Posts Tagged ‘family’

Having lived in Memphis, TN for five years (two of those in the Love in Action–[LIA] gay 2 straight gulag) I know Memphians make up a vibrant LGBTQ community. Thanks to the folks at Integrity, Holy Trinity, the Gay and Lesbia n Community Center, BGALA at U of Memphis, and then the amazing Queer Action Coalition that led the 2005 summer protests of LIA, I know that my own identity, art and activism has been shaped. Memphis showed up and did an amazing job of art and activism in February 2008.

Some call Memphis the buckle of the Bible Belt.  The intersection (and collision) of faith and sexuality has resulted with folks saying it is the Bible Belt by day and the Garter Belt by night! Sadly lots of people feel the necessity to live in the closet in order to keep their jobs, homes, positions in churches, and even a place a the family table. Memphis has been the scene of some of the most extreme transphobic violence over the past two years. I have also heard from more than one teen who got kicked out of the house because they were too queer for the family.

Memphis has several LARGE churches as well as Christian colleges, parochial schools, private Christian schools and loads of youth groups where many lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gay and queer folks need to live under the radar in order to avoid rejection or worse.

How pleased I was to hear from my friend Micah that he and a friend of his will be doing a tour of the South to connect with LGBTQ people of faith in Christian communities. It is all part of the Sanctuary Collective fall tour which will take them to several cities including Memphis. Micah knows firsthand about the oppression and silencing of LGBTQ folks on Christian college campuses as he spent several weeks with other college-age folks a few years back visiting a variety of Christian campuses to engage in conversation with those communities around LGBTQ concerns. In some cases they found a welcoming place willing to dialog. In other cases they got arrested for stepping their queer feet on the Christian property.

This new initiative is quite different. It is designed to connect one-on-one and in small groups with LGBTQ folks in Christian community to provide support as people seek to live authentically. I am sure there are MANY people in the Memphis community who are quiet about their sexuality and gender identity, but who also want to connect with others in a safe and supportive way that affirms faith as well as LGBTQ identities.

Micah wants to connect with Memphians (or as I like to say Memphibians) and in fact needs your support. Some things he specificly asked me to communicate was the need for:

-a place to sleep
-good ideas for places to meet/work

Here are our goals for this trip:

-recruiting potential participants for our Discipleship Program
-hearing and documenting your stories to share with others on our website
-gathering financial support
-enrolling people to serve on our Support Team

If you are a person of faith who is also LGBTQ and want to connect with this grassroots project (and I strongly encourage you to do it–Micah is coolness on ice!) then do it! If you can help in any way, including just hanging out with Micah when he is in town, make your voice heard.  Please contact me via Facebook or else get to Micah directly through Sanctuary Collective web site. He should be pulling into town some time next week.

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Help My Sister Get Out of Jail

Seems another person in my tribe has gotten into trouble. My sister, Maria Toscano Forlenza is in jail right now in Monticello, NY. The good news is that we can bail her out and the money goes to a good cause–The Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Maria wrote me the other day,

I’m proud to tell you that I’m being locked up…that’s right, I’m going behind bars to help Jerry’s Kids and MDA. To be released on good behavior I have to raise bail and I need your help!

All you have to do is click here to make a secure, on-line donation.  Your donation will help families living in our community and help guarantee me an early release. I can’t wait to add you to my list of contributors.

She is in jail TODAY, so even a $5 donation will help her get out and more importantly, help the cause.

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Since first meeting her in spring of 2005, I have been impressed with the earnestness, intelligence, wit and thoughtfulness of Christine Bakke. For a time in her life she sincerely sought an ex-gay path in hopes of leaving the lesbian part of herself behind or at least to submerged that part through various religious-based ex-gay therapies. When she realized that such a route was not possible or healthy, she began the arduous work of reevaluating her life, deconstructing her beliefs, and educating herself about the Bible, sexuality and healthy living.

