English: Peterson Toscano (born 1965) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Welcome to another installment of LOVEboldly’s interview series. Previously , Derek Webb (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), Logan Mehl-Laituri, Tripp York, Wesley Hill, and Jen Thweatt-Bates offered their perspectives on a number of issues related to faith and sexuality. Now we are privileged to share some wisdom from Peterson Toscano.
Peterson Toscano is a theatrical performance activist using comedy and storytelling to address social justice concerns. He spent 17 years and over $30,000 on three continents attempting to change and suppress his same-sex orientation and gender differences. Since 2003 he has traveled in North America, Europe, and Africa performing in diverse venues and speaking in the media. He writes and performs plays that explore LGBTQ issues, sexism, racism, violence and gender.
For those who may not know you, you spent many years in ex-gay programs. Could you describe why you decided to enter into a program like this?
So many reasons all piled on top of each other:
- Desire to marry and have children
- Fear of loneliness as I grew older
- AIDS and other STDs that I assumed I would get if I came out gay
- Misinformation of what it meant to be gay
- The desire to fit in with everyone, to feel “normal”
- Pressure from society through virtually every film, TV show, pop song and commercial proclaiming that the heterosexual life was the idealized norm without showing any alternatives
- Negative portrayals of LGBT people in the media
- Fear of physical and verbal attack for being gay
- Witnessing physical and verbal attacks of those who are gay or perceived to be gay
- Desire to advance in the church hierarchy to become a missionary or pastor
- Desire to please family and friends
- Fear of losing family and friends
- No positive gay role models
- Having furtive sexual encounters causing me distress in a society that punishes sexual “deviance” (while an addiction to credit never seemed to bother me in a society that encouraged debt)
- Unresolved sexual abuse issues that caused me to carry my abuser’s shame with me thus causing me to question my own gay orientation and self-worth
- Low self-esteem
- Self-hatred & internalized homophobia
- Cowardice to stand against the tide and be myself
- Living to please man and not God, bowing to man’s teachings while not actually seeking God about the matter
- Oh, and a conflict I felt between my faith and my sexuality
Here is a video where I outline much of this.
Could you share your experiences with ex-gay programs?
I spent 17 years engaged in a variety of ex-gay ministry and reparative therapy. I received the bulk of that “treatment” in New York City, but also received therapy in England and Ecuador. In some ways no two ex-gay programs or counselors are alike. Some use 12-Steps and recovery models that are usually applied to alcoholics and drug addicts. Some will take a more pseudo-psychological approach in the form of Christian counseling or reparative therapy. Some ex-gay programs operate support groups that rely heavily on testimony and teachings from leaders who themselves are “struggling with homosexuality.” Usually there are religious aspects to all of the approaches, most often Protestant Evangelical, but also Mormon, Jewish, Catholic, and Pentecostal.
Pretty much all the groups I attended believed it was unnatural and immoral to be gay and that some sort of cure or change was possible. They all held up heterosexuality (and for men, masculinity) as superior to anything else. In some ways they were straight supremacist organizations designed to devalue, debunk, and destroy anything gay in their clients and the world. They looked for unnatural causes to one’s orientation and gender differences sometimes blaming parents, particularly mothers, or misappropriating the role of sexual abuse in a client’s childhood. In some extreme cases, I met ex-gay leaders who believed gays were possessed of evil spirits and needed to undergo exorcisms.
With their varied methods, most of these groups would disagree, but the basic teachings–it is unnatural and wrong to be gay and there is a way out–were consistent. Also, they mostly were exceptionally kind and gentle people, much nicer than most of the people I met in the church. They expressed a desire to help, that for most I believe was sincere. Sadly they were sincerely wrong, and their good intentions only intensified the harm they caused.
What was the moment you decided to come out as gay and stop trying to change your sexual orientation?
It was more of a coming to my senses moment at first than a “coming out.” After 17 years and many different failed efforts to change or suppress my gay orientation and gender differences, I understood that change was not possible, in fact, pursuing it was destroying me. Instead of cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit, I had grown depressed, self-hating, and compulsive. I accepted the reality that I was gay with the same tragic acknowledgment that someone has when they receive a diagnosis of incurable cancer. My mind was still convinced that being gay was a terrible thing.
But then something marvelous happened. I was living in Memphis, TN and I met many different lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, living vibrant, stable, interesting lives, not at all like the stereotypes the Church and the media fed me for over 30 years. Many of these folks were involved in their churches where they were leaders. Slowly I renewed my mind and transformed into someone who realized and accepted that being gay was a great gift given to me.
How has your religious beliefs changed over the years as you have come to terms with your sexuality?
