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Peterson Toscano

Biography

Peterson Toscano, theatrical performer, Biblical scholar, author, and podcaster has delighted audiences throughout North America, Europe, and Africa with his advocacy for social justice concerns. His plays, lectures and writings humorously explore the serious topics of LGBTQ issues, sexism, racism, violence, gender, and climate change.  Toscano was born in 1965 in Stamford, Connecticut.  His family was Italian-American working class; his grandparents were immigrants.  The family was Roman Catholic and Peterson was baptized, confirmed and active in the local parish.  

The family had moved from the Bronx to Connecticut for a better life.  However, the industrial pollution there had negative effects on the health of Peterson and his sister.  So when he was about six years old, the family moved to the Catskills, about 100 miles north of New York City where his grandparents had recently moved.  The transition was difficult as his father was not able to find good employment and the family had to rebuild social connections.  After a few years, his parents purchased a local tavern to operate. Given his mother’s cooking prowess, the tavern gradually added food service.  So Peterson was raised in this family business environment and got experience waiting tables and honing his skills in client service.  

As a child, Peterson was both introverted and hyperactive.  He spent a lot of time alone reading or exploring the outdoors. At school he was the class clown and was often called out for his antics.  In high school Peterson thrived in the arts.  He performed in school plays, sang in the chorus and played tuba in the band.  He excelled at tuba playing in the New York State Lions Club band, performing with Tuba Christmas at the Rockefeller Center and touring Europe with the U.S. Collegiate Wind Band 

Peterson was a leader in his Catholic Youth Organization group.  For one of their programs, the group invited leaders from a small, nondenominational Bible church in the area to speak about their faith.  Peterson was deeply moved by the personalism exhibited in their faith, their heart-felt and forthright prayers.  He subsequently visited and then became a regular worshiper at this church.  At age 17, he decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church and embrace fundamentalist Christianity.      

He started college at Nyack College, affiliated with the Christian & Missionary Alliance, intending to become a missionary. Hungry for biblical knowledge, he took several Bible classes there.  After two semesters  of school, he left on a mission trip to Ecuador where he worked in a hospital and assisted with radio broadcasting for ten months.   He returned to the U.S. in 1985 and moved to New York City where he enrolled at City College to study theater.    

Peterson was aware from a young age that he was different sexually.  He was deeply conflicted by this aspect of himself which could not be talked about.  The onset of HIV/AIDS in his teen years exacerbated his conflict and deepened his fears.  His uncle, an IV drug user, died of AIDS and Peterson witnessed how horrible that was.  In response to this fear and his observation that white, straight men were models of status and power, Peterson desperately sought to suppress his same-sex feelings.  

Toscano graduated from City College in 1989 with a degree in English and a minor in theater.  During the ten years he lived in New York City, he worked in different Christian missions and in upscale food service. At the same time, he immersed himself in ex-gay ministries to shed his homosexuality.  He received pastoral counseling and conversion therapy.  He attended Life Ministries, an ex-gay program in New York City from 1983 to 1991.  He socialized with a network of ex-gay colleagues, many of whom were involved in theater and the arts.  He married a woman in 1990.  

In July 1996, Toscano moved into the residential ex-gay ministry Love in Action in Memphis, Tennessee, supposedly the Cadillac of ex-gay ministries.  Cut off from much of the world, living under harsh rules and grueling activities, Toscano found that the constrictions of the program actually felt comfortable. He was able to be fully open about his struggles for the first time in my life. He believed he would finally unearth the source of his wickedness and plant himself firmly on God’s path of holiness and wholeness. Even though he might never be free of same-sex desires, at least he could learn to control them.  He spent nearly two years in Love in Action, graduating successfully only to return a few months later for a “relapse program” for four more months. 

Toscano emerged from Love in Action determined to put into practice all he had learned, but, at the same time, thoroughly exhausted from the effort.  In late 1998, he woke up one morning, as if from a biblically-induced coma: “What was I doing? And why? Was it God who insisted I flee my same-sex desires? Or did I demand that God provide what the all-pervasive anti-gay world and church demanded of me? And why wasn’t it working?”  He suddenly realized that for 17 years he had earnestly sought change over and over and that the process was slowly driving him insane.

Thus began the process of stopping struggling and accepting himself as a gay man.  New problems emerged—accepting himself as gay caused a deep faith struggle.  “Now that I am gay, what do I do with Jesus? Surely he doesn’t want anything to do with a fag like me!”  He realized he could not separate his gay-side and his God-side, but had to embrace them both.  He began to do more study, more prayer and to connect with affirming Christian groups, which he found there in Memphis.  

In 2001, Toscano moved to Hartford, Connecticut to work in a high school and sought a faith community where he would be welcomed.  He visited different welcoming churches in the area.  A co-worker suggested he try the Society of Friends.  On the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, he visited the local Quaker meeting.  The service of silence was soothing for his soul.  As he learned more about the Friends’ history of peace-making and justice-seeking, he realized he had found a faith home here.