In responding to a book review Christine’s mother, Jeanette, posted on the PFOX ex-gay/anti-gay web-site, Christine reveals again the depth of compassion and wholeness that has been a hallmark of her own self-reflection and the public and private sharing she has done regarding her ex-gay experiences. Her blog entry is entitled Dreams of a Daughter.

Speaking out of a liberated mind, Christine writes:

I’ve come into my own after much struggle and I reject the notion that I am lost or broken or need to be restored. There is something really disturbing about this idea that I am fundamentally flawed and need salvation in order to be a “good girl” in this world. I already am good, whole, and the only thing I’ve ever needed restored to me was my sanity after the years in the ex-gay movement.

In responding to Jeanette’s words as quoted in a Glamour magazine article about Christine’s story as an ex-gay survivor, Christine writes about the  dreams she has carried for her family and how tragically the dreams we we hold out for ourselves and for our loved ones can get deferred.

Children have dreams for their parents, too. You don’t lay in your parent’s arms and think that you’ll have to defend yourself from them thinking you are lost and damned eternally. You don’t cuddle up and think that one day you’ll find out that they believe that who you are is synonymous with being a rapist. I certainly didn’t have those dreams for my parents. What I did dream instead was that I might be able to express my concerns and be heard. I dreamed that I would be always cherished and deemed worthy of their love and respect, no matter my beliefs. I dreamed that I would be supported in living a life that was truly authentic and truly mine, without the haunting thoughts about what a disappointment I am to them. Those dreams have had to die.

On their website, PFOX leaders state,

Each year thousands of men, women and teens with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave homosexuality. However, there are those who refuse to respect that decision. Consequently, formerly gay persons are reviled simply because they dare to exist! Without PFOX, ex-gays would have no voice in a hostile environment.

I cannot speak for the entire LGBT community, and although I feel it’s my responsibility to raise questions about it, I completely respect the decision of someone to pursue an ex-gay path. I can truly say that “some of my friends are ex-gay.” That said, I do believe people should have informed consent, something that I did not have when I began my own 17 year odyssey attempting to rid myself of all things gay.

In large part due to the influence of Christine Bakke in our early conversations about our ex-gay experiences, over at Beyond Ex-Gay (bXg) we have always included the following statement on our home page.

We believe that ex-gay experiences cause more harm than good. Certain people who currently identify as ex-gay say they are content as such. We don’t seek to invalidate their experience. For us such a lifestyle was not possible or healthy.

To the dismay of some and the surprise of others, at bXg we do not bash the ex-gay movement and especially ex-gays, the people struggling with their sexuality and with what they may feel are forces insisting they have to be a certain way. Through our site we simply choose to tell our stories and how the pursuit to eradicate the “queer” sides of us damaged us and our loved ones, including our parents.

I have often thought that PFOX, the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, should really be called The Disgruntled Parents of Unrepentant Gay and Lesbians. That may be harsh and not true of some of the parents genuinely looking for answers in light of much misinformation that they learned about gays and lesbians. Growing up in New York City in the 30’s and 40’s my parents only witnessed negative portrayals of gays and lesbians and worse yet horrendous treatment of anyone not straight and gender normative. Without the belief that one can be homosexual and still be whole, healthy and holy, some parents may think the best course would be for their child to change. Who wants to see their child suffer?

Yet without adequate education and information, parents can pressure their children into making choices that actually causes suffering to the child, the parents and the relationship with each other that they value so much.

Over at Beyond Ex-Gay we have two articles especially for parents.

In the battle over LGBT rights and the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and in ministry, often the casualties are the families, particularly when some family members act as if being gay or lesbian is the most important issue, the deal breaker. Sadly some desire to give their children a blessing but instead hand them a curse. My hope is that parents with questions will consider Christine’s words before they make demands that may very well lead to the breakdown of the family. There is a better way.

