Peterson Toscano tried everything he could to “cure” himself of being gay, including living in a residential “gay-reparative” treatment center. Then he discovered Quakers. Now he travels the country telling his story.
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- Peterson says that he prayed and prayed for God to “fix me, make me normal.” And never stopped to consider that God’s answer might be, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” What parallels do you see in your own life?
- After all the trauma and turmoil of Peterson’s years of “gay reparative therapy”, a large part of his healing process has been to share his story onstage. What stories in your life are only healed when you share them out loud?
No, but seriously: here in the Homo No Mo’ Halfway House, they never promise to make any of us actual heterosexuals—that would be a little ambitious for some of us—but they do promise that if we do our part and we work our programs, we’re going to come out of here as healthy, celibate ex-gays. Yeah, I’m excited about it, too.
My interest in gay reparative therapy was very much personal because at the age of 17 I got into my head that I would be far more valuable to everyone in the world and in heaven if I were a masculine-presenting heterosexual so I attempted to “de-gay” myself through a variety of gay conversion therapy treatments, exorcisms, support groups, even a residential facility that I lived in for two years where they promised to help me find freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ.
How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement With Theater
My name is Peterson Toscano. I live in central Pennsylvania, Sunbury, Pennsylvania. I’m a Quaker and attend Pennsdale Meeting and Millville Meeting. So I’ve given myself the title “theatrical performance activist” because what I do is a number of things that overlap. So I’m a scholar, I’m a comic, I’m a storyteller, and I’m an actor, and everything I do really is to use comedy to address deadly serious issues.
Asking God to Be Fixed
And all of a sudden, they parade the kids in. You can’t go over to your kid and say “hi,” hug them, nothin’. Now this part, this was a hell of a thing. Because one by one, right, they made these kids stand up and tell us these stories about themselves. These disgusting stories. And listen, I don’t care. You could do whatever you want with whoever you want, all right? But you don’t stand up and say that shit in front of your mother. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
And so when the gay thing began to raise itself in me I didn’t know what to do. Like, what was going to happen if I told my parents, because I couldn’t have them reject me? And so then I opted to take matters into my own hands.
So the overarching question I continued to ask God day after day was, “please please, fix me, make me straight, make me normal.” I never considered that maybe the answer that God was giving was, “no, that’s not what I want to do.” I just always assumed that’s the right question, and in pursuing that question, and in pursuing God in that way, I nearly destroyed myself. I mean, over time it became emotionally and psychologically damaging for me, and the levels of shame and self-hatred and confusion just grew to toxic levels.
Integrating Faith and Sexuality
So, I came out gay, which was more like just acknowledging that I had this terminal disease. Like, you know, “you’ve got the gay. It’s not going away any time soon.” And I thought at that point then that everything was separate between me and God. Because I was told you can’t be gay and Christian. So now I was gay.
And I felt such a loss. It was like this emptiness came in. Because having God in my life is such an important, essential part of me. And I finally, one day, after attempting to live like an atheist and doing a bad job of it, I started praying, and saying,
“God, I don’t know what to do about this.” And that began the very long, difficult journey to try to integrate my faith with my sexuality with the rest of me.
I needed to find a place to worship. I was a refugee from those evangelical church years. I needed to go somewhere, and I started attending liberal mainline denominational churches and I experienced post-traumatic stress. Because even though there arms were wide open to a gay guy, they sang the same songs. The sermon sounded very similar, and the language, the scriptures were the same, the architecture was the same. I needed a radically different religious experience. And I met a lovely Quaker woman, Diane Weinholtz from the Hartford meeting, we worked at the same school and she was out and proud as a Quaker. And I’m so grateful that she was because she just would mention it from time to time and I attended.
Right after 9/11, I attended the Hartford friends meeting and it was an hour of absolute silence. No one had a message. And it was the most important hour I had in my life for years up until that point, because I had been pummeled with words and with images and ideas, and I just needed to be still. And I needed that, week after week after week, to just be there and not have to worry about what prayer I prayed or what’s God saying, just be seen by God and be present.
Theater as A Healing Practice
I trained to do theater when I was very young, in my undergraduate work, but I was also struggling with being gay. And I ultimately gave that all up for Jesus, because it was too hard not to be gay in a theater department infested with homosexuals, so I put it aside for decades. I come out gay, I move to Connecticut, I’m working at a private school, I’m going to this Quaker meetinghouse, and I began to unpack all the other parts of me and began to tell my story about having gone through gay conversion therapy. And seeing people’s reaction, like, “you did what?” And that’s when I decided: Wow, I need to do something about this.
And it was through clearness committee and ultimately support committee that I began my first work as a performance artist, and it really came out of that Hartford Meeting. The love, the support, the listening encouragement, the coming to the shows. Helping me, you know, in my apartment, just bringing friends, like: “I’m going to do a little sample. Tell me what you think.” Getting that kind of critical feedback. It—definitely—the performance art grew out of my relationship with the Hartford meeting.
Alright, hello everyone, how are you? Hello, my name is Marvin, Marvin Bloom. I’m from Long Island, can you understand me?
This was a very personal story for me, and one that I needed to process for myself. I mean, it was traumatic. And in addition to going to trained therapists for help in undoing the damage, I also went on stage and began telling the story through characters. I couldn’t even tell it as myself at first, because it was too close to home, but creating zany, interesting, bizarre characters I got to tell my own story through their words, and I created a play called “Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo’ Halfway House: How I Survived The Ex-Gay Movement”. So it took something that was unbelievably tragic in my life, and I turned to comedy as a tool of healing for myself and as public witness about the injustice that was going on at that time in those sorts of programs.
And then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus. Come out.” The dead man came out. His hands and feet were wrapped with strips of linen and a cloth around his face. And Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” To me this was the most dramatic moment in all of the gospels. I mean, think of it. For the first time in four days, light and air entered that dark, dank place and Jesus, with that voice of his, he somehow pierced the veil between this world and the next and Lazarus, wherever he was, whatever state of being he was in, he heard that voice and came out.
Early on in one of the clearness meetings that I had, somebody talked about how the work is prophetic. Which… I had a real negative reaction to that because it just sounds presumptuous to say, “Well, I do prophetic work.” But understanding a little bit more about the way that words and how they’re delivered can really crack somebody’s head open in a fresh new way, can move them to action, I like that. And if my work does that, or when my work does that, that is really a blessing. And, through the years, I’ve been able to embrace that part, that there’s some real power to this work. It’s not just cute and clever and well-structured, but there’s power there, and not to be afraid of that. Just acknowledge that that’s the gift, and to let it shine. Like we say in that song, you know, “Put it under a bushel? No!”
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.