Grand Opening: Turning on the Lights for Like Me
Anyone who has driven on Main Street in Midtown Kansas City, Mo., sometime during the last few months has probably noticed construction on a new building. It is the Like Me Lighthouse, 3909 Main St., an entire building that is dedicated to the LGBT community, with sister buildings in New York and California. The three-day grand opening for the Lighthouse will be Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 11.
The Lighthouse is a project of the Like Me Organization, which is the brainchild of country music artist Chely Wright. She came out of the closet as a lesbian in May 2010 and has since made her place in the world as not only a country singer but also as an advocate for LGBT rights. This is Wright’s second charitable group; the first was Reading, Writing, and Rhythm, which is dedicated to music education.
Wright stresses the importance of community in her process of coming out to the public.
“I don’t think I realized how great an experience coming out was going to be until I really found my community. It was a great liberation for me. By coming out, I was finally able to truly connect with people,” she says.
Realizing the importance of the gay community after she moved to New York in 2008 inspired the Like Me Organization, she adds. “It really galvanized for me the importance of community. Living in New York, I was quickly indebted into this culture with the LGBT Center in New York City. A lightbulb went off in my head, and I thought, ‘This is how communities come together. This is how LGBT people are able to really confide in one another and connect and have a social structure and an emotional connectivity.’”
Wright, a Kansan herself, sought to give something like that to Kansas City.
“There was never real space dedicated to the gay community. We all know people have tried to create virtual centers online, and those are important, too. Those are all a part of the things that can feed into the central hub of our community,” she said.
But with a place that is noticeable and available to the public like the Like Me Lighthouse, she said, “Even a truck driver or policeman can drive down Main Street, where we are located, see it and ask ‘What is that? Oh, that’s the LGBT center.’”
Wright understands well that visibility is important in the fight for LGBT equality. “It’s not just important to the LGBT community, but also for the non-LGBT community to see that there is a presence, that we are here. We are in broad daylight, and we are happy and proud and participatory in our community.”
The Lighthouse will be a place for allies, too, who are crucial in the battle for LGBT rights, she said. “It really empowers our allies. Our allies, in some ways, have to come out of the closet, too. We’ve had a lot of straight allies that want to support their LGBT friends, and they find themselves not able to use their voice.”
Now, with the creation of the Lighthouse, Wright says, “There’s a beautiful building right there on Main Street and we’re being talked about and written about. … It really emboldens their voice, and they can stand up and say, ‘I am an ally.’”
The Lighthouse will offer services for the gay community and its allies, including a computer lab, referrals to LGBT organizations and services, daily educational sessions, a suicide prevention line direct to the Trevor Project, health testing, weekly exercise classes, and an LGBT library and reading room.
Wright says, “We have a growing library in the Lighthouse, and I think so far, we are coming up on 2,000 books. And that’s going to be a big part of people’s lives. You can’t go to a lot of libraries and find LGBT materials in the Midwest. I think you’d be hard-pressed to go check out some literature like that in a lot of small-town libraries. So you get to drive an extra 20 minutes to go to the Like Me Lighthouse to get the book. I think it’s well worth the drive.”
Wright has been busy with advocacy work for almost two years. She released her first book, Like Me, about her struggle with coming to terms with her sexuality, as well as her seventh album, Lifted Off the Ground. Those who read the book will know that the songs from Lifted Off the Ground were written directly after Wright considered committing suicide. Actually, she didn’t merely consider it. She had the gun in her mouth with her finger on the trigger and was ready to end it before suddenly rethinking the decision and finally putting the gun away.
Now she says she is happy and making a difference.
Wright says, “If I could, I’d go back to the night I nearly took my life in early 2006 and I would tell myself, ‘You’re gonna be OK.’ Because I didn’t know that I was gonna be OK. I would say, ‘On Aug. 20, 2011, you’re gonna get married to a woman and you’re gonna be happy.’”
