Folk Confessional

Leaving the seminary behind for a guitar, Tom Goss has built a fanatic following

Tom Goss
Tom Goss

Spend an hour with local troubadour Tom Goss and you’re bound to fall in love with him. The gay 27-year-old native of Kenosha, Wis., sports a sleepy smile and warm demeanor that is only complemented by his acoustic tunes about overcoming obstacles. But a knack for making people fall in love hasn’t always worked in Goss’ favor. It’s what led to a dark year and a half at a D.C. seminary and drove him away from his dreams of becoming a priest.

Before all that, fresh out of high school in 1999, Goss taught himself how to play guitar by attempting to play Dave Matthews Band material. Fast-forward to 2008 and Goss releasing a new EP, Rise, his first ”big-scale” national tour, and the release of his first music video. The video, which features Goss playing different versions of himself at different points in his life, using the D.C. Metro system as a backdrop, is getting heavy rotation on Logo’s video countdown.

When Goss isn’t performing, he works part-time for Charlie’s Place, an organization dedicated to empowering Washington’s homeless community. It’s a gig he maintained even while touring, thanks to the magic of telecommuting.

Now back home in the District, where he lives with Mike Briggs, his partner of nearly three years, Goss spoke with Metro Weekly about his struggles with the Catholic Church and how he found a different calling with the help of his acoustic guitar.

METRO WEEKLY: What have you been up to since releasing your second album, Rise, in January?

TOM GOSS: I went on tour with Eric Himan. So I’ve toured the entire country.

MW: Had you done that before?

GOSS: Not on that scale. It was awesome. I love meeting people, so for me it was really cool to meet a lot of interesting people and have conversations about their lives and my life. And it was great to tour with Eric Himan. He’s just a really nice guy and wants to do the music for similar reasons as I do — to promote positive change. There are a lot of musicians out there that want to do the music because it’s about them. I don’t think that’s the case with Eric, and it’s certainly not the case with me.

MW: Why do you perform?

GOSS: I’ve always wanted to have a platform to create some sort of positive change. Throughout my life, I’ve tried several different ways of having that voice or having that platform, and I’ve discovered that music is the best way for me to have my voice about social justice and equality and integrating one’s life on a variety of different levels. I’m meeting people all the time by sharing my music, which is sharing my life experiences. Dialogues open up very easily, and I’m always astounded by the heartwarming, touching things that people say to me about their lives or how my music has touched their lives.

For example, my song ”Rise” is about integration. I get e-mails almost daily from people who have seen the video or who have heard the song. In the video you kind of see my life, you kind of see my past and how it all came together for me, and how I’ve worked to integrate that.

I had a guy tell me about how he just lost his job and he didn’t know how he and his partner where going to continue. He had just gotten home and flipped on Logo, and he watched the video. He said he saw one specific scene where a guy gets on a subway with his termination papers and he just felt like everything’s going to be okay. Like, ”I may have just lost my job, but there’s got to be another job out there. We’re both going to get through this,” and so on and so forth. I get those a lot.

Tom Goss

MW: In the video we see you playing different roles. What is the concept of the video?

GOSS: The ”Rise” video takes place in the subways of D.C. It shows me in a suit, kind of as the businessman Tom, running down to the subway. I’m kind of going through the tunnels of D.C., seeing pieces of myself along the way, pieces of who I was in the past.

At one point, I see myself in a wrestling singlet, because I was a wrestler in college. At another point, I see myself in clericals because I was at Catholic seminary for a brief period. Then a new Tom is created, and that’s supposed to be the integrated Tom, the Tom that understands that he is, or was, all these things: a wrestler, a musician, someone with deep spirituality.

MW: Did you have to get permission to use the Metro for filming?

GOSS: My director did all of that because I’m not the kind of person who tends to follow rules. I would have just done it, and I certainly would have just gotten yelled at or kicked out. And I probably would have gone to a different station and done it all over again, which tends to be how I operate.

We did the entire video in six or seven hours. It was a huge undertaking. I must have changed my clothes 20 times. It was like me in the middle of the Metro station, stripping. I’m not going to run to the bathroom. I just don’t have the time.

MW: Why did you come to Washington?

GOSS: I went to college in Kansas City [Mo.] and then I moved up to D.C. to join the Catholic seminary. I was interested in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Ecumenism is dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. Interreligious dialogue is dialogue between Christians and Muslims, or Christians and Jews.

