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Making light of his dark material

17 August 2012

Symon Hill talks to the comedian and playwright Peterson Toscano, who mines his material from his failed 'ex-gay' therapy and exploration of the Bible

Scripture on stage: Peterson Toscano reframes biblical stories in his performances

Scripture on stage: Peterson Toscano reframes biblical stories in his performances

"I READ the Bible - but I don't have to, because I have so much of it memorised," Peterson Toscano says. "I know the Bible inside out." It is not what you might expect a gay comedian and playwright to say. But, whatever else he may be accused of, Toscano cannot be called predictable.

Being an openly gay Christian attracts controversy, but being a gay Christian who tours the world with performances about sexuality is bound to draw critical attention.

Born in Connecticut, and living in Philadelphia, Toscano is preparing for the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham this month. He will then tour the north of England, before performing in Belfast.

"It's so delightful to go to Greenbelt. It really is like Narnia for a gay Christian long oppressed in the Church," he says. He points out, however, that the most negative responses to his work have been from bloggers in the UK, who, he assumes, are conservative Christians, rather than from the Right in the United States.

He says that his British detractors are "savvier than the Americans, and they understand that what I'm doing is a real threat; whereas I think most anti-gay folks in the US see me as some silly comedian, and ignore it."

His critics accuse him of being deliberately provocative. One of the one-man plays he will be performing at Greenbelt, Transfigurations, is about "gender-non-conforming, and trans people in the Bible". The other is entitled Jesus Had Two Daddies.

He believes that theatre and stand-up comedy help audiences to hear messages that they would reject if they were presented in a straightforward lecture. He recently performed Transfigurations at the Eastern Mennonite University, a relatively conservative institution in  Virginia, which had never before hosted an openly gay speaker.

"It was very well received, with great questions, with realy curiosity", Peterson says. "The vast majority of responses have been positive, even from very conservative people."

IN THE past, his shows have satirised US politics. The include The Re-education of George W. Bush, and I Can See Sarah Palin from my Window! He has made his name with works on sexuality and gender, often based on personal experience. He speaks with underlying anger about how he spent 17 years, and more than $30,000, trying to become straight.

"I was a Christian, and I was gay, and I believed I would be more valuable to God and the world if I were heterosexual," he says. He set about "attempting to annihilate that gay part of me. And I did it with the aid of various ministries and programmes."

His experience of this sort of therapy formed the subject of one of his first plays, Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. It includes comedy and tragedy in equal measure. "I begged Jesus for almost two decades to take away my gayness, and the answer was a resounding 'No,'" he says. Eventually, he recognised that the therapy programmes were driving him to depression and despair. "By their fruits you shall know them," he says.

But this was no Damascene conversion. He did not joyfully embrace his sexuality - at least, not at first.

"I accepted I was gay, like someone would accept a diagnosis of cancer," he says. It took several more years for him to "renew" his mind. "For me, the enemy was inside me. And the great shift came when I realised that, no, the Kingdom of God was inside of me. I had Christ inside of me."

There is one word that keeps recurring in our conversation: integrity. Living with integrity was "the most important thing in my spiritual shift".

HE SAYS, bluntly: "The Church often rewards dishonesty around this issue." Gay and lesbian people have frequently been accepted in church if they outwardly deny their sexuality, he says. "There's a privilege that comes from being silent, and being dishonest."

How does he feel about the recent rise of "ex-gay" organisations in Britain? "It's not new,' he says. "It's actually been in the UK for a very long time, but it's been under the radar." It has become more visible now, he believes, partly because groups in the US are actively exporting it. "In America, we're very successful at promoting our exports," he says, wryly.

Given his experience, many have asked why Peterson did not simply give up on Christianity. "When I came out gay, I thought I couldn't be a Christian. But my faith is so strong, so significant a part of me." He found the Quakers, and fell in love with both the silent worship and the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.

"Sitting in silence - that's queer, that's odd," he says. He uses the word "queer" deliberately, as "shorthand for lots of people who are outside the mainstream".

Jesus Had Two Daddies is partly about Peterson's life in the "ex-gay" movement. He describes the piece as "a meditation on the Bible. I sacrifice an idol of biblical inerrancy on the altar of reason."

While he is keen to rebut notions of its infallibility, he seems as fascinated by the Bible as he was in his days as a conservative Evangelical. He regards it as "a mirror" in which we see ourselves and others. This, he believes, is why his shows about the Bible have an appeal beyond Christian audiences. "The Bible's so interesting because we recognise those archetypes. We recognise those people. . . It's almost like mime."

He emphasises that his motivation for performing is not to persuade people to read the Bible. Nevertheless, the comment he most often receives from audience members is: "I need to go home and read the Bible." 

HE IS particularly fascinated by the more obscure characters in scripture - the bit parts. "So often we'll see a description of a person and skip over them," he says. "I want us to slow down and consider the people in the text. What do we know about them, what about their bodies, their skin tone, their genitals?"

Genitals? Toscano has a reputation for picking out references to such physical features, and to transgenderism, and homosexuality. His critics accuse him of interpreting verses to suit his agenda.

"When it comes to gay theology, asking who might be gay or lesbian in the Bible, much of that is very speculative," he says. But he is adamant that the situation is different when it comes to people who do not conform to gender norms. "It's not speculative at all. There are loads of examples." He mentions Deborah, who goes to war in the book of Judges. She is "presented as female, but she's not like other females in the text".

Then there are the eunuchs: "There are possibly up to 45 references to eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible alone," Toscano says. "Eunuchs were sexual minorities in the ancient world. They were different from the men and women around them."

Another intriguing figure who fascinates him is the man mentioned in the Gospels as carrying water. Mark writes that, as Jesus prepared for the Passover, he told his disciples: "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you."

Toscano points out that, while this may not sound odd to us, carrying water was women's work in first-century Palestine. A man with water would stand out. When he performed in London three years ago, he compared the sight of a man carrying water to that of a man wearing high heels and carrying a handbag.

Transfigurations incorporates a fictional back story for the man in question. Some might be tempted to dismiss such imaginary leaps as fanciful, and this may be partly why Toscano is so delighted to be asked to perform his work at seminaries and theological colleges. "They're seeing it as scholarship," he says.

He gets animated as he says that he will soon be performing Transfigurations at the Society of Biblical Literature conference. "It's awesome. It's going to be peer-reviewed."

GREENBELT this year comes only weeks after a significant moment in Toscano's life. On 21 July - three days after our interview - he married his partner, Glen Retief, a South African whom he met at a Quaker conference.

They will have just had time for a honeymoon in the mountains before arriving in Cheltenham. "We're going to be hiking and reading: we've got [such a] wild gay lifestyle. We might go to a Quaker meeting and be quiet for a while."

No doubt he will find some time to prepare for his UK performances. He talks enthusiastically about the Ethiopian eunuch baptised by Philip in the Acts of the Apostles. One of the first people to be baptised was an outsider, in terms of gender identity as well as ethnicity. At Greenbelt, he says, "I'll also be talking about the other Ethiopian eunuch in the Bible."

I wrack my brains. "What other Ethiopian eunuch?"

"I'm not telling you," he replies.

Like those members of Toscano's audience, I think I ought to go back and read the Bible.

The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 24 to 27 August at Cheltenham Race Course.

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