Category: Personal

My Faith Odyssey–Oh the Places You Will Go!

My religious trajectory began in the Roman Catholic Church and landed me in many of the Christian religious movements of the past 30 years.

At age 17 I left Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lake Huntington, NY with its tinny sounding organ and hymns sung in impossible keys through the noses of old ladies, and I began to attend Gospel Tabernacle, a fundamentalist Bible Church in Honesdale, PA. This church encouraged their youth to attend Word of Life Bible Institute and Bob Jones University (Also known as BJU). After I graduated from high school, I opted for what my pastor considered a liberal institution, Nyack College, a Christian and Missionary Alliance school. While there I attended an independent Evangelical church in nearby New Jersey. They talked about grace and provided gourmet coffee in the Fellowship Hall after service.

Following a stint with the Evangelical mission HCJB in Quito, Ecuador, I moved to New York City where with hands raised and feet stomping I jumped into Glory Tabernacle, a non-denominational Charismatic church that put the happy into the clappy. We railed against principalities and powers, and in ancient pagan fashion regularly drove out evil entities ensconced in every corner of the city. (And to the god of the North, I bind you and in the mighty name of Jesus I command you to depart with your evil minions!)

Right before this Holy Ghost-filled church fell apart because of a sexual scandal between the young charming pastor and his children’s nanny (a result of The Enemy attacking The Man of God, who apparently failed to build a strong enough hedge of protection around himself or else inadvertently opened a door to demonic oppression or quite possibly both), I moved onto Times Square Church. With services held in one of Broadway’s premiere theaters I sang in their rocking Gospel choir and sat under their teaching, seasoned in a Pentecostal/Holiness tradition with a prophetic punch brought on by senior pastor David Wilkerson (He regularly warned us that North America would fall because of homosexuals who would then roam in homosexual gangs. Apparently it is part of our agenda)

Through my connections with people in the Manhattan-based L.I.F.E. Ministries ex-gay program (and unemployed Broadway actor support group), I also occasionally attended Household of Faith Ministries (now Christian Cultural Center) a word of faith non-denominational church in Brooklyn that adhered to the teachings of Kenneth Copeland, Marilyn Hickey, and Kenneth Haggin. Oh the things I claimed in faith!

Through Times Square Church I became acquainted with a small house church in Yonkers, NY called the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. Without a pastor or Sunday program, the congregants of this small assembly needed to produce the ministry themselves, which included prophecies, spontaneous original songs, dancing in the Spirit and Bible lessons.

From there I moved to the UK and Zambia where I mostly attended non-denominational charismatic churches. After my world fell apart in Zambia, I attended a small charismatic church in England that bought into the Toronto Blessing with full-blown laughing in the spirit. At one Toronto Blessing-inspired conference I endured, “God” tried to minister to me through animal noises and grunts. All very entertaining (and terrifying) but I struggled to grasp what “God” was trying to tell me. During that time in England I also attended Wednesday communion services at the local Anglican parish.

When I returned to the States to attend the Love in Action ex-gay residential treatment facility in Memphis, TN, the program leaders forced us to attend Central Church, an Evangelical mega church with a mega choir and a theater-like atmosphere that dazzled us week after week in a giant round building resembling an abandoned space ship. As a struggling ex-gay, I attended the Men’s Sunday School class and Promise Keepers while avoiding the many rest rooms. We learned by experience about the a reputation for spontaneous gay sex during the service. Those crazy straight Evangelicals and their toilets!

When I could elect to go to a church of my choosing, I attended an Episcopal church led by a husband/wife ministry team that taught conservative theology with a sprinkling of Charismatic hands-on ministry and a failed attempt at the ALPHA Course (which I guess one could term as a success of sorts.)

When I came out as gay, I attended the monthly meetings of Integrity, a gay Episcopal group in downtown Memphis and latter became an officer in that group. On Sunday evenings I walked a half-block to a campus Episcopal church led by Samson, a Kenyan pastor who created a community feel to our services and organized gorgeous pot-luck dinners afterwards.

In 2001 I moved to Hartford, CT and soon after 911 I entered a Quaker meeting house and have been a Quaker ever since. So far I have found a home of sorts among “Friends” as we call each other. Quakers are big time pacifists. I have discovered that Quakers don’t get violent, just passive aggressive. My favorite part has to be all the quiet we practice during our weekly meetings (and I have to say, for me it requires practice.)

In an upcoming post I write how some of my current Quaker experiences mirror some of my earliest Roman Catholic ones.