As part of his journey toward healing and wholeness, Toscano sought to draw on his gifts in performance arts and Biblical storytelling to raise public awareness about the harm that comes from seeking to suppress and change one’s sexuality and gender differences.  In February 2003, he premiered his satirical performance, “Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House” in Memphis.  In the ensuing years he performed this powerful yet funny drama about the dangers of conversion therapy at universities, conferences, LGBT clubs and religious groups throughout North America, Europe and South Africa, until he retired the play in February 2008.  

In June 2005, Toscano joined the Queer Action Coalition to protest the forced admission of a 16-year-old youth to Refuge, Love in Action’s youth residence.  The youth had posted his travails in social media and drawn widespread support and media coverage including an investigation by the state of Tennessee. In June 2007, Love in Action discontinued Refuge. In June 2008, Toscano returned to Memphis to serve as the grand marshal of the Mid-South Pride Parade. 

In April 2007, Toscano and another ex-ex-gay activist Christine Bakke formed Beyond Ex-Gay, an online support group for people who have left ex-gay ministries. Toscano also helped organize an Ex-Gay Survivor Conference in June 2007, in Irvine, California, where three former Exodus ex-gay leaders came forward to issue a public apology for their roles in promoting and providing conversion therapy.  In response to a Memphis-area ex-gay conference organized by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family in February 2008, Toscano along with Bakke and others organized a response called Deconstructing the Ex-Gay Myth—A Weekend of Art and Action

As Toscano was touring and performing his ex-gay-themed drama, he began developing sketches that highlighted gender non-conforming characters in the Bible.  He compiled these sketches into a performance lecture, “Transfigurations--Transgressing Gender in the Bible,” which premiered in November 2007.  In the years following, he traveled and performed it at universities, seminaries, churches, LGBTQ centers, and conferences throughout the U.S. and around the world.  In March 2017, Toscano released Transfigurations as a film, which played in LGBT film festivals in 2017 and 2018.  It was scheduled to be shown at the 2017 Queer Kampala International Film Festival. However, shortly before the screening, law enforcement agents raided the festival and closed it down. In response, Toscano offered the film for free online for a month and festival organizers arranged for a second showing in Kampala at an undisclosed location at a later time. The film is now available for free on YouTube.

As a long-time, active member of the Religious Society of Friends, Toscano has embraced a nonviolent approach in his performative art that seeks to expose injustice without attacking the perpetrators of this injustice.  His scholarly work on gender variance and the Bible has garnered much attention and praise from Bible scholars.  In addition to his theatrical presentations, Toscano’s Biblical interpretations have appeared in print in numerous publications, including the anthologies Gender Outlaws the Next Generation, and Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christian Memoirs.

Beginning in 2014, Toscano began shifting his work to spreading awareness about climate change and the need to act on that.  Toscano has written several presentations that focus on climate change, including: “Everything Is Connected;“ “Does This Apocalypse Make Me Look Fat?;” “A Queer Response To Climate Change;” “Climate Change: What's Faith Got To Do With It?;” and “There's Something Funny About Climate Change.” He has performed these works at various colleges and venues around North America and Europe. In an interview with NYU's Washington Square News, Toscano spoke about the role of comedy in taking on climate change and LGBTQ responses to this crisis. "With climate change, we're all on the same boat together, but we're not all on the same deck. We know people have different experiences of the world. I think it's also important from a queer family values perspective that we're affected by climate change differently than other people. LGBTQ seniors, who are often more isolated than other seniors, may not have people checking in on them during a heat wave or hurricane. LGBTQ homeless youth, who may not feel welcome at shelters, need somewhere to go during big storms. We need to make sure we will survive these storms and that our people have healthy, strong lives."

Altogether Toscano has written and performed twelve one-person comedies addressing LGBTQ issues and/or climate change. He is also the host of three different podcasts: Citizens’ Climate Radio; Bubble&Squeak, his own personal audio playground; and Quakers Today, the companion podcast to Friends Journal magazine. Toscano has appeared on several TV and radio programs, including the Be Real program on Logo TV, the Tyra Banks Show, the Montel Williams Show, Faith Under Fire, PBS In the Life, PRI To the Point, Connecticut Public Radio, BBC Radio, and BBC World Service Reporting Religion. In addition to print, television and radio, Toscano appears in various documentaries including the 2005 film Fish Can't Fly, which explores the conflict that many lesbians and gays have had with their Christian faith, and the 2008 Canadian documentary Cure for Love. He appears in and is associate producer for the 2011 film, This is What Love in Action Looks Like.

Peterson Toscano lives in Sunbury, Pennsylvania with his husband, the writer, Glen Retief

(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman with information from Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterson_Toscano, from https://www.petersontoscano.com/ and from an interview with Peterson Toscano and was edited by Toscano.)

Biography Date: January 2024

Additional Resources

Tags

Friends/Quakers | Artist/musician/poet | Conversion Therapy | Theology | Online activist

Citation

“Peterson Toscano | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/peterson-toscano.

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