When you listen to the Dusty Springfield original of “Son of a Preacher Man,” falling for the said-son sounds like a lot of fun—“the only boy who could ever teach me/Was the son of a preacher man”—with all those joyous trumpets, the clarion encouragement of Springfield’s backing singers, and the delicious promise of “stealing kisses with me on the sly.”
In singer-songwriter Tom Goss’s moving and beautifully composed torch-song reversioning of “Preacher Man,” the song takes on a darker hue featuring a forbidden gay love affair. The song immediately caused an online flurry of comment when it surfaced a couple of days ago.
Here, falling for the preacher’s son means two teenage boys run smack up against vicious, evangelical homophobia. The video takes in young love, attempted suicide, parental rejection, religious judgment, and—hurrah—uplifting survival.
The video’s director, Michael Serrato, really did fall in love with the preacher’s son, while Goss tried to commit suicide. Here the two men talk about their dramatic, very real experiences behind this reimagined classic.
The Daily Beast: You really did fall in love with the son of a preacher man?
Michael Serrato: Yes, I grew up within an evangelical church in Long Beach, Southern California. My dad ran the sports ministry and prison ministry: He was a tough dude. I wasn’t. I did fall in love with the son of a fairly famous preacher in the area—but we did not have the big huge moment the boys have in the video. Our relationship was more pubescent and secretive. I don’t think he’s even out of the closet now.
How was growing up?
Very traumatic. My dad viewed my masculinity, or lack thereof, in a very negative way. He was violent, I was frightened of him. I would love to say this boy and I ran off into the sunset together, but the reality was that I thought life would be over if anyone ever found out about my relationship, or what I perceived as a relationship. He was definitely one of my best friends and a sweet guy.
How old were you?
I’m 45 now, and 13/14 then. At the time AIDS was starting to become a headline. At our church it was a big topic, with talk of “sexual deviants.” Honestly I was terrified. It was almost like, being gay, I was walking around with this cancerous tumor I couldn’t shake. That’s why it was so important to do this video: I wanted to tell gay kids, “You’re fine. You’re going to be OK.” There was nothing like that when I was a kid. I came out at 19, and it took so much time to shake off the self-loathing, shame, and guilt that I was raised in. It was debilitating. I was constantly trying to find approval because I felt so repulsive as a person.
What did your dad do to you?
I remember getting hit because I folded towels “like a girl.” I was washing dishes one day, but I wasn’t washing dishes “like a man,” and dad stabbed me with a fork. I was terrified all the time. I would ask myself, “Am I doing this like a man?” Even as an adult guy now, I’m not an incredibly flamboyant person—but I felt so squashed then. I felt like at every turn, “There’s this thing about me that they hate.” It really touched all aspects of my life. I couldn’t be too close to my mom, because of “tugging at her apron strings.” I was growing up as not what they thought a boy should be like.
You were scared of your dad?
I definitely felt physically afraid. I was just terrified when he came home. All I could think was, “Do I look like a guy?” At the same time I wanted to put on shows and wear costumes. I think a lot of young gay boys end up searching for who they are not. I remember playing every organized sport and just miserably, constantly failing.
Did your family reject you?
Yes, my mother and father were both devastated when I came out. We spent a good 10 years with little or no communication. One of the cathartic things was my sister raising a gender-fluid son, which she wrote a book about, Raising My Rainbow.
My parents loved my nephew so much. That helped them grow a lot. My mom died sadly this year, and with a lot of guilt I think. Right before she died, she sent me a card saying, “I made a lot of mistakes.” I feel so bad for her. She realized how much they fucked up. I think the guilt snapped her a bit. I talk to my dad, but keep him at an arm’s distance… Parents should be aware that if they’re hurting their kids, they’re hurting themselves.
How did you cope as a kid?
As an adult, finding my artistic voice helped. As a kid, I was the funny guy, the storyteller. It was a defense mechanism. I was so desperate to be liked. I was constantly the class clown. I felt so hated at home, I thought, “What do I have to do to be loved?”
What about your attitude to faith now?
I definitely feel spiritually empty. I went through the fucking wringer, so I feel leery of it all. I think, “I was a fucking kid, what were you doing to me?” After I came out, I got more confidence, although it took me a while to realize, with therapy, how much abuse I had suffered.
What would you say to other gay kids growing up now?
I would say that I know people say, “Stay in the closet.” I’m so glad I didn’t march down that path, because—no matter how difficult it is—being myself and finding myself wasn’t so bad.
How are you and your dad now?
He hasn’t said sorry. He tells me he loves me now, and never did as a kid. I’ve done some stuff on TV, and he likes the celebrity aspect of that. I think he’s proud of me. He’s proud of how strong my sister and I are.
We don't have the best relationship—not that it’s bad, there’s no yelling… I think he would like us to be closer. But I have big trust issues with him, and I don’t know if that will ever change. It was very painful. I’ve definitely forgiven him, but I can’t forget it. It was horrible. I want kids to know that being gay is awesome. There are a lot of horrible people out there who say it’s wrong, but you’re going to be OK.
