Ex-ex-gay presents play about his experience

by Amy Kingsley

At Guilford College on April 11, Peterson Toscano walks out on the Dana Auditorium stage dressed in a subdued ensemble of gender-appropriate clothing: black button-up shirt, slacks and dress shoes. He keeps his hands pinned to his sides – except for moments of great excitement, when they flutter involuntarily toward his chest. As Chad, the narrator of Doing Time in the HomoNomo Halfway House, Toscano walks with the gait of the straightjacketed, a sassy black diva bound by starched cuffs and flat-front twills.

Chad, our tour guide, sums up the halfway house’s dress code straightaway. For women, no sports bras, boxers or Timberland boots. And for men, no Capris or Abercrombie and Fitch.

The latter prohibition is a challenge for Chad, but not as much of one as the sense memory triggered by Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. Chad advises the scented among his tour of prospective clients to stand toward the back – for their safety and his.

The HomoNomo Halfway House is our tour guide’s final opportunity to turn back the tide of his homosexual lust, and his last best chance, perhaps, to fit the evangelical Christian mold of masculinity. It is a 12-step, five-phase program with 275 rules, he says. Chad is in the fifth phase, the last before graduation.

“Before I came into this program I was so effeminate,” he says in a high-pitched near-whisper. “But I think the weekly football clinics have really helped.”

Football clinics, gender-appropriate clothing, phallic fruit prohibitions and limits on time spent behind closed bathroom doors are just a few of the details the actor and playwright culled from his 17-year odyssey through the ex-gay movement. Toscano, who slips into five different characters during his one-man performance, spent two years at a Love in Action compound in Tennessee.

“I have spent over thirty thousand dollars on three different continents trying to become a heterosexual,” Toscano says. “I failed miserably.”

Raised Catholic, Toscano turned to evangelical Christianity in his late teens after a profound spiritual experience. His first foray into the ex-gay movement came on the heels of his divine rebirth, after he realized his homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

“I had a real spiritual experience,” he says, “but then I also had a cultural conversion. It wasn’t just about my faith, it was also about being a conservative Republican.”

Ex-gay ministry did not set Toscano straight, but the therapy and its aftermath did impart to the writer a certain grace.

“There’s a lot of anger and angst for people who go through these programs,” Toscano says.

It barely shows. The playwright treats his subjects, devoutly religious and homosexual, with respect and compassion. It is a bittersweet comedy that poses some hard questions: What happens when a man is both a homosexual and a fundamentalist? Can religion trump sexuality?

The answer to the second question is, in Toscano’s experience, an emphatic “no.” As for the first, well, it’s a bit trickier.

Toscano says he considers himself as much a spiritual man as a homosexual one. After nearly two decades of reading the Bible literally, he rediscovered chapter 11 in the Book of John, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

It was, for Toscano, a moment straight out of Awakenings.

“Before that I was convinced that I couldn’t hear God by myself,” he says. “I was suspended in a Biblical coma.”

Toscano likens coming out of the closet to Lazarus’ emergence from his burial cave. Like the Biblical character, Toscano says Jesus resurrected him as an openly gay man, and that his friends removed his grave clothes, setting him free.

Toscano bookends the last third of his performance with a sermon on Lazarus delivered by a quirky, broadly accented minister of the progressive school. Between the two halves of this sermon, Chad’s cheery exterior cracks. The memory of an older brother – also gay – pierces a chink in his godly armor. It reveals a lonely man struggling with the two halves of his spirit, awaiting the savior who will put them back together.

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