I was also very interested in reconciliation work, especially among alienated Catholics and the church; divorced and remarried Catholics and the church; Catholics who have been abused in some way, shape or form by the church. I felt that becoming a Catholic seminarian, and being a priest in the Catholic Church was the best way for me to facilitate those dialogues and facilitate that reconciliation.

MW: Did you know you were gay at that point?

GOSS: I came out in the middle of that process. The coming-out process for me was different. Part of it was because I didn’t really have an interest in relationships at all. My parents had a really messy divorce — it’s still a horrid relationship. I remember telling myself at a very young age that I was never going to be in a relationship, and I was never going to have children, and I was never going to put anybody through what I was going through at the time. I mostly shelved relationships.

As an athlete my entire life, I saw hundreds of men naked, showered with them, and I can honestly say that I never was attracted to any of them. I never fell in love with any of them. It just was not on my plate at all. It wasn’t there.

When I joined the seminary, I had a lot more time to do nothing and just kind of think. At this point — I was 22 — I had worked through some of my issues with my parents’ divorce. And then I fell in love with a man. That was a shocker. I had always assumed that I was either asexual, or that people were just lying about the sexual draw, because I didn’t have it. It just wasn’t there for me. It wasn’t there at any level. I was a virgin. I didn’t have sex. It was very rare that I masturbated. It just was not there.

So then I fell in love, and that was an eye-opener for me because I was like, ”I do have sexual attractions — I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.”

He was a very close friend of mine. We would have a lot of deep conversations and spend a lot of time together, and I think we just fell in love with each other. It was very sweet. I think of that time as very sweet, because obviously I didn’t know what I was doing. I fell in love with this guy and we had a very, very short-lived physical relationship. I wasn’t in the position to be in a relationship.

When I realized that I’d fallen in love with him is when I realized that I was sexually attracted to him. Of course, I was a Catholic seminarian. I realized, ”I can’t really do this at this point in my life.” So there was a lot coming at me at the same time and it was pretty difficult.

Tom Goss

MW: How did you cope with it?

GOSS: Being gay was not a problem. I didn’t have internal issues about that. I’ve always been very realistic about everything, including my spirituality. I never thought being gay is a sin or anything like that. No one would make this choice. I wouldn’t choose to be gay. It was, ”This must be who I am.” And why would God create something just to hate that something? That doesn’t really make sense if you’re thinking of God as an all-loving God.

MW: Did you come out to your parents?

GOSS: Yeah. They were very accepting. My parents have always been the kind of people that have let me do what I want to do, and let me make my own mistakes, and let me become my own person, and not pressure me into what they wanted me to become. It wasn’t like I had pressure from the family to become a priest.

The thing for them was like, ”Okay, you’re gay. Whatever. You’re in seminary anyway.” So I think it’s really easy to have a gay son, if that gay son is a Catholic priest. Frankly, most priests are gay.

MW: But you didn’t become a priest. What happened?

GOSS: The seminary became a very hostile and predatory environment. Several of my classmates and my friends decided that they were in love with me. That, in it of itself, was fine, whatever. But at the same time, they were very predatory.

I had in that certain period of time many sexual advances that I had to fend off. I’m living with these people and seeing them at every meal, and seeing them in church, every day. It’s very hard for you to sit there and see somebody who’s touched you inappropriately or something like that, sitting and praying, or reading the gospel to you.

It all blew up when I woke up one morning and one of these guys was in my room, at the edge of my bed, wanting to talk about our ”relationship.” I flipped out, and he got kicked out because he broke into my room in the middle of the night.

Two or three days later, I had another one of my friends tell me he was in love with me, one of my classmates. I was like, ”If this is what it means for me to be in a seminary right now, then this is not the place for me. It’s not healthy.”

It was horrible. Every single time I turned the corner I wondered if this person or if this person was going to be standing there. I was livid. I was pissed. I was so angry at pretty much everybody. I was pissed at God. Here I am trying to serve God or live a holy life, and this is what’s going on. So I quit. I packed and found a new house in 24 hours. It was still really frustrating, because I found my community supporting these people that were acting in very negative and predatory ways towards me — and not supporting me.

These three particular guys were still coming at me, after I left — coming to my house and coming to my concerts and calling me at work 10 times a day. Still, to this day, three years later, it’s the saddest thing ever. I went and got a cease-and-desist order. It was very serious.

MW: What did you do to stay afloat financially after you left the seminary?

