Category: Quakerism

On the Road Again

Last night I arrived in time for a 12 hour layover in Hartford. Enough to do laundry and spend quality time with my plant. Now I travel by bus to the airport to pick up a car to drive to Williamstown, MASS to present tonight. In the morning I drop off the car and fly out to Minneapolis for a few days.

On one flight yesterday I sat next to a couple who are Quakers from Ohio. Either I recognized them from a national gather or they just had that Quaker look. I don’t suppose I have developed that look yet.

Having gone to West Hills Friends Meeting on Sunday as well as spending time with Doug and his husband in Portland (and John and company in Urbana before that) gave me lots of opportunties for spiritual renewal. Also my dear Friend Esther in the UK gave me her small book of Advices & Queries last year which I reflected upon on my final flight home. I am wired for spiritual things–prayer, devotional reading, existential questions. I have been deeply influenced by Quakers resulting in a loving peaceful approach to those around me (even Joe G!)

Soon I will be in the UK with a wonderful bunch of fun and deeply spiritual folks in London, Oxford, Leeds and Belfast (and hopefully Cambridge & Cardiff). I feel like a prince!

Talkin’ Trash about John Smid

Shortly after I reported that John Smid had resigned from Love in Action, lots of folks have speculated as to the reasons. We may know soon enough. Yesterday evening I heard from someone who had read the letter that went out to supporters announcing John’s resignation, who told me it does not take effect until July. Perhaps we will know more when the program makes their official public statement in their newsletter in April.

Last summer John gave a talk about masturbation where he made what sounded to me and many others bizarre references to his wife and to her vagina. Since the news broke of John’s resignation, stories have begun to swirl along with jokes quoting John’s talk.

For me perhaps some of this vagina talk would be funny right now if I didn’t know John Smid and especially his wife. She is a lovely, kind woman. I also was married to a woman when I was ex-gay, and she suffered greatly because of my gay orientation and our failed marriage. I suffered greatly too.

We have no indication that John has been unfaithful. From everything I hear from folks in Memphis, he is not leaving in disgrace. Although some folks may wish to see such an outcome after all the harm that many of us experienced in Love in Action, some of this sounds downright cruel and petty. Lord knows I get angry about a lot of this stuff. It has affected me and my family in devastating ways. I attended that awful program for two years.

But these are people we are talking about.

No question, Ex-Gay leaders need to be held accountable for the harm they cause, for the uniformed misguided programs they create, and the dangerously misleading statements they make. But that doesn’t give me license to treat them like shit.

Perhaps I am just a sappy Quaker who believes the crazy notion that that of God is in everyone. But I cannot forget that for most of my adult life I had been a born-again, Evangelical, Conservative Republican Christian who was very very anti-gay (and self-hating). I have changed dramatically. Change is possible. It was a hard road to make the changes I had to make, to question my world view, to see just how wrong I was. But it becomes even more difficult when people assume the worse and hurl insults.

I have been one of the most constant critics of Love in Action, and I will be thrilled the day that program completely shuts its doors. May that day come quickly! But I was one of them, and I care what happens to them, and I hope that they find a better way.

Burps & Farts

In my play, The Re-Education of George W. Bush—No President Left Behind, my character Chad offers an environmental lesson. His primary point outlines how being a vegan helps the planet. In his deliciously flaming style he states that,

Gas from cars has a significantly less impact on the planet than that emitted from cows in the forms of burps and farts.

And as I say the line, I put my left hand to my mouth ( for burps) and then down by my behind (for farts) and add, “I think that’s the sign language for those.”

After last night’s performance, two women approached me and said that they knew American Sign Language. One asked if I wanted to learn the actual signs for burp and fart. Um, yeah! So next time you see the show, if you don’t know them already, you will also learn these signs. Brilliant.

The Chad environmental lesson serves as a pivotal scene in the performance because it is the first lesson that does not simply target the president. It speaks directly to the audience and their own personal practices. It forces people to look at the global outcomes of one of their daily actions. It opens the door for me to talk about other issues to examine. By the end of the play, I can state that as someone raised in the USA, I have been programmed to be racist, sexist, homophobic, wasteful and violent. I suggest that this may be true for many of us and conclude by affirming that I need to re-educate the little George W. Bush lurking inside of me.

