A couple weeks ago, I saw exexgay Peterson Toscano’s one-man show, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. Some people are curious as to what I thought of it, as an exgay and as an alumna (veteran?) of a residential treatment program for reasons related to my sexuality struggles myself, so I’m going to post some extremely scattered thoughts here. Sorry it’s not a real (i.e., quasi-edited and semi-organized) post–maybe I’ll turn it into one eventually, but right now I have a ton of work to do in my real life (as opposed to my blog life), and I’d like to keep the identity series moving as well.
I was nervous about seeing the show, something I didn’t realize until I pulled into the parking lot and found myself a little shivery. I’m still not quite sure why. I’m not easily offended, and I normally don’t mind being made fun of. But I do have some sensitivities about this stuff. I have occasionally felt hurt by some things exexgays and other critics of the exgay movement do and say. I have some exgay shame issues, which I hinted at in this post, and hope to dig into in a post after this identity thing is over. My gayness or ssa-ness or whatever doesn’t faze me at all, but the fact that I am kinda sorta one of those nefarious “ex-gays” is enough to make me blush and stammer in polite company. And I wasn’t sure what difficult memories of my own residential experience the show would dig up. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before, I think my program experience was a good thing. But a residential program is the sort of thing that even when it’s good, it’s awful. At times it almost felt to me like a kind of electroconvulsive therapy or chemo for the soul, coming within a hair’s breadth of the absurdity of burning the village in order to save it.
I guess I should do a nutshell description for those who haven’t seen it yet. Peterson has a little promo video on the show site that explains it–although I think the performance that I saw was light-years better than these clips. The bulk of the show is a “tour” of an exgay residential program (the Homo No Mo Halfway House), which is not so loosely based on the Love in Action program Peterson attended. (If you’re one of those rare birds who reads me but not him, he often talks about his experiences on his blog.) The audience is “led” through the facility by their trusty tour guide Chad, who introduces them to various other characters. Aside from that, there’s also an interlude which is sort of like a sermon (actually, it is a sermon), and at the end, Peterson enters the show as himself, and shares his story more directly. Peterson plays everybody, and there’s no change of costume or anything, but the different characters are readily distinguished by their very heavily accented voices.
I was sooooo not the target audience for this show–not that I expected to be. The target audience, as far as I could tell, was enlightened well-adjusted queer people. (Okay, just a faint hint of a snark there.) It seemed that the point of the show was to educate them about the exgay experience, and to encourage them to be compassionate and come alongside their brothers and sisters who are coming out of an exgay or conservative Christian journey. As a result, while fiercely critical and condemnatory of the whole exgay thing, the show’s portrayals of exgays were sympathetic and humanizing, as opposed to the “Jennifer Jason Leigh, these people are FREAKS!” style.
I really liked the characters. The character of Peterson’s (everstraight) dad, Pete, won my heart instantly. And the exgays seemed very true to life, to me…little bits and pieces of the exgays I’ve known. One thing I appreciated is that he didn’t make all of them stereotypical flamingly gay caricatures. Chad was, of course, over-the-top, and that’s fine because some exgays certainly are! I’m not interested in whitewashed portrayals of exgays pretending that all the girls are dainty and all the boys are butch. But I’ve been made uncomfortable in the past by attacks on exgays which largely focus on how very gay they look and act. It always strikes me as bizarre and maybe even hypocritical–gay people picking on exgays for the same things that straight people have historically made fun of gays for, sort of like a food chain of mockery.
I think Marvin was my favorite exgay character. Perhaps that’s in part because I’ve gotten to know him a little through his podcasts on Peterson’s blog. But it’s also because he seems so much more fully himself than the other three exgay characters. He’s got more backbone, more nerve, more sass–his tail ain’t quite as between his legs as with the other guys. He gets accused of being “active-aggressive,” and you can’t really imagine any of the others being accused of that. He’s gonna organize the Bibles according to year and accuracy of translation, and he don’t give a rat’s behind how anal-retentive you think he is for it. Vlad, Chad, and Tex, while definitely characters you feel for, seem much more whipped. Which again, is fine and fair…some exgays are thoroughly whipped, so submissive to what’s being pushed on them that they let other people basically erase and rewrite their souls for them. (Digression: Am I the only one who thinks that too many exgay testimonies and confessions and self-descriptions sound like they were flat-out plagiarized from the standard exgay texts? Look, even if your story fits their models, couldn’t you at least tell it “in your own words,” you know, like they made you do in grade school? I’m just sayin’!)
Okay, where was I? Oh yeah…Chad and Tex seem like gutted, hollowed-out human beings, and you kinda get the feeling that the only reason Vlad ain’t there yet is that he hasn’t been in the program a month yet. I mean, yes they have their own traits and personalities, but they all seemed devoid of a core sense of themselves, of who they are and what they stand for. They haven’t merely submitted their outward behavior to the program, acting in conformity with its rules, but they’ve submitted their minds and hearts to it as well, letting it dictate to them who they are. There’s no resistance, no questioning, no pushback. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that sort of total intellectual submission horrifying. (I’m all for being teachable, learning from those who may have more knowledge and wisdom than you. But that means critically thinking about what they tell you, evaluating it, questioning it. If something they’re saying doesn’t sound quite right, make them persuade you, make them convince you, press them for arguments and evidence.) So I much prefer Marvin’s feistiness. He might rely too much on his pastor, but he’ll also call his pastor up and say “Hey, you’re wrong. This doesn’t work at all.” He’s crazy and ridiculous and passionate and confused about a lot of things, but he tries to be his own man and think for himself. Maybe I’m just projecting, but that’s the way his character feels to me.
