By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
SAN FRANCISCO – Peterson Toscano spent seventeen years in a “Biblically-induced coma.” Toscano tried everything from a Jamaican exorcist to the “ex-gay” group Love in Action to try to “cure” him of his sexual orientation.
Now, as a proud, out, gay man, Toscano has taken the lessons he learned at what he calls the “Homonomo Halfway House” on the road to help heal the abuse done to participants in ex-gay programs.
Toscano said that he began seeking a cure for his orientation at the age of seventeen.
“I was a teenager, and got very clear messages from the world around me that it was not cool to be gay. In fact, it was dangerous to be gay,” said Toscano, who was discovering his sexuality just as the AIDS epidemic was becoming big news.
“I was told by church people, and of course health officials and the media, that being gay was a dangerous place – in this world and the next,” he said. “So that informed me at a very young age what I should be doing with my life – and that would be to change, as quickly as possible.”
But “after seventeen years and $30,000 of trying everything short of electroshock therapy and a lobotomy,” Peterson said he realized that the programs not only weren’t working, but that he had spent those years “really harming myself.”
Toscano says that teens in programs like Refuge, which is run by Love In Action, are “being sexually abused, in that they’re having somebody else’s sexuality imposed on them. And all of the shame, the self-doubt, the insecurities that come with that crash in on their lives.”
“And for me, at least, what happened was, it undermined my intellect, and my own will, so that I, filled with shame, I turned over my brain, basically, to these folks,” he added. “I lost seventeen years of my life trying to do the impossible and making my life miserable, and hurting a lot of people in the process.”
“Seeing the sort of despair and devastation that has happened in people’s lives because of this has been chilling and heartbreaking,” he said.
But then, helping heal that despair and devastation is what Peterson’s creation, “Doin’ Time in the Homonomo Halfway House,” is all about. During the one-man show, Peterson plays five different characters at the House, “a 12-Step Christian program that attempts to save men from the snares of homosexuality through bizarre rules, a masculine resuscitation regime and brain numbing reconditioning.”
“Since the show is a comedy, it’s disarming, and people are able to hear stuff” that they might otherwise be closed to hearing, he said. This humorous, non-confrontational approach may be the reason that Peterson has been able to take the program to audiences ranging from gay church groups to college campuses to members of the staff of the anti-gay group Focus on the Family.
“My mission is to reach over the aisle to the other side, and really connect with people and start dialog about these issues in a thoughtful, humorous way, so that we can dispel myths, as well as get into the real issues of what’s going on,” he said.
“One thing I hear over and over again is how shocked and pleased people are that I don’t attack anyone in my show,” he said. “And the piece is a very kind, loving piece – not that I’m letting anyone off the hook.”
In addition to helping survivors of the ex-gay movement, Toscano said that his other motivations in creating and performing the show are to raise awareness that the ex-gay movement exists – “that it is a dangerous, harmful movement” – and to encourage allies to speak out more fervently in support of queer rights.
“I have a direct call to [allies] to be more than just emotionally supportive, but to have a very key role in helping bring about queer rights and bringing forth our freedom,” he said.
Asked how he was able to create a loving, humorous show from such outrageous experiences, Toscano said that one reason is his ability to feel forgiveness. “The folks who run these programs often mean well. In fact, many of them are victims, themselves, of these programs,” he said. “And that helps – knowing that they don’t mean to do harm and if they really fully understood what they were doing, I genuinely believe they would repent and they would apologize and they would work to make it right.”