I received an e-mail from an audience member who overheard two women commenting about my show (and the Chad scene in particular) as they exited the hall. One of the women said,

Hitler was a vegetarian so you have to be careful with that moral superiority stuff.

Um, right. He also wore trousers, drove in cars and clipped his fingernails. So should I run around in a skirt sporting Howard Hughes-like curly nails? (Although I like the idea of the skirt)

I feel pleased by the remark. I hope my Bush play provokes people, gets them to look at their lives and practices and ask, “How might I be part of the problem?” Anyone can bash George W. Bush and thus feel a little better about themselves. Looking inward takes more work.

What if we place ourselves on a continuum based on how we live our lives? On one end stood George W. Bush, and the other was say Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Based on our lifestyles and regular practices, where do we fall? To whom are we closest? Although I admire Gandhi and Mother Theresa much more than the current US president, I have to admit that I fall much nearer to Bush. In this exercise George W. Bush stands as a symbol for a particular attitude or excess. Instead we could place other folks there–Paris Hilton for instance or Joe G đŸ™‚

None of us can ever live the perfect life or one where we leave no damage no matter how hard we try. We can greatly lessen the harm we do to the planet and to each other. The complete solution to global warming will not be all of us going vegan, but when we reduce our meat and dairy consumption, (along with an increased commitment to buying local products), we will make a BIG difference. (Besides a vegan diet improves our health and, more importantly, our skin considerably!)

I had a blast last night with the 200 plus people in the audience right here in Hartford where I live. I even got to meet Becca, who visits my blog (you have beautiful eyes!) During the talk-back time afterwards, I spoke directly to the audience, mostly progressive liberals, about the verbal violence we dish out towards other humans because they happen to be Conservatives, Republicans or Christians.

Part of the re-education process requires that I recognize everyone has some good in them even if I’d prefer to write them off as intolerant, hateful, bigots, but doing so serves as easy way out and creates further conflicts while leaving us feeling smug and self-satisfied. As a Quaker, I hear over and over about how “that of God is in everyone.” This optimistic teaching interferes with my desire to assume the worse in people, to discount their needs, and invalidate their values.

In virtually every Hollywood movie I have seen, they drum into me the message that we have only two types of people in the world–good guys and bad guys. That binary exists in fiction. And on this my 1010th blog post (a lovely example of beautiful actual binary), I feel encouraged and challenged once again to view anti-gay conservative leaders, ex-gay ministers, and even George W. Bush (oh and Dick Chaney too) as humans, fellow travelers, offspring of the divine.

That doesn’t mean they are not responsible for any cruel, thoughtless or harmful things they may say or do. It means that I recognize we are made of the same stuff, and, yes, we all burp and fart.

Performance Schedule UPDATED

The other day I updated the performance schedule to include shows in Rochester, NY, Johnstown, PA, the Twin Cities, MN, and Canterbury, England. Currently I perform four different productions and do talks (and somehow I don’t mix them up).

I’m especially pleased they I was invited to give a plenary address at the Friends General Conference (Quaker). As a Quaker, I have presented more and more at Quaker venues the past two years although I mostly do non-Quaker gigs. I actually find some Quaker venues to be the most challenging for me. Most Quakers who have seen my work seem to get what I do and enjoy it, but I have had more offense from Quakers than from any other type of audience member. Some Quakers find comedy to be violent or get so caught up in words that they can miss the point.

Also, when I talk about LGBT issues, I have gotten a strange resistance among some liberal Quakers. They express sentiments like, “Oh, we don’t need that message. We have done a lot of work around this issue in our meeting. We passed a minute on same-sex partnerships back in 1984.”

The majority of these liberal Quaker meetings remain racially homogeneous (white), so issues of diversity come up around race a lot which is great and essential. I have learned much about skin privilege and racism through the working groups on these issues in our meetings.

But the largest minority population within our meetings are most likely the LGBT folks (or maybe those people with scent allergies :-). From talking with several of them, I know we have work to do in our meetings around heterosexism and even homophobia. But when the shields go up–We have already dealt with that stuff–then the meetings can grow stagnant with some people feeling silenced or marginalized.

