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.)
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.”
Perhaps 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.