What about you? What does your faith odyssey look like?

I Blame David Lynch

When I sleep, I have cinematic dreams. They can be sweeping epics, romantic comedies, sci-fi flicks or even sitcoms. Often I find them entertaining, rarely scary, occasionally erotic, and typically not helpful in understanding my inner world.

This morning I awoke to a dream that must have been intended for someone else. In it a Cortney Cox looking character comforts a Jennifer Aniston looking character. I think there was a man involved in “Jennifer’s” distress, but I lost this detail as “Cortney” crawled into the front seat of a car with “Jennifer.” They were gently lit as it was nighttime. I mostly saw their faces in a warm glow. They leaned up against each other cheek to cheek. “Jennifer” wept softly as “Cortney” wiped away tears. And BAM! The next thing you know they are making out.

I awoke and cursed filmmaker David Lynch.

I know this has something to do with Mulholland Drive, his 2001 bizarre mystery thriller replete with gorgeous lesbian lovemaking scenes. Some years ago I sat through three quarters of the DVD when the player encountered a problem with the disc. Up to this point I sat confused by the unravelling plot and the random appearance of a man in a gorilla suit. I had to know how it ended, if nothing else than for my personal sanity. I tried to skip the damaged section by jumping a chapter, but turns out Lynch did not put any chapter breaks in the DVD. He wants you to watch the whole thing through. Ugh!

Holding onto to the fagments (um fragments) of the story that made some sense, I dashed to the DVD rental place around the corner and asked for a replacement to the damaged DVD. I ran home then I fast forwarded through the entire film until I got to the spot where I had to stop on the first DVD. I watched the rest of the movie, and as the credits rolled I cursed David Lynch for making such a beautiful and enigmatic film.

I have since decided that the Mulholland Drive serves as an elaborate joke that Lynch played on the rest of us for his personal satisfaction. Sometime in the near future he will stumble upon my blog post (I feel certain he does a Google vanity search at least thrice daily) and laugh and laugh.

So then I have this dream, a dream that must have been designed for Christine Bakke, or Mila or Jayna or Carcker Lilo or some lesbian or bisexual woman in the world (or hetero guy who gets off on watching two women which I find kinda weird). Joe G will most likely chalk it up to multiple personalities asserting themselves in my sleep. Conservative Aglicans will asset this proves to their previous diagnosis of schizophrenia.

But I blame David Lynch, and you should too.

Meaning

Recently in Frostburg, MD on an excursion to Mainstreet Books, one of the finest independent bookstores I’ve been to for some time, a poet who accompanied me slipped a copy of The Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy, a new translation by Aliki Barnstone (read review here).

Cavafy, the 20th Century Greek writer, who lived unashamedly with his gay side (well openly for the most part), always drew me since I read his poem Ithaka for a college course on Odysseus. (Hear it read in English by Sean Connery or in the original Greek from the movie about Cavafy.)

Reading this new fresh translation, I had to buy the book.

This poem tells my story in a way that has eluded me for over a decade. (try reading it aloud)

Meaning
by C.P. Cavafy

The years of my youth, my sensual life–
how clearly I see their meaning now.

What needless repentances, how futile…

But I didn’t see the meaning then.

Out of the dissolute life of my youth
my poetry’s aims grew.
my art’s realm was drawn.

That is why the repentances were never steadfast.
And my resolutions to hold back, to change,
lasted two weeks at the most.

You can read more Cavafy poems in English and Greek here.

Memphis Pride

I flew into Memphis on Tuesday night, my third visit to this Mid-South city since February when Christine Bakke and I along with several other ex-gay survivors came to town to work with local LGBT folks in organizing Deconstructing the Ex-Gay Myth–A Weekend of Action & Art. Last night I performed my play The Re-Education of George W. Bush–No President Left Behind! making it the fourth play I have presented here in 2008. (I guess I need to write a new play before I return :-p )

10 years ago I lived in Memphis. I had gradutated Love in Action, a Memphis-based residential program designed to straighten folks out, in March of 1998, but I returned to the program around this time after a “relapse”. (I think I was the first person to actually graduate then return for more treatment. Usually graduates only come back to work as staff, which in itself is a form of on-going treatment). I spent the rest of the summer of ’98 up through October going through the five phases of the program once again.

