressed by professed, bible believing Christians, and while the bible does condemn it, surprisingly it gets far fewer mentions than more common, accepted and even popular behaviours. Maybe there is more than a little hypocrisy at play when a person’s sexuality is condemned by someone who has a serious problem with greed. There are for more condemnatory references to covetousness and the love of money than there are to homosexuality. It is all too easy for the “straight” but greedy Christian to point at a gay individual and “thank God that I am not like that person”. (seeLuke 18:11).

I accept that Chely has every right to reveal whatever she chooses of her own life, opening herself up to scrutiny, but I felt she overstepped the mark in making revelations about others. While expressing contrition over the way she treated fellow country singer Brad Paisley with whom she had a relationship for a time; exposing the fact that the relationship included a sexual element perhaps showed a continued lack of respect for Paisley’s feelings and privacy. Kiss and tell confessions where participants are named may give some gratification to the reader and writer, but they demonstrate little concern for the other party involved. Wasn’t it bad enough to involve Paisley in such a relationship when it was known that his strong feelings could never be reciprocated, without later publicly spilling those intimate details?

While a lot of the book deals with the struggle she faced over her sexuality, to me some of the more interesting parts of the book were those that describe her trips to entertain troops in places like Iraq. She experienced situations that brought the reality and tragedy of war to life. From meeting and finding common ground with a soldier merely days before he is killed, to being transported on an HR (human remains) flight with the coffin of another casualty at her feet, her trips were far from the glamour usually associated with show business.

I had seen some of the events she describes in a DVD of "home movies" that came with one of her CDs. The book helped to give a clearer perspective of some of the footage of a performance for thousands of troops in Baghdad where she and Kid Rock shared vocal duties.

This book is a very personal opening of the heart from a person who through fear hid the truth for most of her life. Most of us could never understand what it is like to live such a life where secrecy and half truths seem mandatory. How can a person have dreams and the ability to achieve them when such a central aspect of their life is condemned or made the subject of jokes by the majority of those around them?

I was saddened by the struggle she experienced. I think I’ve been made a little more aware of the difficulties faced by people like Chely who not only have to cope with the way society perceives them, but also with the desire for normality. To be accepted for who they are. Not wanting to stand out and be perceived as different in a negative way.
This story is one of an individual person struggling to be accepted, and to accept herself, as she is. But to me the real sadness relates to the way ideas about God are manipulated to support a human agenda. How He is used to justify both bigotry and human desire. In all of this HIS desires and HIS demands get pushed aside and He is made a tool to suit OUR needs.

Whatever happened to the Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth who was once feared and respected as well as loved?
We didn’t like that kind of God so we replaced Him with another who is cuddlier and more likely to bend His ways to suit us.


  1. This was a hard "review" to write.
    I wanted to be respectful to Chely Wright and the courage she showed in "coming out".
    But at the same time I can not compromise when it comes to recognising who God is and what He requires of His creation.

    The matter of homosexuality is not as simple as most people try to portray. It is both easy for some to condemn and easy for others to accept.
    But like any human behaviour or characteristic it is God's perspective that we need to prioritise and not one that is merely convenient for ourselves.


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