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Award-winning country music star Chely Wright's new non-profit organization offers a plethora of resources to those in the LGBT community struggling for acceptance. It also gives a lift - in the form of annual scholarships - to kids who make a difference in their own LGBT communities, and the deadline for 2011 applications is approaching quickly.
This non-profit is truly a labor of love and its origins are directly tied to Wright's personal experience as someone who struggled with her sexuality for decades, until she freed herself from that struggle in a very public way.
Will they really Like Me?
When Wright came out last year, her public relations train was burning on all four engines.
That's because when she finally accepted her sexuality and decided to share it with the world -- she didn't want to just "come out" -- she wanted to be a beacon in the LGBT community. She wanted to be a spokesperson, a mentor; most of all, she wanted to make a difference.
What she became was a force of nature.
Wright lived a gut-wrenching existence as she worked through both the loss of a long-term relationship and the recognition that her life and career would never be the same. Songs of anger, fear, escape and recognition morphed themselves out of her in ways like never before. Those songs eventually gave way to a ground-breaking CD called, "Lifted Off the Ground."
She also documented her journey during that same life-altering time, a process that not only rewrote her public history, but allowed her to walk her real-life journey and finally tell her absolute truth -- to herself and the world. All those words on paper soon became her memoir, "Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer."
When she was ready, she took her story and hit the talk-show circuit with abandon. For arguably the first time ever, people across America actually cried along with a lesbian as she told her coming out story on their television sets.
Wright next embarked on a CD and book tour; stopping at Borders bookstores near and far, singing from her record, reading from her book, and connecting with her fans by sharing her very personal experience.
As if she didn't have enough going on at the time, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) made Wright their national spokesperson last summer and she also began traveling the country making important guest appearances to share GLSEN's message, as well.
But despite all this face-time and the carefully-crafted media machine steaming alongside her, things certainly weren't all roses for the country songstress.
They definitely aren't Like Me
Almost immediately after publicly coming out, Wright lost airplay on all the country stations and her country music fans dropped like flies, despite the positive response she appeared to be receiving to both her press tour and the other appearances.
Places like the esteemed Grand Ole Opry -- where Wright had played on a regular basis -- suddenly weren't interested in her. The annual fundraiser for her non-profit "Reading, Writing and Rhythm," was severely affected, registering its lowest attendance in its 10 year history. Wright stood by sadly, watching as her colleagues either shunned the event, failed to support it, or hap-hazardly made an appearance, but refused to do the media they'd always been eager to do in the past.
It was a little shocking, to be sure, but the people who knew Wright best - her best friend Chuck, her siblings, her father, her Aunt Char and others, stood right by her every step of that first year and still do. Wright was lucky in that sense, and is well aware that many kids -- and even adults -- aren't that lucky when they themselves realize they are gay or try to come out.
Are you Like Me?
Wright's book is named after a song of the same name on the new CD. Once finished, the song, "Like Me," is what finally forced her to tell producer Rodney Crowell what was really going on behind all those other tortured lyrics she'd been sending him.
And who's gonna end up holdin' your hand -
A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?
There's no doubt they'll love you, but it's yet to be seen:
Will anyone ever know you like me?
The name of that song has become somewhat of a personal mantra for Wright, and that simple phrase "Like Me" can mean so many things to so many people, especially when they are stuck in a place of non-acceptance, confusion, or fear. According to Wright, it was also the song that seemed to resonate most with her fans during the year she spent connecting with them in bookstores around the country.
So it is not much of a surprise that her next move was to launch another non-profit, naming it aptly, LIKE ME®.
The mission of the LIKE ME® organization is to provide assistance, resources and education, to not only the LGBT community, but also their friends and family - and anyone else wanting to understand - and bring them together in community. It will also work to prevent bullying and teen suicide.
LIKE ME's website hit the ground running and already provides LGBT health and education resources, personal stories, a therapy corner and it is adding more links all the time. It also includes a message board where people can pose questions or just connect with others like them.
Charlene Daniels is a board member of the LIKE ME® organization and also the proud aunt of Chely Wright. She doesn't take either role lightly.
"When Chely came out to me, it broke my heart to realize that [she had] suffered in silence, in pain, and in secret, nearly all her life," Daniels recently told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. "All I could think to do was pat her on the back and say, 'It's okay.'
"Now I think about all the young people who are hiding right now, who are afraid to ask questions, who are afraid to tell [anyone] that they think they are gay or bi or trans; and it just kills me. I want to help them all. I want to stop teen suicide. I want to pat them all on the back and say, 'It's okay.'
"So when I got this chance to help build the LIKE ME® organization, I jumped on it," Daniels continued. "I've served on the board of other non-profits before, but nothing as worthwhile as this. I see LIKE ME® as a chance to help put an end to LGBT discrimination."
Daniels, who lives near Kansas City, hopes that the organization's website will lead midwestern teens to a gay-friendly meeting or even a gay-friendly counselor in their home towns.
"Maybe knowing that we're not keeping secrets here in the Midwest anymore will keep them from despair or suicide," she said.
Aside from the website, LIKE ME has also already launched two major project divisions.
The Lighthouse Project is busy raising funds to build the first LGBT Community Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The long-range plan is to make this the project's flagship site and eventually build more LGBT centers with a focus on the midwest, since that is where the greatest need for understanding and education exists.
Wright never had anything like an LGBT community center in her small midwestern town, so she understands full-well how tough it can be growing up in such isolation. The Lighthouse will be a beacon, and a much needed resource (especially in a city the size of Kansas City) where everyone will be welcome.
Empowering teens to advocate for themselves and others
The rash of LGBT teen suicides last fall were unraveling in the media while Wright was on the road telling her own story and the tragedies impacted her greatly. As a result, she also launched a scholarship program. "The Chely Wright Like Me Scholarship" will award up to five scholarships per year to teenagers who have "actively advocated or made a difference in their high school."
In December, LIKE ME awarded its first scholarship to Shawn Walsh (see photo above), brother of Seth Walsh, the Tehachapi, California 13-year-old who died last September of complications from a suicide attempt, after being relentlessly bullied at school.
The $1,250 scholarships are geared towards graduating high school seniors who are proven advocates of LGBT issues - the teens do not have to be LGBT themselves - and offers them the opportunity to apply for funds to help them pay for college or technical programs they plan to pursue after high school.
"I think colleges will begin to notice our scholarship and maybe we can make college campuses more gay-friendly and fellow students more gay-considerate," Daniels said. "That might be our greatest contribution one of these days. We hope to attract college students from all over the country, and we've got a lot of work to do."
Guidelines and applications for high school seniors who meet the criteria can be found HERE.
The application deadline for 2011 scholarships is May 31, 2011.
Morgan Hurley is the Assistant Editor of SDGLN. She can be reached toll-free at 877-727-5446, ext 710, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.