Those days still hold dark memories for me. I think about the desperation and the fear that hung over me. After 17 years of seeking God with all my heart, of surrendering, of submitting to various teachings, programs, ex-gay leaders, church leaders, of praying, fasting, memorizing the scripture, worshipping Jesus, bonding with straight male mentors, digging up the roots to my homosexuality, making amends, binding the strong man, tapping into my masculine side, creating a mythology about my past that fit in with the ex-gay developmental model, of doing, hoping, longing, believing, I had experienced no shift whatsoever in regards to my same-sex attractions (a promise dangled before me for years). Worse yet, the more I sought to contain, crucify, hand over, stuff down, manage, and die daily to my same-sex desires, the stronger they propelled me and the deeper I felt depressed, confused, hopeless and ashamed.

10 years ago I sat perched on the rubble of years of believing God and bullying God for “victory over homosexuality.” That I still remained “bound” meant that I had done something wrong. Ex-gay leaders, Christian counselors and uninformed pastors did a disservice to me when constantly put the blame back on me. I failed to turn myself around because:

  • I wasn’t trying hard enough.
  • I was trying too hard.
  • I didn’t want it badly enough.
  • I wanted it too much.
  • I hadn’t yet discovered the root to my problems
  • I needed to find a different treatment plan.
  • I needed to pray more, read more, do more, more, more!
  • I had not yet repented from the heart.
  • I was not willing to resist until death.

In fact, not too long ago in a Conservative Christian anti-gay radio program, a pastor from Central Church, who I knew from my Love in Action days, brought up the need to suffer even until death in our fight against sin in our lives and specifically in regards to gay attraction.

About 10 years ago I finally came to my senses when I realized that change was not possible, change was not necessary, this “change” was destroying me. Instead I took the advice of Love in Action director, John Smid, who instructed us that if something was not working, try something new. He also regularly reminded us that a definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. For years I tried to sort out my gay side, to rid myself of it or at least control it, but that only bore negative fruit–the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit. A little less than 10 years ago I decided to try something new, to accept the reality that I am a man who finds other men romantically and sexually attractive. I didn’t feel happy at the time about this acceptance, but I needed to face reality, or the fantasy world I lived in would destroy me.

10 years later I enjoy the fruit of the Holy Spirit in a way I always dreamed of–charitas, gaudium, pax, longanimitas, benignitas, bonitus, fides, mansuetudo and continentia. This year’s Pride celebration in Memphis means a lot to me. Over the past 10 years I have reclaimed my life, recovered from much of the ex-gay harm I experienced and grown into health.

Mid-South Pride, the organizers of this year’s festivities, invited me to be the Grand Marshall of the Memphis Pride parade. I would have declined the invitation in any other city (not that others are asking 🙂 but I feel good and yes proud to celebrate Pride here in Memphis even if I will feel a little silly in a car waving to folks along the parade route. This year I celebrate my liberation from 17 years of ex-gay madness and my deliverance from fautly theories and oppressive practices. I celebrate the freedom that I have to be myself, to live in integrity, to embrace a healthy lifestyle based in reality.

Happy Pride!

Almost Home and Apparently Schizophrenic

I fly out of London tomorrow morning heading for NYC and then taking the bus up to Hartford. Phew. I have been away for a little more than a month, but it feels much longer. This trip has taken me to England, Wales, back to England, Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Spain, back to Catalonia, then back to England. I got to see LOADS of Auntie Doris (smooches) and even got little trips in to see Contemplative Activist, John Henson, and my dear friends Jo and Ali in Wakefield. Today I traveled down to Southampton for lunch with Candy, the mother of Esther, my lovely host in Reading and a fellow Quaker.

I had a lovely dinner over at the home Nalini’s and her partner Robert, Esther’s good friends. Had a GREAT show in Reading last night with a large enthusiastic crowd. (I did wind them up a little by promising that they had the power to make me do crazy things on stage just by their laughter and applause and if they played their cards right, I would become their very own performing monkey, which is sorta what happens during Vlad’s dance).

Barcelona with our conference about Reparative Therapy was a HUGE success. We had over 100 people come to the event, people who represented a diverse swath of the population. We also had loads of press coverage with lots of TV interviews and such. I will write more and put up photos and videos in the next week.

Northern Ireland was also a real treat as I got to know the folks in the Icon Community as well as got to travel to Newcastle, Northern Ireland and stay with the sweetest family ever (and even got to practice my Spanish with a three year old)

All around an excellent trip, and I will write more and share more about it in the coming days. I return to Europe next month with a trip to Malta and then some presentations during the Lambeth Conference. My upcoming visit is getting some people chatting including this blog where one commenter unearthed the secret to my theatrical success–schizophrenia!