Wright’s personal turmoil about her identity is detailed in the book and is very much present on the album. The first track on the CD is called “Broken.” It starts the album off on a sad yet hopeful tone that could not be more appropriate.
The CD is unwavering in its emotional rawness. It is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. Not surprisingly, Wright’s songwriting is graceful and refined. The difference here is that she is sad and at times a little angry, making it the most real and raw album she has put out to date.
From that album, Wright says, it’s hard to pick a favorite song. “I don’t even think I could pick a favorite. The more I listen to the record, I like how “That Train” makes me want to sit on my bike and ride.”
Also, she says, “I really like the song “Like Me” because it inspired me to start the Like Me Organization. It inspired the Like Me Lighthouse.”
When Wright came out, she said, “I felt really powerful to claim my identity. I felt really powerful to say I’m a gay, Christian, country singer. I am a sister. I am a friend. I am an employer. I am song writer, I am an artist. I am this. This is who I am, and I’m proud of it.”
Even so, she said, “The fear is very real. It was a fear that I had because, by and large, my fan base is conservative Christian and there was a reason for that fear. Some of that fear came to pass; some of those disappointments did come to pass. I did have some fans who did not support me after I came out.”
“But I also have some fans that kind of scratched their heads and said, ‘Well gosh, we didn’t know that we knew or loved a gay person. I’ve got to think on this.’ That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to challenge stereotypes. I wanted to use my public capital in a way that made people have to think.”
It’s important to Wright that she shares this part of her life with her fans. “Those who knew me and bought my records all of these 17 years, people who knew they loved me, who knew that they respected me -- I wanted to make sure that they were let in on this different part of my life and challenge them to go back and really think differently.” Quite honestly, she says, “I’ve been gay the whole time.”
Despite her advocacy work, music isn’t exactly on the back burner, Wright said. “Balancing advocacy work and still being an artist is a challenge, but I’ve been writing and I’ve been holding on to the guitar, squeezing it real hard, and you know something will come along.”
Song ideas still pour out of her, even in the middle of the night, “I woke up this morning at about 5:45 and my wife said. ‘Why are you awake? Are you OK? Do you have a headache?’ I said ‘No, I have a song idea.’ … They’re still coming to me.”
Wright’s personal musical taste has grown through the years. “I grew up on Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, and Dolly Parton. But you know, I lived in Nashville for 22 years and being in such a great music town, you tend to learn about a lot of types of music.”
For example, Wright said, “I’m in love with that Adele record like everybody else. Who doesn’t own it? Everyone I know owns it.”
Though she likes pop music and other alternative styles, Wright won’t be making a pop record any time soon.
“I think my last record was kind of alternative country. I think whatever comes out of me, it is what it is. It’s hard to put labels on it. I think I’ll always be a country singer, though.”
Wright is more comfortable with what she knows she is good at. “If I tried to make a pop record, it would be a country singer trying to make a pop record. I think it’s better to stick with what I know. I love making country music, and I let the lines blur and be alternative and funky but just something under the umbrella of acoustic guitars and words that tell stories.”
At the grand opening, Wright concluded, “We’re going to have a great show in KC, and those tickets are going really fast, so people are going to want to get those. There are limited tickets, so people are going to have to get a jump on that.”
Grand Opening Events
For March 9, the first day of the Lighthouse’s grand opening, the screening of the film Wish Me Away is already sold out. The documentary was three years in the making and details Wright’s coming out.
Wright will perform with her band as part of the Saturday event. Other performers that night will be Alan Cumming from The Good Wife and comedian Hal Sparks from Queer As Folk.
In addition, Wright says, “We have a great Christian performer, Jennifer Knapp, and the local entertainer Kristie Stremel will be on the show as well.” From The Real L Word Stamie Karakasidis and Tracy Ryerson are also on the bill. Thomas Roberts from MSNBC’s Live will make a personal appearance as well. For tickets, go to likeme.org.
On that Sunday, The No H8 Campaign will be taking their nationally recognized professional No H8 photos to the public in an open photo shoot.