GOSS: I got a temp job administrating law exams over at Catholic University of America, and then I just worked at Starbucks. I started focusing on my music. I just dove into my music. If you listen to my first album, Naked Without, you can see the first third of it is kind of poppy, and the middle third of it is really angry and really raw. The last third of it is kind of trying to reconcile those two.

The first part of it I was writing when I was in the seminary. The middle chunk I was writing while I was leaving the seminary. I’m the kind of person who likes things to be hopeful, and so I didn’t want to end the CD like that, so I wrote a couple of new songs trying to reconcile myself with my past, which you’ll see is a theme of mine.

For as much I’m going to sit here and tell you that I’m not spiritual anymore, I tend to write about God a lot, or just whatever is bigger than me. I tend to write about love a lot these days, because I’m in love. I like to talk about redemption or hope. I like to be a reconciler. Thematically, that comes up in my music a lot. Every single time I write a song, I try to end it with more hope than when I began. I believe that there’s hope in everything, and that there’s good in everything.

MW: Some artists want to avoid being classified as ”gay” artists. You seem to embrace it.

GOSS: It’s about integration. I’m an artist and I’m gay. There are two parts of who I am and they’re integrated into, ”I’m Tom.” At the end of the day, I’m just Tom.

MW: But what is it about you that wouldn’t turn down a gay-pride performance or the cover of a gay magazine?

GOSS: I understand that [some gay artists] don’t want to be put in a box. But I want to do whatever I need to do to reach people. I think that [gay-pride events] are great because it’s people coming together, especially in places where you’re not going to be walking down the street with your partner hand-in-hand unless you’re at a pride event one day out of the year. You’re not going to be a 14-year-old transgender boy, happy about his situation, in the middle of Indiana, unless you’re at a pride event. Pride events are good, because they let you see other people who are living similar lives to yours. They let you see well-integrated gay men and gay women in committed relationships, in stable jobs, creating a community to support each other. I think that’s very important. I want to be a part of that because I want to support other people.

MW: Are you still a religious person?

GOSS: I wouldn’t say that I’m any religion, specifically. When I went into the Catholic Church to become a priest, I naively thought that I could change the injustices that are happening if I was in it from the inside. It didn’t work.

Funny how I was the one that ended up alienated. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, because I don’t really get the whole Jesus thing. I never really understood Jesus, how he fit into everything or even who he was, even when I was a seminarian. My spirituality was always more God-centered. I tend to pray more and relate more to someone being a creator, someone being an overseer. Do I still think that exists? I don’t know. I know that there’s so much going on that’s bigger than me. I pretty much just go about my business and hope that I’m doing good things.

MW: Speaking of ”good things,” how did you get involved with Charlie’s Place?

GOSS: After I left the seminary and I was working at Starbucks, I was always looking for a job that would be better than working at Starbucks. [Laughs.] I particularly wanted to do something in the area of social justice, especially with the homeless. A position opened up at Charlie’s Place, which is a feeding program for the homeless. I interviewed over there and came on as the program manager. I did that for a couple of years, and really enjoyed it.

When the music picked up, I geared up to go out on the road and talked to them about staying on in a part-time capacity, where I could telecommute. So that’s what I do now. I do grant writing and fundraising.

MW: What can we expect from you musically in the near future?

GOSS: I’ve been writing like a madman. I’m hoping to get back into the studio in the wintertime, and to put out something in the spring. It’s going to be a full-length album.

MW: That will probably have you on the road again. Do you enjoy touring?

GOSS: Other cities are great, but you don’t get to spend too much time in the cities that you play. You drive, you unload your gear, you grab dinner and then you play your show. You load up your gear, you fall asleep, you drive to the next city.

When I come home to D.C., it’s the most fun thing ever. All my friends are here and I just love the vibe. I don’t necessarily like the term ”fans” because I don’t ever want that relationship. I think there’s a power dynamic there that’s strange and awkward. So I consider them all my friends, and my shows are like when you have a party. There’s like 50 or 60 people in the room and they’re all your friends. It’s just so much fun and I get to talk to everybody. The best show ever for me was the video-release party for ”Rise,” because I didn’t have to perform. I could just wander around and talk to everybody. We stopped for five minutes, showed the video, and then I wandered around and talked to everyone again. That was the most fun for me.

Tom Goss performs with a full band at Michelle Burleson’s CD-release party, on Sunday, Aug. 24, at 8:30 p.m., at the Iota Club and Café, 2932 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Tickets are $10 at the door. Visit Tom Goss online at www.tomgossmusic.com.

From YouTube: Tom Goss, ”Rise”

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