Peterson Toscano hasn't always been comfortable with his homosexuality. It took years of therapy, three exorcisms, and a stint at Memphis-based "straight camp" Love in Action before Toscano was able to come out and accept himself as a gay man.
He calls himself an ex-gay survivor, someone who has been through, and rejected, reparative therapy to help him become straight.
So when Toscano heard that "Love Won Out," a Focus on the Family-sponsored ex-gay therapy conference, was being held in Memphis on Saturday, February 23rd, he made phone calls from his home in Connecticut to friends in Memphis. The result: "Deconstructing the Ex-Gay Myth: A Weekend of Action and Art," three days of demonstrations, an art show, movie screenings, and stage shows in protest of the conference.
According to its website, "Love Won Out" equips parents and friends of gays with the ability to "minister in truth and compassion to a loved one who deals with same-sex attractions, respond to mis-information in our culture, and defend biblical beliefs with grace and understanding." The conference hosts multiple events annually across the country.
Toscano says several members of the on-line ex-gay survivor resource group Beyond Ex-Gay, which he founded last year, have sat in on previous "Love Won Out" sessions.
"They basically tell parents of lesbian and gay kids that it's bad to be gay, and they give testimonies about how awful people's lives were while they were gay. They say they can change and save you," Toscano says.
Members of Beyond Ex-Gay, who come from all over the country, and local gay activists will be on hand in front of Central Church in Collierville when the "Love Won Out" conference begins on Saturday morning.
"We're not exactly protesting. We're simply saying there's another side of the story, and we'd like people to listen to that side as well," Toscano says.
The action begins on Friday night with "The Ex-Gay Survivor Art Show" at the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC). The show features 25 works ranging from paintings to mixed media to sculpture created by ex-gay survivors. Artwork will remain up through Sunday afternoon.
Also on Friday night, Toscano will perform his one-man play, Doin' Time in the Homo No Mo' Halfway House, at First Congregational Church at 8 p.m. Toscano wrote the play as a response to his stint at Love in Action, the local ex-gay center that received national media attention in 2005 when friends of 16-year-old Zack Stark protested his inclusion in a now-defunct youth summer program.
"I spent two years at Love in Action, and the play is a tour of an ex-gay residential program that I call the Homo No Mo' Halfway House," Toscano explains. "I play a bunch of different people in the house, including my own dad. Parents are often negatively affected by the teachings in ex-gay programs."
Toscano premiered the play in Memphis five years ago and has since toured it in 33 states and several countries.
On Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m., Beyond Ex-Gay will host its Mid-South Regional Gathering, a series of workshops and panels for ex-gay survivors, at the gay and lesbian center.
"There's a lot of psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage [in ex-gay survivors], and there's a need to unpack what we've done to ourselves and let other people do to us," Toscano says. "This regional gathering will give ex-gay survivors a chance to check in and talk to each other."
Also on Saturday, local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox will offer a preview of his long-awaited documentary This Is What Love in Action Looks Like at 8 p.m. at First Congregational Church.
Jon Fox chronicled the 2005 protests of Love in Action's "Refuge" program, which offered reparative therapy for gay teens. The protests led to state investigations of the center's license to treat mentally ill people. Last summer, Love in Action closed Refuge in favor of a more intensive program for parents of gay teens.
"It all started with a few kids sticking up for their friend. It was just something to do for the summer," Jon Fox says. "They ended up impacting the situation on an international level."
The weekend will close with a reception Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at 892 S. Cooper to celebrate the gay and lesbian center's fifth anniversary. It will be followed by the Memphis premiere of Toscano's new play, Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible, at Holy Trinity United Church of Christ.
"It's a play about transgender bible characters," Toscano says. "For example, Deborah in the Book of Judges. She doesn't fit into a gender role. She's a prophet, a judge, and a warrior. That's not a typical role for a Jewish mother."
A former evangelical, Toscano studied the Bible at a Christian college.
"Our goal for the weekend is to deconstruct the myth and let people know that most people who try to go ex-gay are not successful," Toscano says. "Those people speaking at 'Love Won Out,' who say they are happy, healthy, and successful as ex-gay, are the very rare exceptions."
For more information on the above events, see this week's Flyer Calendar or go to www.beyondexgay.com.