Ex-gay survivor and queer quirky Quaker, Peterson Toscano is a theatrical performance activist. His one-person show about how he tried to de-gay himself for a number of years is now available on DVD. As some of you might know, therapy and residential treatment programs cost money... and Peterson spent a lot of coin before moving beyond the ex-gay movement. That being said, he's paid a price for his activism too. Read on to learn what all this has cost him.
1. What will an ex-gay program such as Love In Action cost you?
First of all, it is not all about money. In fact, you will find that many of my answers to your insightful (and somewhat difficult) questions will go beyond dollar values.
When I attended the Love in Action residential facility in Memphis, TN for two years from 1996-1998, it cost me $950 per month. (I hear the same program today costs $7000 for three months.) That adds up quickly, but you have to consider the other costs before I entered this program.
All told I spent 17 years trying to de-gay myself and that meant thousands of dollars counseling in Colorado Springs for a two week intensive, thousands more on ex-gay books, seminars, conferences and travel to get to these places. Then we need to make a reckoning of the money I did not earn when instead of pursuing a profited career, I went ex-gay, diverting my time and attention into the de-gay process thus derailing my education and career development. Add to that the other costs-the psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical toll this took on me and my loved ones, and all the subsequent expenses one incurs in order to recover from the "cure."
My $30,000 figure I mention is a conservative number based on the actual money I spent over 17 years. I cannot imagine what the total cost has been.
2. If you could do it over, what would you spend that money on?
I would have put my money, my energy and my creativity into education and my career. For years my brain sat pickling in a jar on the shelf in some pastor's office while I consumed these nonsense theories about why I was gay and how I could become un-gay. I would have been much better served in a university which would have inspired critical thinking and dealt in reality.
3. What money lessons did you learn from your parents, both directly and indirectly?
I learned most money lessons from my mom, who sadly passed away in 2006. She was one of the most generous and seemingly financially reckless people I have ever met. That said she also maintained the family finances with thoughtful responsibility. She seemed reckless to me in that as a teen and even later, if I needed money to buy something, I needed only hint at it to my mother, and she would ask, "How much do you need?" No matter the amount I said, she doubled it and told me to keep the change. This slush fund never lasted long because it felt like "free money." As a result, I don't do very well when I have cash in my pocket. Growing up I learned that money was meant to be spent and enjoyed.
During my youth, my parents never bought anything on credit. They just seemed to always have cash on hand. What I didn't understand was just how hard my working-class parents labored for that money in the restaurant business they built from scratch, and the many lean years they did not let us fully see. In a way these lessons gave me a casualness about money that has served me well. I don't worry where it will come from very much. I mean, I don't expect it to drop out of the sky, but I know there is money in the world to earn, and I don't need to worry about it too much. I also learned about running a business from my family and the benefits and challenges of being your own boss. Of course being a white guy from the US with a university degree means that I experience more privilege than some other folks. I know that life is easier for me than some of my neighbors.
4. What was the money dynamic during your marriage with your ex-wife?
I find it difficult to publicly discuss most aspects of my marriage. I still have a lot to process, so I will pass on this question.
5. How does the typical Quaker spend money?
The joke goes, ask three Quakers about any topic, and you will get at least five different opinions. I can't speak for a typical Quaker, but as a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I know that for me, my spending has been influenced by what we call the Quaker Testimonies. These are not rules or creeds we follow, rather they serve as markers to remind us of things that Quakers have traditionally valued. Many people know about the Quaker's "Peace Testimony" going back to as early as the 17th Century shaping our on-going work to oppose war and violence in word and deed.
Other Testimonies inform how I spend money. According to Wikipedia, the "Simplicity Testimony" encouraged Quakers or Friends to "traditionally limit their possessions to what they needed to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. Recently this testimony is often taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's resources." As a result, I live in a small but comfortable studio apartment. I try not to own too many books, DVDs and clothes and routinely give away stuff that I don't use. The overall effect is that I save money which frees me up to do the work that I do.
The "Equality Testimony" challenges me to question where I get the goods I buy. Are the workers fairly treated and compensated? Is it better for the neighborhood if I buy locally or should I support fair trade initiatives in developing communities abroad? Should I not buy inexpensive mass produced clothes because they likely take advantage of the people who produce them and rather buy items secondhand at charity shops? I don't think there are perfect answers, but being among Quakers, I have learned to be more thoughtful about what I purchase and how I spend money.
6. What are the financial benefits of living without a car and television?
So many and not only financial. Since I got rid of my car in 2007 (a lovely 2002 Turbo VW Beetle with a sunroof), I walk so much more, am better connected to my community as I take the bus, and much closer to my friends since I now beg them for rides. Without the car it causes me to shop locally thus benefiting the little mom and pop (and the queer mom & mom and pop & pop) shops within walking distance. I avoid those impulse shopping sprees that arose from boredom and the easy accessibility to a car. You know sitting at home without much to do and I think, "Hey, maybe I'll go to Target." $120 later I have stuff and only staved off the boredom instead of living a life. Of course I save money on gas and car insurance. Living in a city with public transit and not having kids to drive to stuff does help. A car-free life is not for everyone. I tried it as an experiment at first not realizing what a HUGE benefit it would prove.
