Queering the Good News: Gender Variance in the Bible

Peterson Toscano is a performance artist, activist and practicing Quaker. I first met Peterson in 2011 at the Philadelphia Transhealth Conference. I was intrigued how his subversive use of humor and evangelical background coupled his Quaker sensibilities proved to be a powerful witness in debunking the ex-gay movement and exploring the trangsgressive nature of the Bible. So I took the opportunity to chat with him over email about the themes present in his work. 

Briefly describe why you became a theatrical performance activist.

I never started out pursuing a career as a gay performance artist or an activist. During my time at Nyack College, a Christian Liberal Arts school outside of New York City, I sought to live as a heterosexual man and as an Evangelical missionary. The missionary training part was easy; trying to transform myself into a fully functioning, masculine-presenting heterosexual proved to be the impossible challenge. I actually disrupted my missionary career path with a 17 year-long side-trip into the Ex-Gay Movement. I felt disqualified to serve in the Lord's Army until I had sorted out the gay thing. Lord knows I tried to fully repent of my gayness as I submitted myself to every known "treatment" available, spending hours daily in prayer and Bible study, and handing myself over to bizarre and abusive ministries. It was a stupid thing to do, but it seemed my only choice based on how I saw the world and how I was taught to read the Bible. 

Once I emerged from that madness, I began to piece my life back together and retrieve the many parts of me I had stuffed in the closet. As I did, I rediscovered art, particularly the theater arts which meant so much to me in high school and at university. I also felt compelled to tell people about my story and the dangers I encountered in the anti-gay, Ex-Gay Movement. This led to a fusion of art and activism heavily laced with comedy. In many ways I achieved the goal that I set out for myself at Bible school. Today I spend my days traveling around sharing "Good News." It's not the Evangelical Christian message I once preached, rather one of sane and necessary acceptance of LGBTQ people in churches that have been impoverished by a radical anti-gay agenda. And strangely over the years, my message has become more and more inspired by Biblical texts. 

I see myself as a fortunate gay man, married to a lovely guy named Glen Retief. To describe myself I like to use the term Queer because it suggests for me much more than just my sexual orientation. As a fem, gay, Quaker Christian who is self-employed performing comic plays that touch on political and religious conflicts, I see myself as queer, not your typical gay bird. But then these days EVERYONE and everything is queer so that the term is beginning to get diluted. Perhaps I need to identify as "weird." 

How does your Quakerism inform your activism?

I became a Quaker in 2001, and I have benefited from the contemplative practice of sitting in silence and listening. Being among people, many of whom are LGBTQ, who are committed to non-violence and equality has very much informed the way I approach my opponents. Many Quakers believe that each person inwardly contains a divine particle, "that of God within." Some may call this our higher selves or inner wisdom; it is that place inside each person that is loving and thoughtful and sensitive. So much activism on any side of an issue leads to a dehumanizing of the other. Being among Quaker activists, I have been challenged to seek out that divine particle in my opponent. Sometimes it is a scavenger hunt of sorts, but this keeps me from just trying to counter my opponents' arguments. Instead I try to experience a heart to heart connection. Quakers also have a long rich history of asking deep probing questions—queries. These days I find I like to leave my audiences with more questions than answers trusting that they will think deeply about the important issues that bring them to my shows.  

What were the origins of your piece Homo No Mo?

Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House—How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement, is a 90 minute comic exposé of my two years in a Christian residential 12-Step program designed to de-gay me. The performance initially served as therapy. I had so much trauma to work out, so many confusing experiences to try to understand. Using performance and comedy I began to wrap my head around why I spent nearly two decades hacking apart whole parts of myself. Back in 2002 I started writing a book about my experiences, but that direct approach was too hot for me to handle. I then tried monologue in my own voice as myself; that was terribly morbid. Finally, I decided to do a piece where I would play multiple characters and make it a comedy. I premiered the piece in Memphis in 2003. Through it I was able to be emotionally honest but also present it in a way that packed a punch without depressing every member of the audience. 

How does Jesus Have Two Daddies Continue this conversation?

Jesus Had Two Daddies, my latest one-person play, is very much a sequel to Homo No Mo. Unlike the first play with its eight characters and only a brief appearance by me in the end, Jesus Had Two Daddies has just two characters--the Reverend Dr. Meadows who cheekily unpacks Bible stories with humorous subversion, and me, playing myself. I explore my relationship with the Bible, this tyrant of a text, and the complicated faith life anti-gay readings of the Bible fostered. In addition to comic monologues and Meadow's Bible stories, I also recreate prayers from key moments in my life that reveal the sincerity and irrationality that propelled me to nearly destroy myself. People who have seen the play are surprised at how vulnerable I choose to be in it and how hilarious and disturbing the Bible can be.  

Why did you found Beyond Ex-Gay?

I co-founded Beyond Ex-Gay with fellow ex-gay survivor, Christine Bakke in 2007. While we appreciated the many efforts of activists and allies in their efforts to counter the lies of the Ex-Gay/Anti-Gay Movement, we felt that our voices needed to be heard in the public discourse. We also knew we needed the peer support that fellow survivors can offer. In August 2007 we organized the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference in Irvine, CA along with Soulforce, and helped bring together people from all over North America and beyond to share our stories with each other, connect, validate the harm we experienced, and talk about the diverse ways that we have pursued recovery. We also encouraged former ex-gay leaders to come forward to issue detailed and meaningful public apologies for the harm that they have caused. 