I was raised Roman Catholic, then at age 17 I became a born-again Fundamentalist Christian. During college I began attending more Evangelical churches, and by the time I was 21 I joined the Pentecostal Movement of the mid-1980s. As I came out in the late 1990’s, I attended Episcopal churches and finally in 2001 began attending Quaker Meetings. I am now a member of Pennsdale Friends Meeting in Central Pennsylvania along with my husband, Glen Retief (www.glenretief.com). We were married under the care of our meeting in July 2012.
I have seen two major theological shifts. The first was a change of spiritual authority from external to internal. For years I looked to outside sources for guidance, assuming that the minister, the Bible, God in heaven knew better, and that I must silence all internal. I was a follower, and my primary responsibility was to submit to the teachings and wills of these outside forces. Today though, while I benefit from the counsel and wisdom of others, I derive my direction from within, often through silent contemplation in Quaker meeting for worship. Some could say I recognize that the Kingdom of God is within me, and that Christ has given me the Spirit to lead and guide me. My authority is found within.
The other change is how I view the Bible. I once believed it was the inerrant, literal word of God to be obeyed without question. I had no idea that the Bible has a history, often fraught and sordid, and that the 66 books and letters and poems we now have that make up our modern Bible came about through all sorts of human means. As I read, study, and discuss the Bible today, I am far more interested in the people in the stories than the precepts that I used to obsess over. I look for clues in the text about the lives and bodies and personalities of the people in the text and seek a different kind of understanding that helps me develop compassion and a sense of justice.
It seems that you have chosen humor as your way of addressing the problems of conversion therapy. Why have you chosen this approach?
Some topics are too hot to handle directly and need some padding. Humor relaxes people while it also exposes what is ridiculous and even cruel about a situation. Humor is also a tool to overcome trauma. When we can laugh at something, we take the sting out of it.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to reconcile faith and sexual orientation?
I would ask them to consider the sources of their struggle. Is it genuinely an internal wrestling with their conscious or do many if not all of the pressures come from outside–family, society, church, etc. The distress that one has over their sexuality or gender differences, is it matched with a similar distress over greed in their lives or a disregard for the poor? Why is that? What if they woke up the next day 100% heterosexual and conforming to accepted gender presentation and roles? How would their life be different? How would their relationships be different? What do they earn or gain from this sudden change? In looking at those questions and their answers, they may be able to better understand the source of their distress. I would also advise them to see a properly trained therapist and not a minister or Christian counselor.
Tell us all about your current projects.
These days I actually have little to do with talking about the Ex-Gay Movement. I retired my play, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. It is now available on DVD via www.quakerbooks.org
Instead I have developed work that highlights the Biblical scholarship I have been doing since 2006. My newest play is “Jesus Had Two Daddies.” In my presentation “Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible” , I explore the stories and lives of people in the Bible who do not fit traditional gender roles or expectations–gender outlaws in the Bible. There are many of these. Bible scholars have remarked that some of what I bring out is new information to them. I have Good News to share about gender transgressors, which often include lesbians and gays as well as transgender and bisexual folk. In addition to my performance scholarship, I’m writing a theological memoir of sorts juxtaposing my own bizarre journey with Bible stories I like to tell. I hope to have the manuscript complete by May.
But it is not the Bible that has captured my attention these days. My head and my heart have been gripped by the shocking, unfolding news about climate change and the impact our use of fossil fuels have on the planet and future generations. I see this as the single most important issue of our times, one that comes with moral weight and responsibility like none other we face today. It is the World War II of our generation, where we are called upon to face a common enemy, make sacrifices, come together, and creatively develop solutions. And there are solutions out there within our grasp. It is dire but not hopeless.
Perhaps our greatest tool to dramatically reduce our reliance on the substances that contribute to climate change is to add a fee to fossil fuels from the moment these are taken out of the ground. Energy costs will rise dramatically, and economists predict that this will alter consumers’ behavior. Most people will opt for the cheaper, greener solutions. Businesses will see the market potential in these new green options and will develop more and more options. To help off-set the increase in energy prices and fund the expensive change to alternatives (and to make the idea attractive to Conservative lawmakers who are required to pass the legislation) the fee collected from energy companies by the government can then be redistributed to the public directly in the form of dividend checks. People can use the money however they like, but most will likely take the ultimately cheaper, greener routes and enjoy the extra cash for other things. The idea is called Fee and Dividend and is one promoted by the Citizens Climate Lobby.
It is not a perfect solution, but perhaps the most pragmatic approach available right now. There is a great role for churches and believers to help in this crisis in our pursuit of a simpler, more sustainable life and stewardship of the planet. We will also have the opportunity and responsibility more seriously address poverty as the poor will be adversely affected by climate change and even the switch to green energy. No doubt these themes will emerge in my work. Already I have decided I will not travel by plane in North America any longer, except in the case of emergencies, so lots of buses and trains in my future, and lots of blogging and tweeting and speaking about theses journeys.
Here are some links that might be of interest to you or your readers:
Article in the Guardian: Ex-Gay Movement Gives Moral Authority to Bullies