I am THRILLED to announce that next weekend my dad, Pete Toscano, and I will travel to Chicago to be part of Soulforce’s American Family Outing which will take place this time at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. After hearing some about my father and seeing him recently on TV and in film talking about being the parent of someone who has survived the ex-gay movement, they asked if my dad would be willing to come with me to the event. He said yes, so off we go to this VERY large church. You can read more about the outing here.

Soulforce does organizes these outings in hopes of generating a conversation about LGBT issues among different types of families. I know my dad will be a wonderful addition to the team (and will very likely come up with some very original one-liners.) If you would like to contribute to getting my day and me to this event, visit the donation page and in the comments say that your gift is to go towards getting two wacky Toscanos to a mega church.

Must head off to bed for an early drive to Heathrow. Oh, but before I do, have you yet ordered your Homo No Mo Halfway House DVD???

Jesus in the Backseat (a poem)

For the past few days I´ve been thinking about a funny moment in my childhood that I am trying to capture in words. In my poem I reference Necco wafers. This particular candy we ate a lot when we were little. According to Necco´s website, Necco Assorted Wafers come in

eight pastel colors and flavors–Chocolate, lemon, lime, orange, clove, wintergreen, cinnamon, licorice

I never actually knew what the falvors were until today. You can learn more here.

Now that you know a little about Necco Wafers, I can share my poem.

Jesus in the Backseat

The noxious incense from her cigarette,
Mixed with the sweet smoky puffs from his pipe,
Envelops us inside the
Airtight car.

We return from pilgrimage,
From the
Hawaiian Fountain,
Where we celebrated mass
Consumption around the flaming
Pu Pu Platter.

We three kids
Sit in the backseat,
Cautiously placing Necco Wafers
On each other´s tongue,
As one intones–
The body of Christ.
The body of Christ.

We feel the chalky disc dissolve.

With our tongues extended,
Cradling the candied Christ,
We stammer back,
Amen.
Amen.

The Unspoken Weights

The past 24 hours I have felt like crap. Not physically but emotionally, well in a vague undefined way. Typically I hone in pretty quickly on what bothers me on the inside, but sometimes I remain unaware only feeling a somewhat distant muffled malaise.

My mother always sensed when something troubled me. Even hundreds of miles away on the phone she knew something was not right with me. Often she picked up on the chronic melancholy stemming from my ex-gay struggles that I often kept to myself (and even hid from myself). Typically I attempted a cheery front that she dented with her question, “Are you sure everything is alright?” I don’t remember a time when she got it wrong.

Here in beautiful Oxford, England with perfect spring weather, quaint cafes, and a lovely place to stay in the Friends Meeting House my unease has grown and finally has become obvious to me. Bottom line—I miss my mom. Although the English did not celebrate Mother’s Day yesterday, from the spam alone cramming my inbox, I could not avoid the US holiday (sponsored and promoted no doubt by Hallmark, etc).

In the midst of the beauty and the love of dear friends here, I feel the persistent ache that my mom referenced when she spoke of her own mother who she lost at a young age. You will never stop missing your mother.

Like a discontent, moody lion with a thorn festering in his paw, I have felt a steady, growing, dull pain pulling me down. It has muddled my mind and sensitized me to sounds and petty annoyances. Now I have pulled back the curtain (aided by e-mails from Christine, Deanna and Morgan) and can access the pain, express it, live in this moment. Discerning the origin of my angst helps to address it. And in feeling afresh the loss of my mother, I draw near to her memory and her love.

Doin’ Time in London

I spent an excellent day in London today with Auntie Doris, who is sitting next to me right now debating right now if she should blog. I was booked to present at the Courage meeting in the evening, and I also had an interview for BBC radio Ulster (Northern Ireland and will air on Sunday May 18). Auntie witnessed me as I moved through various degrees of personal energy conservation and distribution.

I forced Auntie Doris into a vegan restaurant, a lovely Thai/Chinese vegan buffet with excellent fresh food. YUM! We walked around a bit and landed in a Starbucks (mainly because of the large plush chairs). After my soy latte, I fell fast asleep. We wandered some more and landed in Convent Gardens then the National Portrait Gallery. The whole time I kept my energy to myself, conserving as I knew I needed to have a reserve for later in the day.

