Inteview: Peterson Toscano speaks about his experiences with ex-gay therapy

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Omar Hassan speaks to Peterson Toscano about his experiences with ex-gay therapy and his work in highlighting its harmful effects.

A recent study by the British Medical Journal found that one in six therapists and psychiatrists have attempted to ‘cure’ homosexuality. Next week, a convention featuring notorious ex-gay advocates such as Joseph Nicolosi is to be held in London. Despite all scientific evidence which states sexuality cannot be changed, it is clear that the use of such techniques continues.

In light of recent news around ex-gay therapies and my own personal battle with my family over changing my sexual orientation, I thought it would be an opportune time to speak to Peterson Toscano, a performer who survived over 17 years of ex-gay programmes including the well-known live-in treatment facility, Love In Action.

Toscano has subsequently founded an online community called Beyond Ex Gay, for those who have endured reparative therapy who wish to share their experiences and speaks regularly about his struggle with the Ex Gay movement.

In the following interview, he details his own experiences and the reasons why he first sought treatment. He uncovers the truth about a bigoted community, which refuses to accept the equal protection and rights of homosexuals. In the end, he raises important questions about society’s responsibilities towards the LGBTQ community, as well as the future of the Ex Gay supporters.

Did you find reparative therapy useful? Why or why not? 

I found that reparative therapy and ex-gay ministry caused me more harm than good. When someone elects to go into one of these programs or treatments, typically they have lots of stuff going on in their lives that needs attention – depression, addiction issues, low self-esteem, family problems, unresolved abuse or trauma.

None of these things have to do with being gay, but in our society, and particularly in many churches, they teach that being gay is the cause of all these things. They are wrong, but still this is powerful message to a young impressionable mind.  

Overall, I found reparative therapy to be destructive to my psyche, my spirituality, my career, relationships within my family, my finances and even my physical health.

It is no surprise that extreme lower back problems ultimately resulting in a herniated disc began at the same time when I initiated to de-gay myself.

Once I came out of the closet and began to undo the damage of the ex-gay treatment, the lower back problems went away.  

Why were you trying to rid yourself of homosexual tendencies? Was it because of personal, social, religious or cultural beliefs? 
There was a strong mix of reasons that compelled me to pursue reparative therapy. I believed that my primary motivation was religion.

As a Christian I did not then see how I could also be gay. As I have explored my reasons further, I discovered many factors that influenced and pressured me to de-gay myself.  

I had many reasons why I went ex-gay. These included a desire to marry and have children, fear of loneliness, pressure from society, fear of AIDS and other STDs, low self-esteem and many others.
Did you believe that homosexuality should be frowned upon, or was it something that you simply did not want to be a part of? 
At the time when I pursued treatment I believed that it was wrong to be gay and normal to be heterosexual. Of course I received this message in nearly every TV show, pop song, advert, religious ceremony, and book I read.

I had an aversion to being gay because of the aversion I experienced in the world around me.  

Now I see that a gay orientation and gender diversity are normal phenomena in the natural world and throughout human history.  

Has the therapy altered your sexual orientation in anyway? If so, have you ever been in a relationship with a female? 
Gay reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries did not alter my sexual orientation in the least. In fact, most ex-gay therapists today will tell you that a change in orientation is not a realistic goal.

At the time, the message was not so honest. Instead therapists and ex-gay proponents filled my head with myths promising me the impossible – transformation from gay to straight. As a result of these promises and my quest to be heterosexual, I married a woman back in 1990.

We were together for five years before the marriage ended in flames. I loved her as a person, but sadly never desired her as a lover.

What did alter was my emotional well-being. It was during this marriage that I became more and more discouraged and depressed over my sexuality to the point where I seriously considered taking my life.  

Can you divulge some of the therapeutic practices that were used on you? 
I spent 17 years and over $30,000 on three continents attempting to de-gay myself. I attended weekly support groups, one-on-one counseling sessions, conferences, and even two years at a residential facility. In addition I purchased and read over 20 books about reparative therapy and the ex-gay process.  

Each programme and practitioner offers a different method. This is not a regulated industry and typically most ex-gay therapists have no formal training in mental health, psychology or counselling. I had been in programmes and with counsellors in the UK, US and South America.  

Some use pastoral counselling, using the Bible and traditional Christian teachings as a means of correcting what they see as transgressive behaviours and desires. 

One programme used an altered version of the 12-Steps traditionally used in Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Often therapists tried to correct gender variance instructing me to be more gender conforming. They taught me how to play football, change the oil in my car, walk, sit and dress in a more straight-acting masculine way. 

Many counsellors target parents as the culprits for why someone is gay and drag family into the “therapy.” I spent two years at a residential facility in Memphis, Tennessee and this program convinced my parents that they had failed me and were to blame for problems I faced with my sexuality.

These programs often offer up their own template of how someone becomes gay. It is a mish-mash of debunked Freudian theory, Bible lessons and development models attempting to explain how someone became gay. They then want the client to create a new mythology about they’re past to adhere to their template. 

At times the “treatments” became outright bizarre including three exorcisms I endured, one of which was is Kidderminster, England.

Why did you spent so many years in ex-gay programs? 
As I mentioned before, I had many reasons for pursuing a change in orientation. Added to that mix were fear and shame, toxic emotions that keep people from thinking clearly. I felt terrified that I would piss off God, get AIDS and die, and I lived in the shame that society heaped on me about being gay.

I also lived in a country (the USA) that stressed that one could be whatever one wanted to be. I ceded my brain over to our oppressors and let them give me the weapons and tools to go to war against myself.

Bottom line I was a coward – afraid of what would happen if I chose to be authentic. Little did I know that I would experience a fullness of life and health I had never dreamed was possible.  

Peterson Toscano is a theatrical performance activist who travels internationally with original one-person shows that address LGBT concerns as well as issues of race, gender, environment and faith. He will be in the UK from 23 April speaking about reparative therapy. For a full schedule please see:

Omar is a writer and freelance journalist. He has also been involved with a range of TV production companies, working predominantly in the area of factual programming. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he has lived in the USA and Saudi Arabia and currently resides in the United Kingdom.