All of this leaves me with questions about what I will present at FGC. Do I do a play? A talk? Let the silence speak for me? (The perfect Quaker cop out when all else fails). Talk about queer issues? Faith issues? Art? I know I will spend more time praying and prepping for this one talk than any other I will do this year.

While at FGC I will also co-facilitate a workshop for high schoolers,

Xtreme QuakerismRadical Faith for Mind, Body and Spirit
Peterson Toscano & Kri Burkander
This dynamic, interactive workshop will be an opportunity to deepen your faith, nurture your Spirit, share your heart, and get (re)energized to be a radical Quaker in the world. Through games, movement, worship, meditation, art, writing, drama, and much more, we’ll build a loving community and support each other in listening to the leadings in our lives that are calling our faith into action.

Although the workshop lasts for six days, I have a feeling it will be invigorating and centering for me (and hopefully for the other participants).

Other presentations in the works will be in other parts of England, Northern Ireland, Barcelona, Stockholm, and in the States in Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Arizona.

Doin’ Time in Providence & Philadelphia

I had an EXCELLENT weekend which began on Thursday in Providence’s Lincoln School for the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference. Organizers asked me to give a keynote address and that they chose art and activism for their theme. Instead of giving a traditional speech, I performed The Re-Education of George W. Bush—No President Left Behind! Here you see a photo of Vlad doing his now infamous dance. Thanks to Fabian from Brooklyn Friends School for the photo!

On Friday morning I got up early to take the train down to Philadelphia where I performed the Bush play that evening at Calvary United Methodist Church. The following night I presented Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House at Germantown United Methodist.

Here you see a photo of me after the show with two high schoolers from Germantown. Thanks to Bill Ewing for this photo.

After performing the Bush play twice in a row, I feel stoked to get it out there. The piece has settled in to where I think it should be and the characters exude lots of passion especially after some recently tuning I did to Marvin’s monologue and part of Tex’s.

From the title lots of folks assume that in the play I just stand around and bash Bush. Yawn. Please! my creativity allows me to go beyond that simple exercise to something more complex and necessary. The Philadelphia Gay News ran an interview on page 39 in their Friday 2/8 edition where I talk about the Bush play and some of what happens in it. You can read it here.

The play helps me explore and express the outrage I feel right now. So many things inspire outrage in my country and in the world right now. Cutting taxes while going to a war under false pretenses. The on-going prisoner abuse and torture in our prisons and detention centers within our borders and the countries we occupy. The tremendous waste we create in the US. The unhealthy foods the industrial complexes pump out all the while trashing the planet. The inequity and privilege that Hurricane Katrina exposed still exists in America because of racial and class differences. The sickening ways that some descendants of European immigrants react to immigrants from other parts of the Americas. Lots of reasons for outrage.

Some folks think that since Quakers maintain a Testimony of Peace and advocate non-violence that our faith forbids us from feeling and expressing anger. I joked this weekend that as a Quaker I don’t get violent, just passive aggressive. It’s funny because it so often is true. When we stuff our anger, it pops out in all sorts of toxic and unhelpful ways.

No, as a Quaker because of the Testimony of Integrity, I need to express my anger. I must not shrink from conflict but acknowledge it and its causes. We feel outrage for a reason. That passion moves us to action. Otherwise we suck it up and grow bitter and tense and aggressive in indirect ways.

I process many feelings and experiences through art and through comedy. Comedy can be a violent tool wielded to rip people to shreds or it can be a prophetic device used to expose the ironies of our times, injustice and hypocrisy. Anyone can make fun of another person. That requires little skill. But to explore my outrage and its causes has taken me some time. It took nearly three years to write my Bush play.

Over the weekend I also got to hang out with some amazing Young Adult Friends in Philadelphia and others who visited. Ah, speak about passion! These folks care about the planet, their neighborhoods, and very much about God and knowing God. I felt inspired and challenged by their lives and actions.

(Oh, and we played a raucous game of Simpsons Clue–It was Mr. Smithers (dressed as a maid) in the Nuclear Power Plant with a poisoned donut!)