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postcard design by Christine Bakke

I will prepare all day for this evening’s performance of Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. In addition to the internal prep (running lines, envisioning each character, etc) I have external work to do. I need to iron all the costumes and scarves. I then need to work on a physical transformation–plucking eyebrows, shaving off all my hair from my face to my waist (a substantial job for this Italian-American), stretching out so that I am limber enough to do some of dance-like moves I need to do for a few of the characters, warming up my voice, and finally applying my make-up.

pre-show Transfigurations (Cape Town)

pre-show Transfigurations (Cape Town)

Playing multiple genders requires that I need to reshape my face as well as my body. Through make-up, I soften my eyes, make my eyebrows longer, and hollow out my cheeks. The goal is to create a gender mix in my look. As my main character states several times, Not male, not female, something in the middle or all together different.

One theme that runs through Transfigurations regards body type and the conflicts many of us experience over our bodies. We don’t always look on the outside how we perceive ourselves on the inside. The play serves in part as a meditation on the body and finding peace with it.

At one point my main character, speaking of the Last Supper and Jesus’ announcement that he is going away for a long time, quotes from the Gospel of Thomas.

We asked him, “When shall we see you and when will you appear before us?” Jesus said, “When you take off your clothes without being ashamed.”

For the character the line is like a spear in the heart and I make the character physically crumple a bit in the chest area.

But I have always been ashamed. I just thought that’s normal.

The world around us so often teaches us shame about our bodies–not thin enough, not enough muscle tone, too light, too dark, too tall, too short, just not right. But the images we so often see in the magazines have been worked over for hours through digital enhancement and outright removal of blemishes and “imperfections.”

Growing up a scrawny kid with asthma and then as the chubby kid living in a restaurant, I never felt at peace with my body. It seemed like it was always against me. When I entered college after a summer of thoughtful dieting and daily exercise, finally feeling like I weighed the right amount, I suddenly felt like a little Italian dwarf next to the giant WASPs towering over me.

My Mom

My Mom

Back in 2006 when my mom was sick and dying and continued to lose weight week after week, it seemed that for every pound she lost, I gained one. It was like I didn’t want her to fade away. Even after her death, I carried that extra 40+ pounds for a whole year, perhaps as a way to not yet let her go.

I recently saw a film that featured me and was shot during that time period. I saw my bulging stomach and my bloated face, and for once in my life I didn’t feel disgusted by an image of me looking overweight. It brought me back to my mother, to my love of her and her love for her children and how we as a family held her for as long as we could. The fat Peterson on the screen “transfigured” into my mother’s son and brought me in touch with the love I have for my mom. And looking up on that giant screen with my jiggling belly in my face, tapping into grief and love, I suddenly felt no shame.

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In the past few weeks I have performed a new presentation, Doin’ Time with Peterson Toscano. I get to do a little bit of everything–scenes from four different plays, storytelling, poems, and some stand-up comedy. Each performance has been a little different, tailored to the particular audience gathered. Last Friday when I did it for the Salmon Bay Friends Meeting (Quaker), I focused on both my spiritual journey and my coming out experience (including my time in the ex-gay movement). A few days earlier at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I looked more at queer issues in general (and did some bawdy bits including Marvin & Samson.)sadday

In all of these performances, I also do a monolog called A Homo No Mo Christmas, sort of Charlie Brown meets Graham Norton. I start the piece by talking about the first Homo No Mo Thanksgiving. I entered the Love in Action ex-gay residential program in July of 1996 with a group of five other guys. By November I was still stuck in Phase One, what I consider the lock down phase, when we had virtually no privileges. In Phase One you could not leave the residence alone except to go to work (and you must go their directly and directly back to the facility right after work.) We had limited access to the outside world–no TV, no Internet, no movies (except the weekly approved video.) We could not visit our families, and they could not visit us except during the sanctioned Family and Friends Weekend, we had only limited access to family on the phone, and the staff forbade us from being in touch with gay-affirming family and friends.

Since I still floundered in Phase One when Thanksgiving rolled around, I, like most of the other guys who entered with me, had to endure the four day holiday weekend alone in the program without even the programming to distract us. Thanksgiving dinner came and went too quickly. By the time we had cleaned up the dishes, the despair set in and settled on me and the others then enveloped us over the next three days.