DB: You’ve had quite the response to this video.
Tom Goss: Yeah, I’m really relieved people have responded so positively.
You knew the original Dusty Springfield song?
Yeah, I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, and listened to “the oldies” all day with my mother. They have a lot of cherished memories for me. I didn’t realize what the song was about back then of course. You’re just singing along, when that is a communal, fun, family thing to do.
How did this version come about?
The video and video concept, which we talked about for a year and a half, was done long before the song. I wanted to reinvent the song in a way that paid homage to the original, but was also different and unique in and of itself.
How is it autobiographical for you?
My experience was of being somebody who as a young man felt so misunderstood, unheard, unloved, that I attempted suicide at around 13.
Just as one of the boys attempts in the video. Why did you attempt it?
I think I always felt different. Looking back on it, sexuality definitely had a role to play, feeling as if I was being treated differently as a result of it, not understanding why that was, feeling like “the other” a lot, feeling like being part of the margins. That’s really hard as a kid. It was a really rough period of my life. My parents divorced. I got really upset about that, and everything snowballed.
How did you attempt suicide?
I decided to kill myself because I felt nobody would miss me. It was a very dark moment. I remember thinking, “I’m going to take this bottle of pills, then I’m going to cut myself.” We had a very tall house, so I planned to jump out of the window at the top of the house. I remember thinking, “I’m so clever. People will be so busy tending to my wounds, they won’t know I’m dying slowly from the inside out.” Thinking about it now makes me want to cry for that person.
How far did you go with the plan?
I took a bottle of pills, and then pretty much almost immediately regretted it, and understood the weight of what I had just done and told my mom, and went to the hospital, and got my stomach pumped. Then they pumped charcoal into my stomach after they took all the fluids out. I spent a couple of days in hospital.
And then therapy?
I was in lot of therapy. To be honest, it was only when I picked up a guitar and started writing songs when I was 18 that the real therapy began.
Until that point, my demons were manifesting in anger, fighting a lot, getting arrested a lot. I got expelled from 9th grade. I was a gymnast, then a wrestler, and I got a lot of aggression out that way. But I was very introverted. When I picked up a guitar I started processing so many things. I wrestled right through college, and I was hanging around with a lot of scantily-clad men all the time but wasn't finding myself attracted to them.
So, how was your sexuality awakened?
I really thought I was asexual for a long time, until I decided to be a Catholic priest. I didn’t think being celibate would be a big deal as I was already asexual. At seminary I fell in love with one of my classmates. Falling in love was and is and will continue to be one of the most beautiful and powerful things that can exist in the world. It’s healed me in more ways than I can say.
That certainly comes through in the video to the song.
I love that the kids in the video are in love, and it’s pure and innocent and wholesome and it’s uplifting, and it’s all those things even as people are trying to tear that apart.
And the kids live and love at the end.
Absolutely. That is the future we want to be painting. It’s hard. There have been many LGBT kids who have committed suicide. But many kids haven’t. Many have fallen in love and followed love. That’s the story we wanted to tell. We brought the (LGBT youth support organization) Trevor Project in because we didn’t want to trigger anything bad, and we also wanted to show the pain people go through. And we wanted it to be positive.
How did you convince the church in the video to let you film there?
It’s the Little White Chapel in Burbank. I spoke to the pastor and told him what we were doing. It’s a welcoming and affirming church, and he knew what we were doing and was supportive. The song and video’s message is to trust in the love that you have. Love who you love really strongly, even if the odds are against you.
How religious were you?
I had a medium-religious household. My Catholic experience was very liberal. I never got the kind of sermon you see in the video. I felt marginalized feeling asexual. It may be hard being gay, but at least there’s a community of that. If you’re asexual, you’re this robot that nobody understands. And with me, I was attracted to bears [older, hairy, bigger guys]. Part of my slowness in coming to this was that I was hanging around with these super-young, super-fit wrestlers, but I wasn’t attracted to them because they were not the kind of men I was attracted to.
And so the classmate at seminary…?
Yes, he was a bear. We fell in love, and in many ways it was—like the video—so innocent and pure and we were both virgins. I was 23 and he was 38. He was definitely more repressed. He had held it all at bay, while I had wandered through life ignorant.
I didn't have lot of turmoil around it. I just thought, “Wow, this amazing, why would God not want this in my life?” I think I left my spiritual side behind. But I wanted to become a priest to work around reconciliation, and I hope my work, this video, helps reconcile people with their own pasts.
What about your life now?
I’m married to Mike, my husband of 10 years. He’s very proud of me, and without doubt my biggest supporter.
What’s been the most surprising response to the video so far?
I got an email from one of Dusty Springfield’s backing singers today. They said they had sung for her for years, and that she would have loved this, and ended by saying “Thank you.” It just blew my mind.
At the end, the boys head off into the sunset, then morph to being adults still hand-in-hand.
One of those guys is me, so I imagine (laughs) that one of them goes off to play guitar. In my story they learn to integrate spirituality and sexuality. They fall in love with each other deeper and deeper.