Support Committee UPDATE: 2007 year in review

Through my local Quaker meeting, I have had a Support Committee for the past several years. The committee provides me a group of people who know me for the long-term, understand my work, my mission, my goals and give me emotional, spiritual and practical support (including rides to the train station and short-term loans). They also helped me craft my travel minute which has been endorsed by my local meeting, Connecticut Quarterly Meeting and New England Yearly Meeting.

Before we meet, which happens about once every six to eight weeks, I write up a report about what has been happening with my work and my life and what is about to happen–sort of a State of the Peterson Report. Then we meet, gathering in silent prayer and then in a worshipful way walk through the report and discuss the various issues. This process has helped me tremendously in finding clarity and in getting the support I need to do what I do.

For my most recent report I included a little year in review. It’s been an amazing year, so I share it with you, who I also need to thank for your support, encouragement, prayers and help.

2007 proved to be productive and filled with new opportunities.

a. The year of the Quaker: I presented at Quaker gatherings and meetings throughout the US and England including The Quake that Rocked the Mid-West, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting, Colorado Regional Meeting, Great Britain Young Friends General Meeting, Woolman Hill, NEYM, Multnomah Monthly Meeting, Oxford Friends Meeting (England), Hartford Friends Meeting, Mid-winter gathering of the LGBTQC and FGC. I also presented at Earlham College, twice at Guilford and did a bunch of presentations for New Garden Friends School.

b. The year of the Ex-Gay Survivor: Christine Bakke and I launched the Beyond Ex-Gay web site then partnered with Soulforce to put on the Ex-Gay Survivor Conference in Irvine, CA. We literally started a movement for ex-gay survivors and as a result, dozens have come forward to tell their stories through blogs, videos, press conferences, interviews and public addresses.

c. The year of media: With mentions and features in the NY Times, People Magazine, Glamour Magazine, and several regional and local press outlets like the Hartford Courant along with appearances on Public Radio International, Trya Banks Show, The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet and The Montel Williams Show (twice) I got a lot of exposure and not only was able to share my story about my ex-gay past, but often also about my Quaker faith. I added a new page to my web site which includes an extended bio and links to various media.

d. The year of Europe: I travelled and performed in Europe three times in 2007 returning to the Greenbelt Festival and to the Courage (gay Christian) group. In some ways the European audiences have connected better with The Re-Education of George W. Bush. I was featured on Swedish public radio and on German national TV. An Austrian even wrote an extensive wikipedia page about me in German.

e. The year of Portland: I travelled and presented in Portland, OR three times in 2007 in large part because of the support of the Anawim Community, a gay Christian men’s group that has been meeting weekly for a meal and silent worship for over 8 years. In January I facilitated their annual retreat and also performed at Freedom Friends Church and led a Sunday School class at West Hills Friends Church. I also performed twice at Portland State University and two times at the Metropolitan Community Church and worked closely with Friend Bonnie Tinker on presentations in Corvalis, OR. I have found a supportive community there that helps me to center spiritually.

f. The year of premieres. In January I premiered The Re-Education of George W. Bush and then in November I surprised even myself with the premiered of Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible.

All in all it proved to be an exceptional year with lots of good work.

Ex-Gay Survivors, Transgender Surgeries & More

Thanks to Noa Resare, I began to use Google Reader for the first time. What a great way to keep track of news’ stories and my favorite blogs. I can use it on my phone as well off-line on my laptop. So here is a little round-up of some of the things happening in the blog world.

Myths over the “Gay Plague”
Jim Burroway over at Box Turtle Bulletin published some articles about MRSA, the staph infection that was in the news this past week. Lots of hype and misinformation going around about this, and some anti-gay folks locked onto the story and gleefully announced a new gay disease. Seems it is not so new and not a gay thing at all. The media now has begun to set the record straight. Check out Mainstream Media Retreats From MRSA Hysteria–Where are LaBarbera’s and Barber’s apologies? and Testing The Premise: Is MRSA The New Gay Plague? Not according to the medical literature.

Quaker Response to violence in Kenya

Peggy Senger Parsons, who has done work with victims of trauma in Eastern Africa, has published some blog entries about the recent violence in Kenya and the Quaker response. Peggy quotes from and links to a beautiful and powerful pastoral letter out of Friends Church in Kenya. She also shares an e-mail from a trauma counselor in Burundi she helped train and his efforts to reach out to and train Kenyans in trauma work.

