Tom Goss is a Washington, DC-based singer-songwriter on a 10-week, 50-city tour to promote his album, Turn It Around. Tom has agreed to serve as a GayCities guest blogger, reporting occasionally from the road. This is his third post.
It’s funny how naïve you can be when you dive into the music business. I spent years under the impression that if I played music then people would listen. I remember begging venues to let me perform. This went on for years. I had this vision that if I recorded an album and then sat in a coffeehouse with my guitar then people would be drawn in by the music, start a conversation, build a connection and I’d be well on my way to success. That’s never how it goes down.
In 2006 I released my first album. Nobody cared. Not even my friends. At the very least I figured they’d buy the album. They didn’t. In fact, when I gave it away they didn’t even listen.
You see, I didn’t start playing music until I graduated high school. Everyone who knew me connected with me for a reason other than music. Nobody saw me as a musician or a writer. I spent some time being hurt by that. Then I set out to see these old places in a new light and make new connections on a different level than I had previously.
I grew up in Kenosha, WI, a small city in Southeast Wisconsin smack dab in-between Chicago and Milwaukee. Kenosha is very blue collar. In fact, remember those old AMC cars? Oh, they made some fine cars like the Gremlin, Pacer, Rambler and The Eagle. All those cars were made in Kenosha until the company folded in 1987 – the same year house prices tanked and my family moved into town. Furthermore, due to its workman demographic and proximity to Chicago (where the drinking age was 21, not 18 as in Wisconsin) Kenosha once boasted the most bars per capita in the country. Not the best place to grow up artsy or gay.
Luckily I was neither of those things. I spent my time in Kenosha being the star on whatever team I played. I have always excelled in sports, whether team or individual, and eventually ended up focusing on the most heterosexual and masculine of them all (well, except in porn), wrestling. Eventually I left on scholarship and didn’t look back. I knew nothing of the music and arts scene in Kenosha. To my knowledge it didn’t exist and I knew everything there was to know about Kenosha – well almost.
By the time I came out and fell in love, I had been out of Kenosha for years. In many ways I was a different person. More open and sensitive, an artist, writer and a lover, I doubted there was much that could feed that side of me back home.
But because it was home I scheduled a show in town. People in Wisconsin like to drink, so I booked a local dive bar. What a night, I remember a handful of wrestling buddies coming out and trying to figure out who Mike was. I’m not sure that “partner” was a term they knew how to interpret. Mike was lucky enough to be in a stall when they all gathered in the bathroom to figure it out together and bring my old coach up to date. Together they pieced it together, Tom’s gay!
Needless to say that wasn’t my best show. Folks didn’t care about the music; I didn’t care for the venue. Everyone got drunk and I ended up driving most everyone home. Nothing had changed–it was another typical day in Kenosha. I wouldn’t play in town anymore.
Then I met Melanie Hovey. On a romantic whim I decided to make a piece of stained glass for Mike. I knew there was a studio in Kenosha and I knew they did good work so I gave them a call. What I found was a vibrant arts community just blocks away from where I grew up.
Melanie runs Lemon Street Gallery. The gallery started in 1998 (one year before I left town) as a co-op for local artists to work on their art and have a space to sell their art. In the years that followed, Lemon Street has grown into a community center of sorts, with arts education, community beautification projects and even a push to provide free Internet at the nearby park.
After talking with Melanie about the glass I asked her if she thought there was any place in Kenosha that would be good for the kind of thing I do. She knew just where to point me. What it unveiled was a whole new community of artists and musicians, gay and straight, each supportive of each other’s desires to live as they are.
Beyond the arts scene, the Southeastern Wisconsin LGBT community center is now providing services just North of town in Racine and a new gay bar, Club Icon, is vibrant out by the interstate.
I know it’s silly, but the only gay person that I knew growing up in Kenosha was the high-school drama teacher. What a stereotype, right? Since that first show I’ve met so many love-filled and inspirational gay men and women in committed relationships. But like most places, that is the example of gay life that flies under the radar. If only I had known these people existed when I was growing up. Would my life have been different?
By traveling the country and speaking openly and honestly about who I am, and who I love, perhaps I can do for other people what I could never for myself.