When über-pastor Ted Haggard was outed last fall by a male escort, it should have spelled the death of the ex-gay movement for good—after all, if someone so devout and so committed to conservative Christianity couldn't pray his way out of being gay, what hope was there for all the regular poor souls who'd been convinced they were evil because of their sexual orientation? The futility of the whole exercise isn't news to the people who've gone through "ex-gay" therapy—including comedian/author/performance artist Peterson Toscano, who spent most of his adult life trying unsuccessfully to de-gay himself.
For 17 years, Toscano identified as a "born-again, conservative, evangelical, Republican Christian," at odds with his orientation. He now travels the country to educate people on the dangers of ex-gay programs, and how he was finally able to reconcile his faith (now as a Quaker) with his identity.
MERCURY: How did your drastic transition come about?
PETER TOSCANO: At age 17, I became a born-again Christian. What happened immediately wasn't just a religious conversion, but a cultural conversion. Looking back, I see that my faith didn't just change, but my political beliefs, my style of dress, how I talked, my activities. So I became a very staunch Christian, which meant I had to be anti-gay, anti-abortion—particularly then, during the Reagan years with the Moral Majority. When Pat Robertson ran for president I was like, "Yes! We're going to have a man of God in the White House!" I was all for it. That became my identity, particularly because I saw in my own life what I thought were the dangers of sin and immorality, because of my own struggles with same-sex attraction. I was living in New York City at this time, living as an ex-gay, trying not to engage in any gay activities or thoughts or fantasies. And going to support groups, talking with pastors, having whatever religious experience I could to fix this thing in me, and it became my life quest.
Did it ever feel like a battle you could win?
Yes—sort of like a drug addict going to the next level. At first I was just a fundamentalist Christian, and then I got connected with evangelical fundamentalist Christians—just a little bit different—and they were talking about grace and the love of God... and I thought, "That's going to help me." When I still struggled, that's when I got involved with Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, with the speaking in tongues, people falling down in the spirit, and I thought, "Yes, that's what I'm missing—the power of God to drive out this evil in me." And then I got hooked up with exorcisms and deliverance ministries that tried to cast out the evil spirits in me. When that still didn't work, that's when I realized I needed professionals, and that's when I got involved in the ex-gay movement.
The ex-gay movement was still fairly new then, wasn't it?
Yeah, but it already had a national presence. There was an ex-gay program in New York City that was well attended—every Saturday night you could have up to 70 people, most of whom were former actors. I got to the place where I finally thought I had this sorted out. I was celibate for two years—to me, it was the most freedom I ever had. Looking back, I see that my mind was riddled with fantasies of men, and I was constantly nearly picking up or being picked up by someone on the subway, but it was so much better than it used to be that it seemed like I was free. So much so that I got married, in 1990, to a woman at my church.
We went off to Africa, to Zambia, to be missionaries. Then my entire world fell apart. If you push something down that's real, it's going to pop out. And sure enough, I got involved in inappropriate activities—to say the least—when I was in Africa, and was exposed [as a gay man]. I had my fall from grace, which was maybe not as dramatic as Ted Haggard, but in one day I lost my wife, my job, my best friends, and my church. They said, "We give up on you. You're a phony."
In a way they were right; in a way they were wrong. I was definitely sincere in trying, but I was trying to do the wrong thing. It was at that point that I moved to England for a few months and got some more ex-gay therapy there, and then enrolled in Love in Action in Memphis, Tennessee. I lived in that program for nearly two years, at $1,000 a month. I stayed there and worked during the day, and at night and on weekends had intensive therapy, a lot of it based around the 12-Step Program, seeing homosexuality as an addiction. And there was some gender readjustment.
Like playing football?
Exactly. We had a football clinic. Changing your oil and stuff like that. I graduated from the program, and tried to live on the outside, to see if it worked—and it didn't. One day I woke up exhausted from it all. It was like I woke up out of a coma, and for the first time in years, I was thinking with my own mind. I asked myself the critical question, "What the hell are you doing? This is crazy. You're destroying yourself. It's not working." I realized I was in a coma all those years—a Biblically induced, culturally Christian coma.
What's your view of the ex-gay movement as a whole?
There's this national machine that's completely tied to Focus on the Family, and the Bush administration. They are using the ex-gay movement to stand up against marriage equality and hate crime legislation. To be used as a pawn in this machine needs to be opposed vigorously, because it's one thing if you want to change, if you're unhappy—that's fine. But don't push that on everyone else and then use it as a political tool to deny people rights.
The most sinister of all, is that in the last 10 years, on the initiative of Focus on the Family and ex-gay program Exodus, they are intentionally targeting young people. They're targeting terrified parents, and having regional conferences for parents and youth workers on how to sort out queer youth: "You can save your children from the tentacles of homosexuality."
Peterson Toscano performs Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House at the Metropolitan Community Church (gay-friendly), 2400 NE Broadway, on Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 pm. On Sunday, January 28, he brings a show called Queer 101 to Darcelle XV, 208 NW 3rd, at 7 pm, $10.