Monday, 14 September 2015

Peterson Toscano @ Woodbrooke Reviewed

Peterson Toscano is an American, Queer, Quaker performance artist and community theologian who some of you will be familiar with from his performances at the Greenbelt Festival. Yesterday he appeared at the WoodbrookeQuaker Study Centre, which is Europe’s only residential Quaker centre – established in 1903.

I had seen Peterson perform a range of times in a range of contexts. One of the things about him is he has a range of performance styles and you are never quite the same.

Yesterday he was using a discussion driven performance style which is one he indicated that he often uses when performing to audiences which are predominantly Quaker.

He began by explaining that the performance would work by him giving three facts about himself, which relate to his work and then the audience would then be invited to ask questions which would determine what direction the performance went in.

The three facts he gave himself all related to work I had seen him perform previously or work I knew he was engaged in:

1)    He is gay and was in the past part of ex-gay programmes as he spent 17 years and a great deal of money seeking to turn himself straight before coming to accept his sexuality. This is the work which informed the first show of his I saw when I slipped into a fringe event at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo’ Half Way House.

2)    He is a bible scholar who has done a lot of work looking at gender non-conforming characters. This informed work I appreciated at Greenbelt a couple of years ago entitled Transfigurations.

3)    He is a somebody who has looked at climate change from a queer perspective as he sees it as a LGBT, faith and human rights issue.


The first question he was asked related to who were his favourite gender non-conforming characters and this enabled him to give to unpack some of his biblical study on the two Ethiopian eunuchs referring to Jeramiah 38 & 39. He then went on to do a scene talking based on Esau talking about Joseph and his multi-coloured garment.  I am currently doing a bible study project writing letters to different characters and have been working my way through Genesis on my other blog. Seeing this scene again helped me to connect with Esau in a way I had not been able to in writing these letters. When then expanding on his work about gender variant characters he talked about the importance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance and urged those attending to support their local events.

He then moved on to climate change via thinking again about Joseph and referring to the way during time of famine Pharaoh didn’t use a just solution, rather the poor were required to go and purchase this from him to survive. He explained why we need to find just solutions.

He was then asked about language and took a couple aspects of Transfigurations to illustrate his answer. Within this he talked about the power of acting out and embodying the Christian story.

As he then went back to climate change he introduced a character I had not seen before Elizabeth Jerimiah. As he put the wig, glasses and earrings on he launched in to a really interesting skit which illustrated some of the contradictions which we need to bear in mind when looking at evangelical women (and whilst he didn’t name her it was clear he meant people such as Joyce Myer).

Then he went into a popular character who reappears from time to time in his work Marvin Bloom. Within this he moved on to the effects of climate change which people really care about e.g. coffee leaf rust. He also bought in the concept of climate denial. When he was expanding on this afterwards his strongest condemnation was for hope deniers (who are often environmental activists who say we have reached the point of no return).

He talked movingly of why climate change was a queer issue. He particularly focused on the way in which LGBT youth homelessness is a real problem because many homeless projects are run by churches and either they do not accept LGBT people or LGBT young people are scared of them. He said in the big storms in the US these young people had been the group most effected. He also drew attention to the problems elderly LGBT people who because of their past may have no biological family to look after them face and made the point we need to look out for these people.

Whilst the UK is different from the USA in many ways and we face extreme weather less often the underlying points were still relevant and challenging.

He then went on to draw parallels with the crisis that the public didn’t want to acknowledge and address in the 19080’s – AIDS. He recommended the audience watch the documentary “How to Survive a Plague”.

He argued that climate change has a similar silence around it to that AIDS had in the past. He also drew the parallel that in that disaster all suffered but not equally. The poorer you were the more you were likely to suffer.

He then moved on to look at the history of the ex-gay movement and told a story of his interaction with John Schmidt who had formally run one of the ex-gay movements which had inflicted so much pain on him. This was something he also explained in detail at Greenbelt this year in a seminar on conflict resolution. Within this he talked about how restorative justice can liberate oppressors as well as the oppressed.

Finally he gave a little bit of detail about the US Quaker divisions on their view of LGBT people. I was surprised to hear about this because I had the view Guardian readers were just pretty fluffy. However, when he explained what the reasons were underlying it made sense because these are the issues which to my mind is underlying all the discussions in the various denominations about LGBT issues and that is it is really a discussion on the authority and nature of scripture.

I enjoyed this presentation because it took a form which allowed the audience to see the many sides of Peterson and his work. He is a talented performer and community theologian who has much to offer those willing to listen and then reflect upon his work.

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