I appreciated the attention that was paid to depicting the very religious nature of the exgay experience. That’s one thing I found really lacking in But I’m a Cheerleader: parts of it were hysterically funny in their accuracy, but overall they didn’t seem to know what to do with the spiritual dimension of exgay life, so they just left it out altogether. I know Peterson is very concerned about the non-spiritual motives behind many people’s exgay journeys (fear, prejudice, self-loathing, ill-informed beliefs about gay life, desire to please others, desire to fit in, etc.), and that he feels very strongly that for most people (all people?) taking up an exgay path isn’t simply about pleasing God the best way they can figure how. He and I could probably quibble about that all day long–unsurprisingly, I like to think that my motives are pristine. Yet nonetheless he knows that you can’t really make any sense of exgays whatsoever without the faith / pleasing God aspect, so the strong and sincere Christian faith of at least some of the characters is believably portrayed. It helps, of course, that he knows whereof he speaks.
The show was really, really funny. Especially funny for me I think, because of my familiarity with the experience, on which more below, but it seemed pretty funny to the rest of the audience as well. Every now and then the stream of humor was punctuated by a terrible or sad statement, delivered matter-of-factly, which caught you like a knife in the ribs–casual mention of attempted suicide, or an indirect remark upon a son’s deep sorrow. I really loved that interplay of funny and sad…in that respect, it seemed to mirror program life itself. There was a lot of laughing in my program…you need it to survive, and besides, the whole situation is so ridiculous that it lends itself to humor easily. At the same time, underneath that layer of humor that sort of lubricates the daily grind of program life, there’s the terrible fact of your past, the pain you’re trying to escape from and deal with, and the profoundly humbling experience of the program in itself. You try to keep those things at bay with a heavy dose of silliness, but every now and then they break through. So, from my perspective, Doin’ Time didn’t only portray some of the details of program life, it also managed to duplicate the very feel of program life. Which impressed me a lot.
Now, all programs are different, and I think mine was better than the Homo No Mo Halfway House in countless ways. While it seems that mine was much stricter, more intense, and offered us far less freedom–there was no “halfway house” about it!–it also seems that mine was much sounder emotionally and spiritually. There was none of this shaming business, this public disclosure of one’s darkest moments, that seems to be a regular part of life at HNMHH / LIA. They didn’t mess around with blaming people’s parents for stuff–the focus was on your responsibility. (I think focus on parental blame, especially for people who are grown adults, is somewhat silly.) Instead of banning classical music and allowing only CCM, like LIA did, my program allowed classical and banned most CCM. And I’d take our regimen of manual labor over their 12-stepping any day!
Also, the show reminded me how much I appreciate that my program was free of charge. I understand the rationale for making people pay, that you want to have them take ownership of their lives, that you want them to “invest” in their healing. But for myself I am glad that there was never any doubt in my mind about the motives of the staff–there was a level of trust that I simply couldn’t have had if they had been making money off of me, if having me in the program had been useful to them. I don’t mean to begrudge those people who want to help others a living, but at the same time, for me, trying to deal with my sexuality issues was a very complicated, conflicted matter. So I am really glad that there weren’t financial complications and/or feelings of exploitation mixed in with those.
But despite all these differences in the programs, there’s still that fundamental sameness of humiliating experience, and it’s so hard to find because so few people have been through programs. You go through this surreal crazy adventure, and when it’s over the only people who really understand it are others who have gone through it. Everyone else just looks at you like “You did WHAT? You let them do WHAT to you?” So it was a huge blessing for me to just be able to laugh about the residential program stuff–it spoke to a part of me that doesn’t get spoken to a lot.
To be sure, the show had its preachy parts, and I was definitely not the choir. As I mentioned above, there is a full-blown sermon with a preacher character, and the text is John 11–the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It’s treated allegorically here: being exgay is equated with being dead, stinking up the tomb, and coming out as gay and gay-affirming is equated with being raised from the dead. Just as Lazarus needed others to unwrap his grave clothes, bound as he was in them, so do former exgays (or gays from conservative backgrounds) need others to help free them from the bondages of their pasts. I wasn’t offended or anything, but I just couldn’t really relate all that well. As I’ve talked about before, over the years I’ve come to pick out some of my old exgay beliefs as unhelpful and/or stupid, but from my perspective it was just ordinary mistake-prone learn-as-you-go life, not a kind of living death. Knowing a little of Peterson’s story, of the pain and frustration he felt, of the lengths he went to and the sums he paid to try to change, and what he believes now, I can understand how things would feel to him.
But to understand, of course, is not to share the feeling. Maybe an imperfect but decent analogy would be that of an older gay guy, who sowed his fair share of wild oats back in the day, listening to an exgay guy testifying about the horrors of his past “deathstyle” of debauchery and boundless misery. There might be a powerful similarity of experience between the two, on one level, but their interpretations of that experience and the conclusions they draw from it diverge wildly. Both Peterson and I see most current expressions of the exgay and gays-should-be-celibate viewpoints as troubled and flawed, but in the final analysis I see them as redeemable–as founded on authentic, Spirit-led, Christian conviction, but thwarted by ignorance, arrogance, and sundry Freudian bad ideas, all of which can be corrected and repented of. Peterson, I suspect, would instead see those troubles and flaws as the bad fruit of a perspective/ideology that is rotten to the core (despite being believed and advocated by some very nice and sincere people), a destructive, abusive, oppressive force in the lives of those of most if not all of the same-sex attracted people who fall into its grip.