As we got closer to 5 pm for the BBC interview, I began to awake and animate. Being a medium to low energy person, I have to build up the energy levels for an interview or else I sound too serious and heady. The interviewer, William Crawley, asked interesting questions and even stumped me with one about George W. Bush and what I would say to him if I had five minutes alone. The problem is that my Bush play is ultimately not about Bush, but much more for progressive liberals who bitch and moan about Bush but not much more than that.

We then tottled off to a pub for a quick drink then to the Courage meeting, where after the meal, I did a bunch of stuff that I am too tired to write about coherently. I was pleased with the turnout and the response and believe I made some of the right choices. I subversively set up the room in Quaker fashion in a circle, and then made a big plug for the Religious Society of Friends. Hey, why not? Quakers have been awesome to me, and I have found Friends Meetings to be healthy and affirming places for me.

Okay, to bed with me. Off to Oxford tomorrow.

Happy Birthday Blog

Today Christine Bakke pointed out to me that my blog will turn four years old this month (May 25th to be exact when I posted my first entry as a virgin blogger.) I originally only planned on posting poetry, but turned to prose at some point.

To commemorate the upcoming birthday, I will post a poem, a love poem at that. (But that is all you get–love poems are intimate affairs).

Kisses,
Not stolen,
Freely given—freely received,
Stored in bulk,
Easily accessible day and night.

Uncovered,
the smooth glass jar,
(Larger than our two heads lying on the same pillow as we speak truth with our eyes,)
Contains our love.

Take what you need, what you want,
Whenever,
Day or night.

Take a pinch or a heaping scoopful.
Take,
Eat,
Drink.

You cannot steal what is already yours.

Also to celebrate I want to share the following poem, A Joyful Occasion by Seth. Seth is a trans man with a Mormon background. Of the poem Seth says,

This is a stychomythic poem where two poems are read independently and then together by alternating lines. There is no video, because I didn’t want to distract from the poem itself.

In poem Seth states,”I almost lost myself endeavoring for a life that did not fit for me.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgbXR0ZURqg&hl=en]

hat tip to Jayna.

Doin’ Time in my Hometown

Although I was born in Stamford, CT, our family moved to the Sullivan County Catskills when I was in first grade. I attended Narrowsburg Central Rural School, which educated about 300 students at a time from grades K-12. I graduated in 1983 with one of the LARGEST classes in Narrowsburg history with a whopping 36 people. I can’t tell you how special it felt (and at times constraining) to have virtually all of the same classmates throughout primary, middle and high school.

Last night I performed Homo No Mo to a very interesting audience of mostly straight people with the average age about 60. Not my typical demographic. Although they did not laugh as loud or often as most of my audiences, I could tell they listened deeply. Some of you who perform may understand how you can sense how an audience responds even when they remain quiet. I knew I did not have to rush, and indeed when I got to the scene where Chad has his breakdown over the loss of his brother, I heard sobbing in the theater.

Tonight we expect a packed house! The title The Re-Education of George W. Bush—No President Left Behind! sells the show and has brought me a whole new range of audience members who I have not previously seen at my “gay” shows.

A reporter from the local weekly paper, The Sullivan County Democrat interviewed me a few weeks ago at the Narrowsburg Roasters cafe. He took some photos including some of my dad reading and one of me talking (not a rare shot :-p). Ted Waddell’s piece should come out next week.

One of the other local weeklies, The River Reporter, did a short piece about me and my two plays. One man, one stage and a bevy of personalities. The interview felt like one of those public TV face to face with the artist sort of affair where they try to unearth the artist’s earliest roots.

“Growing up in Lake Huntington, the bus ride to school was at least 40 minutes each way. In order to entertain myself and my fellow riders, I created ‘The Peter Pumpkin Show,’ a variety show of sorts with multiple characters all played by me,” Toscano said of his first calling as a performer. “Here I was, a fourth grader captivating a high school audience. What power! What fun!”

The reporter also asked why I use comedy and how I became a character actor.

“Employing humor, as well as shape shifting to fit into different crowds, became a strategy to keep others from targeting me with insults or worse,” Toscano recalls. “Many oppressed minorities learn to take on multiple roles and characters in order to survive. Some of the finest one-person shows were created by people from oppressed groups, shows by Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and John Leguizamo.”

For those of you who have seen Homo No Mo can only imagine how much fun it felt last night to perform the part of my dad with a room full of people who know and love him well, including my younger sister Maria, who saw the play for the first time last night. The charater of my dad proved to be the real crowd pleaser of the night. During the Q&A my dad even did his own stand up routine as he talked about his trip to the Homo No Mo Halfway House.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.