The Kinder Gentler Marriage Equality Debate
Bruce Garrett quotes an article about the gay marriage debate in Vermont. They have had civil union for awhile now, but the discussion has now opened to consider actual marriage (like real grown-up straight people get to do). Seems this time around the discussion is tamer. A similar debate is happening in Sweden where they also had something less than marriage for same-sex couples. And all these years I heard anti-gay preachers talking about gay marriage in Sweden (along with drunken orgies, anti-god citizens and the decline of civilization as we know it. Having been to Sweden three times now, I have learned a different story).

Joe G is less sucky
Joe G admits that his podcast is getting “less sucky,” so check out Bored Beyond Belief episode #15 (but according to Joe, avoid the first few). In episode 15 Joe terrorizes his family with a serious thoughtful question, and we learn that his family members are much funnier than Joe himself (but Joe sounds sexier).

Mila and Jayna go under the knife

Also, episode 29 and episode 30 of Trans-Ponder Podcast are excellent. Mila and Jayna have gone to Boston for some important surgeries and talk pre- and post-surgery. Great conversation about growing up trans and trying to figure that all out and about the Orchi surgery. They don’t have the shows listed yet on their episode page, but you can get them through iTunes.

Ex-Gay Survivor speaks out some more

Finally, Eric Leocadio shared two more videos produced by Box Turtle Bulletin and Beyond Ex-Gay. In one Eric talks about the isolation and exclusion he experienced in the church and among church friends (and also mentions flirting with veganism after an awesome meal we shared in LA.) In the second one he talks about the Side X (or ex-gay) culture.

Recent Church and non-Church Encounters

I try to worship somewhere on Sundays whenever possible. Most often I go to an un-programmed Quaker meeting for mostly an hour of silent worship.

Three weeks ago I attended West Hills Friends Church in Portland, OR and two weeks ago I worshiped at Freedom Friends Church, a semi-programmed Quaker Church in Salem, OR co-pastored by Peggy Senger Parsons and Alivia Biko. On Sunday I worshiped at my local Friends Meeting in Hartford, CT.

Most people know little about Quakers (no we do not drive horse and buggies, and we do not get a cut from the Quaker Oats company). In the US we have Quaker meetings and Quaker churches. Most Quaker meetings in the US and UK do not have a pastor, and the worship is unprogrammed–we sit down, settle into silence and wait. Someone, anyone really, may speak out of the silence. Sometimes what someone says moves me and inspires me. Other times the message confuses or annoys me (especially those National Public Radio messages, which always start”The other day on NPR…)

Most Quaker churches are programmed or semi-programmed with pastors and a specific order of service. I have been to few of these, so I can’t say much more.

Theologically Quaker churches contain people who adhere to a more traditional view of Christianity while Quaker meetings lean towards a more liberal or universalist view. In fact, in Quaker meetings you may find people who do not identify as Christian at all but may be pagan or theist or atheist. Quaker churches may not always be safe places for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people while Quaker meetings usually seek to be open and affirming (and often but not always succeed).

I am a Christ-centered un-programmed Friend (and I would like a venti no-foam, de-caf, soy latte, please). I believe in Jesus and I prefer the silence. In many ways I surf between the two worlds of programmed and un-programmed Quakers–never completely home in either.

At Freedom Friends Church they started with a few songs, an opportunity to share joys then concerns, a prayer time and lastly a period of silence of about 30 minutes with a handful of messages rising from the congregation. They had no sermon.

More and more I believe that this sort of format works well for people new to Quakerism. In the old days people hung out more and spoke about what happened in worship and learned about faith and practice over a meal or while working on a project. But today most people blow into meeting and blow out with little opportunity to know what happens behind the veil of silence.

Personally I think that every un-programmed Friends meeting should have a semi-programmed meeting once every four months. This would be the meeting where one could invite friends who have expressed an interest in coming to meeting. About this I will have more to say at a later time.

On Christmas Eve I attended Catholic mass with my dad. I didn’t want him to go alone as my sister Maria was with her in-laws in Long Island and my sister Nardina and my brother Manuel live far away. So I attended mass–the LONGEST HOUR OF THE YEAR! Actually it ran for 55 minutes, but I swear it felt more like three hours.

