KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When country musician Chely Wright came out as a lesbian, radio stations stopped playing her songs, record sales dropped and venues stopped booking her.
Despite the challenges she's faced over the past two years, the performer known for her hits such as "Single White Female" and "Shut Up and Drive" has no regrets, and she wants to help others facing similar challenges.
LIKEME Organization, a nonprofit group Wright started, is opening a community center in Kansas City this weekend that will serve as a place for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families and friends to meet up. The location was chosen, in part, because Wright grew up 40 miles away, in Wellsville, Kan.
"This just gives so much hope to these outlying areas, that your major metropolitan area has a gay and lesbian center," said the 41-year-old Wright, who married LGBT activist Lauren Blitzer last summer. "That would have meant everything to me had I been a kid growing up in Wellsville, knowing that there is a beautiful facility in our major city, that that was OK.
The new center, which will be called the LIKEME Lighthouse, is the most ambitious project undertaken by the LIKEME Organization, whose name is a play on the title of her memoir, "Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer." The book and her seventh "Lifted Off the Ground," were released when she came out in May 2010.
"The essence was I looked and looked for people like me," Wright said. "When I moved to Nashville, I scoured my industry for people like me. If there were people were like me, they were certainly hiding it."
At one time, Wright was one of country music's darlings and was romantically involved with country star Brad Paisley. But since coming out, her latest album has sold just a third of the copies that her previous record sold. She said venues that booked her in the past told her agent and manager, "We don't have a problem with her being gay but we are afraid her fans will."
Wright even briefly considered switching genres but decided to stick with country, saying "I've got to face my artistic self" and "if fewer come to the party than ever did before, that's OK." Wright said she knew what the stakes were and had no regrets about coming out, noting that she met her spouse soon afterward.
"If you try to find your life's mate in a dark, small closet, you tend to find a lot of unhealthy people," Wright said. "And that was the experience I was having in the closet. It wasn't until I came out that I was able to find a healthy, happy relationship."
A series of events are planned around the center's grand opening, including a benefit screening Friday of a documentary called "Wish Me Away" about Wright's coming out experience and an open house and benefit concert Saturday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Others slated to perform or attend the concert are lesbian Christian musician Jennifer Knapp, gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, and Tracy Ryerson and Stamie Karakasidis, a couple who appeared on the first season of Showtime's lesbian-focused reality show "The Real L Word."
Located in Kansas City's Midtown area, the new facility they are raising money for will provide the city the sort of physical presence it has lacked in recent years. In 2009, the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Kansas City gave up its space in a nearby entertainment district because it needed repairs.
The group shifted its services online and had planned to start a capital campaign and open a new facility, said Mitch Levine, the organization's community ambassador. But when Wright's group announced plans for a Kansas City facility, his group decided to wait to see how things went before making a decision.
"We really do wish them luck," he said. "We are very supportive of a physical location coming to our city."
Work on the new facility has gone smoothly for the most part, with the exception of a subcontractor walking off the job upon learning what the center was all about.
Wright's aunt, Charlene Daniels, the director of the LIKEME Lighthouse, said the facility will feature a library and a small room where visitors can call a hotline tied to the Trevor Project, the leading organization for suicide prevention efforts among LGBT youths. They plan to offer exercise and craft classes and events such as health fairs. Doors will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
"We would like to be there as a beacon," Daniels said. "There are too many kids who say, 'Nobody knows what I am going through.'"
If all goes well with the LIKEME Lighthouse, Wright would like to start others like it in other Midwestern communities. LGBT centers are particularly prominent in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Wright saw a need in the Midwest.
"It's a pie-in-the-sky dream to think that we could have a prototype and be able to model other LIKEME Lighthouses," she said. "But yah that would be a dream. The good thing about dreams is sometimes they come true."
- Chely Wright