"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
I wrack my brains. "What other
"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.