Even though the priest told jokes and the choir sang some of my favorite Christmas songs (albeit in a key that most humans should not attempt) the whole affair dragged on forever. Now I know that some people get a lot out of Catholic mass, and that having grown up in that tradition, I do not experience it as an adult convert. But throughout the service, just when I began to really focus on God and listen, they interrupted me with another song or prayer or collection (two times!) or people shuffling down to the altar for Communion (I remained in my pew) or an Irish blessing as we left. How can anyone worship with all that racket going on?!?

Today in UmeĂ¥ Sweden, where I reside until 17 January, I will meet with a small group of people interested in Quaker worship. They do not have a Quaker meeting here, just a few people who have begun to research Quakerism and connect with Quakers via the web and a retreat center near Stockholm.

They have met very few Quakers, so I feel a concern that they may get the wrong idea from me. I am still a baby Quaker. In the un-programmed Quaker meetings we do not have a concept of a Quaker missonary–that would be blasphemous or something. But here I am in Sweden about to meet with these folks as we share our faith and more importantly the experience of worshiping together. Hmmm, maybe I can start a new wave of vegan, comic, queer Quakerism…

Prayer Fresheners

Doug, one of my hosts here in Portland, jokingly confessed that he assumed I would spend my spare week here in his place in silent meditation filling his home with a mystical holy aroma, as if I were a plug-in spiritual fragrance–a Gladâ„¢ Prayer Freshener. Well, I do my part, but I can’t take credit for the wafting up of any sacred scents.

Yesterday Doug, his husband Bruce, and I went to West Hills Friends Church. This is a semi-programmed Quaker church. Unlike my normal Quaker meeting, this one has leaders who give sermons, lead songs, say prayers and do Bible readings. Lots more bells and whistles than I normally go for, but a great service all the same.

They had about 20 minutes of silence, which I confess was my favorite part. I’m unprogrammed that way, but I can see the value of a semi-programmed meeting, especially for folks who are new to Quakerism. It can be daunting to pop into a Quaker meeting where no one starts anything. We just sit down in silence with no welcome or introduction. I imagine the newcomer thinking, “When is this going to start?”

This Sunday, one message that came through, first in the sermon and then in messages out of the silence, was that we must not judge by the exterior of the people around us. Although it may not be obvious at first (or 10th) glance, a bit of God is in everyone. One woman spoke of St. Francis and how he created the first manger scenes with living people. She said that with his draw towards the lowly, St. Francis must have put some of the ugliest people in the choicest roles of the nativity. The woman went on to say that she has begun to construct a mental nativity with the most difficult people in her life as Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men. That screaming baby on the plane gets casts as the Baby Jesus (I somehow think that even Marvin would approve).

This got me thinking to a message that has been knocking around in my heart for the past several months. Jesus is reported saying over and over again that the Kingdom of God is within. Then there is that wild parable about the man who finds a vast treasure, so vast that he must bury it in a nearby field. Then he goes and sells all he has so that he can purchase that field.

In thinking of that parable, I see the spiritual life as a great treasure hunt. So often I pray prayers of petition–Lord, I need this or that. Give me strength or courage and wisdom. And I need it now! But then I remind myself (or is it the Spirit?) that the Kingdom is housed within, not without in some distant land farther away than Narnia. Christ has given me everything I need for life and godliness. So then I shift my words, Thank you for the strength, wisdom and courage; now help me locate them within me.

When it comes to the difficult people, opponents, and even declared enemies, I try to turn it into a treasure hunt, a quest to find God within that person (and yes even family members). Somewhere lurking behind the challenges, the bitterness, the rejection, there is a vast treasure to discover.

Considering all this I suddenly feel drawn to silent prayer right now so that I can have ears to hear and eyes to see what is initially imperceivable but as real, or more real actually, than the overabundance of Right Guardâ„¢ body spray I doused over all myself this morning. Hmm, maybe Doug will mistake that is a sweet aroma wafting up to heaven, filling the house like a holy incense. Hmm, does the Holy Spirit come in Mountain Fresh?