I have not had a TV in my house since the 1980s (yeah, I'm old). Of course much of that time I lived trapped in a gay-silencing church world and I avoided TV to help save my soul from the Devil. Since coming out, I have maintained the practice of living TV-free and benefit from it financially, intellectually and creatively. First off, I LOVE TV. I can sit for days and watch it and often do when I am at my dad's or on the road at a hotel. For someone without a TV at home, I watch an awful lot of it and more so now that so many things are available on-line. That said, not having one at home, I get to be much more intentional about what I watch, not falling for turning it on because I had seemingly nothing better to do then getting inundated with thousands of adverts telling me how much fuller and richer my life would be if I bought their stuff or watched their other programs. Watching too much TV sucks the creative juices out of me and numbs my brain into corporate submission making me think less and buy more.
7. Have you paid a price for being an activist?
Yeah, I have some debt I accrued from choosing to help organize conferences, actions and traveling to places where they can't really afford to bring me on their own instead of some paying gigs I could have done as a performer, but the activism has deepened my performance work and given me more exposure so that more people want me to perform at their universities, clubs, theaters and churches. So it is a wash in a lot of ways. Of course there are other costs to consider working as an activist. It can be exhausting and at times hopeless seeming work. One needs to find ways to get encouragement and optimism. I also open myself up to hear some horrendous things, both hateful reactions to what I do and also horror stories of the sort of trauma people have faced as LGBT in a world and church that is only nominally accepting and at times outright hostile. These stories wear on me at times, and I know I need to find outlets to recover from them and nourish my own mind and heart.
In the cost analysis, the benefits far outweigh the expenses. I have met amazing, creative, passionate people. Together we have launched the Ex-Gay Survivor Movement where we tell our stories and have made a difference thorough the organization I co-founded with Christine Bakke, Beyond Ex-Gay. I have seen my own thinking and understanding of the world expand, and I have been able to travel far and wide. I feel like a very rich activist even when my bank account tells a different story.
8. Do you save money by being a vegan?
I can save money as a vegan. It depends if I have the time to prepare whole foods which often cost less than the processed foods (except when I buy them at places like Whole Foods.) Being on the road increases my food costs as I have to eat out more. I end up getting a bunch of little dishes instead of a main course in my pursuit for a diet devoid of animal products. Of course some junk food is cheaper, and I could live as a vegan (for a limited time) eating chips and lots of bread. But I try to keep it healthy. I have to consider what I most likely save and will save over time in regards to medical expenses. Since 95% of food poisoning cases happen in animal foods, as I travel, because of my diet rarely get sick or even indigestion.
A vegetable-based diet fights osteoporosis, diabetes and obesity. It radically lowers the chance for heart disease and cancer. There is no way to completely avoid getting ill, but so many of the ailments that older people suffer in the US come directly from too much animal products in the diet. I may not have a lot of money during my retirement, but I am investing in my health. And I know someone is reading and thinking, "yeah, but I know this guy who never smoked a day in his life and ate a great diet and died of a heart attack or cancer or something at a young age." Sure this happens, but for every one with a healthy diet that dies an early death, there are thousands of others who get ill as a direct result of their diets.
I love food more than TV (which is saying a lot) so I eat well and enjoy my food. I don't think one needs to live a stripped down life as a vegan. Similarly I understand that not everyone is willing to choose to be vegan, but we can all cut back on our meat and dairy consumption, which not only is good for our health (and therefore our wallets) but also great for the planet. The amount of resources needed to produce meat and dairy boggles my mind. Apparently a vegan who owns and operates a Hummer leaves a smaller ecological footprint than a meat and dairy consumer who owns and operates a bicycle. We can make a significant positive difference to the environment by the vegetable-based foods we eat. Okay, sermon over!
9. Have you ever made any money by writing poetry?
Yes! In two of my plays I include poems I have written. It was actually through writing a poem that I first leaped out into the world as a playwright. Judy Shepard was coming to Memphis, TN to speak. I only just emerged out of the ex-gay movement about a year before. A local gay minister knowing I fancied myself a creative type commissioned me to write a poem for Judy about the Memphis LGBT community. Being clueless about it myself, I then conducted interviews with all sorts of LGBT folks and wrote a performance poem that I staged casting several members of the community in it.
Currently I am working on a book about LGBT and faith issues (and actually got an advance!) and have an upcoming article in the International Lesbian and Gay Review. I often include poetry in my writing and when I perform because it helps peel back ideas and feelings not easy to get out in mere talk.
10. How can readers buy your Doin' Time In The Homo No Mo' Halfway House DVD?
This is the easiest question so far. I now have my one-person comedy about my ex-gay odyssey available on DVD. It is 90 minutes long plus over 30 minutes of extras edited by the fabulous queer filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox. You can get it at one of three places-Quaker Books, Filmbaby or Goldenrod. Or you can come to one of my shows in Denver or Seattle or Vancouver or New York and buy one in person from me.
More about Peterson Toscano
Peterson Toscano, the US-based playwright and comic actor is internationally recognized for his original one-person plays and his work as an activist for the full inclusion and liberation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. His play "Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House--How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement!" chronicles his 17-year-long "ex-gay" experience where he tried to de-gay himself through therapy, prayer and a residential treatment program in Memphis, TN. He retired the play earlier this year, and it is now available tonight on DVD.
His other works include "Queer 101-Now I Know My gAy,B,Cs" "The Re-Education of George W. Bush-No President Left Behind!" and his newest "Transfigurations-Transgressing Gender in the Bible," a play that explores the stories and lives of trans Bible characters. Peterson performs and presents at universities, high schools, middles schools, conferences, churches and theaters throughout North America and Europe. In January 2009 he will take his work to South Africa.
Peterson lives in Hartford, CT and is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker). You can learn more about him and his work at www.petersontoscano.com.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.