Now Beyond Ex-Gay has a vibrant on-line community that hosts regular chats and provides on-going peer support for survivors. We have put into the public discourse the phrase, "Ex-Gay Survivor," a term I coined. After being routinely called an "ex-ex-gay" in the media, I felt that a more descriptive term was needed. We have since seen ex-gay survivors sharing their stories through blogs, YouTube videos, books, documentary films, news stories, and in university classes. Perhaps most importantly we have shifted the focus of the public discourse. There was a time when people heard Ex-Gay and reacted, "Yeah I heard about that wacky stupid stuff." Now we find more and more people respond, "I hear that stuff is really dangerous and harmful." I believe this shift has in large part been due to the witness of ex-gay survivors and the vulnerable acts of sharing about the harm we experienced. This moves the discussion out of a political realm that pits opposing viewpoints against each other and instead into a sincere consideration about public health and safety, psychologically damaging treatments, and pastoral care. 

For my part these days I have little to do with activism around the Ex-Gay Movement in the US. To sustain my own health and well-being I have chosen to move onto other issues. When one suffers trauma, it is possible to stay stuck in that trauma and continually re-traumatize one's self in sharing it. There comes a time to move on. Since I speak Spanish, I raise some awareness in Spanish language forums about the harm of ex-gay treatments and the contentment and health that comes from living authentically and without shame. I have recorded my Homo No Mo play onto DVD (available at Quaker Books) so that the story can continue to be told, and I placed a number of YouTube videos up about my own story. Now I am free to move on and tell other stories and explore other experiences.  

Explain the genesis for the creation of Transfigurations. 

Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible is a one-person, multi-character, multi-gender play that explores the stories and lives of gender variant characters in the Bible. While I was touring my Homo No Mo play, I began to meet a wide diversity of people within LGBTQ communities including different types of transgender people of different ages and backgrounds. I was struck by both the similarities in my story with theirs and the many profound differences. I also witnessed oppression and derision of transgender people by lesbian and gay folks who were not transgender. This shocked me as I assumed I had entered a loving, progressive, rainbow collective of sorts only to discover the same oppressions from the wider world replicated. 

I also noticed how lots of gays and lesbians conflated gender with orientation. I would hear narratives like, "My nephew is a total sissy, so I know my sister will have problems when her little boy grows up to be gay." No doubt many of us gay guys were sissies before we came out as gay, but gender difference does not always mean someone is gay or lesbian. I heard people devise gay theology assuming fem-acting Bible characters, like the man with the pitcher of water doing a job reserved just for women and children, MUST be gay men. I countered, no, not necessarily, they may simply be gender variant or as Kate Bornstein puts it, "gender outlaws." So I took off my gay lenses and slipped on my gender lenses to discover who in the Bible transgresses and transcends gender. 

Who are some of the characters you out in this play?

Of course I look at eunuchs, who I do not view as modern equivalents to transgender women. Eunuchs are gender-variant sexual minorities well represented in both the Hebrew and Christian texts, but they did not typically choose this identity for themselves. I look at the two different stories of Ethiopian Eunuchs (yes there are two) as well as Hegai, the eunuch who helps a Jewish girl named Haddassah become Queen Esther. In addition to eunuchs, I look at characters like, "the man with the pitcher of water." I weave into that Gospel narrative a coming out story a trans* woman related to me, and speculate how the room Jesus sent the disciples to find came to be empty. I also look at Bible heroes like Deborah and Jacob and Joseph and reveal ways that they break the rules of gender outlined in their cultures, and how they rise above them. 

What resources did you draw upon for this piece?

My two primary sources were the transgender people I interviewed as I began the writing process and the Bible itself. I was trained at Nyack College how to study a text using the traditional tools of Biblical scholarship, including referring to original languages, but I also used non-conventional methods like Bibliodrama, in order to explore and study a text through theater. It's amazing the sort of things that pop out of a text once you stage it. 

What was your contribution to Gender Outlaws?

I was thrilled that Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman included a scene from Transfigurations in their anthology, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. I shared the scene of the "man with the pitcher of water." We entitled it, "Transgressing Gender in Passover."

Why did you serve as a producer for the doc This is What Love in Action Looks Like?  

Most of the times ex-gay survivors do not get to tell our stories for ourselves. Other people, often well meaning, do that for us, but as a result, the story changes, gets misshapen and misrepresented. When I heard that Morgan Jon Fox was going to take his footage from the historic 2005 summer protest of the Love in Action ex-gay facility and turn it into a documentary film, I wanted to be part of the project to make sure that the story of survivors was heard alongside of the narratives of gay activists. At key points in the filmmaking process I was able to weigh in and take part in the shaping of the story arch. I am very pleased with the outcome. 

Any other projects you'd like to mention? 

I feel the need to document my work and get it out to a larger audience, so soon I will begin production on a high quality DVD recording of Transfigurations. Also, I have begun writing a theological memoir of sorts mixing my own story with my off-beat versions of Bible stories. I am happy to have married a brilliant artist, Glen Retief, who recently won the Lambda Literary Award for gay non-fiction for his book, The Jack Bank, a Memoir of a South African Childhood (www.glenretief.com). As his partner, I promote the book and help him edit recent essays he has written about bullying. These days Glen and I are growing more and more concerned about climate change and the challenges and responsibilities we face today and in the future. Suddenly many other political issues seem like minor squabbles compared to the real possibility that by 2030 our world will be radically altered. The worse case scenarios are being confirmed as likely outcomes and swift actions by governments, communities and individuals need to happen immediately. No doubt these issues will take on a larger role in our lives and our work. 

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