In the frenetic pace and drama of daily program life, we had plenty to keep us preoccupied from reality. The program with its many rules and rigorous schedule kept us from the horror of what our lives had become. In our drive to conform to society’s norms, we turned to Love in Action for help. There they told us that we were addicts, dishonest and broken people who could not be trusted on our own. The shame rose to a toxic level resulting in depression, attempted suicide and even psychotic breaks. Several participants started a regime of anti-depressants after they began their stint in Love in Action. One guy attempted to take himself out of the program (and life) through an overdose of pain killers. Another one had to be carried out in a strait jacket leading to the morbid joke, “One way or another you will leave this place in a ‘Straight’ jacket.”

happy_thanksgiving-797989Perhaps the program leaders–John Smid, Mike Haley, Jay Stone–thought that those four days of isolation and emptiness gave us a chance to reflect on our lives so that we would resolve to be better Christians (ie less gay Christians and more heteronormative gender conformists). For me what it did was deepen my sense of shame and unworthiness. It reminded me that in the world I lived in, the Evangelical, Conservative, anti-gay world, I had to play by their rules. If I didn’t, they would punish me (kick me out of church, deny me the opportunity to serve as a missionary, etc.)

If I did play by their rules, it most likely meant a life of isolation. I knew that I could not successfully navigate a heterosexual marriage (that experiment failed miserably and hurt far too many people). No,iIf I continued to be ex-gay, it meant a life isolated from love and deep relationships. Sure I could have friends but with all sorts of walls and conditions around them.

First they hey had to be straight male friends and not be gay-affirming. John Smid, the director of LIA at the time,  warned us about dwelling in what he termed ‘The Ex-Gay Ghetto.’ This consisted of having only friends who were former homosexuals thus leading us to still identify as “gay” in a backwards sort of way. He discouraged us from having ex-gay roommates once we left the program. He said it led to “dry sex,” a partnership of sorts with all components of a marriage without the sex.

But even with straight male friends, we had to be on guard, setting up barriers around ourselves least we become emotionally dependent or fall in love. We had to tough it up, be content with straight church friends who accepted us on the condition that we boxed up the gay side of us. Then we would watch them one by one date, marry and start a family.

No wonder most people leave the ex-gay movement. It’s cruel and unusual punishment. It doesn’t work (you can’t really transform into an actual heterosexual, something that John Smid told us during our first week of orientation). It is unnecessary, and the process damages people resulting in needless heartache, depression, confusion, self-hatred and bitterness–not exactly what I signed up for when they promised me an abundant life in Jesus. No instead I experienced an ever expanding death. My personality, my creativity, my mental health and well-being, my hope all died by inches day after day in treatment.

I often use comedy when I talk and write about my experiences. It helps me to get at the insanity and the pain of what happened to me–what I did to myself and let others do to me. Comedy helps unearth some of the madness, but that does not make it a laughing matter. That Homo No Mo Thanksgiving turned into a nightmare quickly, one that continued and grew for many months. Program leaders and Christian ministers who promote and provide conversion therapy (by whatever name they call it) have a responsibility to listen to what others say these treatments did to us. It is not enough to tune into the glowing testimonies of the handful of people who say they are content and well-adjusted as an ex-gay. Eventually most of these also come to their senses and realize that an ex-gay life doesn’t work and causes harm.

More importantly many of us who emerged from the ex-gay movement and have accepted ourselves, gay and all, and have worked to undo the damage inflicted upon us live wonderful lives, not at all like the program leaders and Christian ministers warned us about. It’s great to be out. Not always easy, especially if you have family who rejects you unless you conform, but the integrity of living an open life as a transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer person opens the door to health and wholeness.

Today I will share Thanksgiving Dinner with my sister Maria, her husband, our dad and with Glen, the man I have begun dating. My sister said to me not too long ago that since I have come out, I am a different person, more solid, more present, more peaceful, more me. Today I feel grateful that my mind and body are no longer trapped in the Homo No Mo Halfway House.

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