Words by Friends: Exploring Gender in the Bible through Humor

Peterson Toscano describes himself on his website as a “Quirky Queer Quaker Performance Artist and Scholar.” He does not disappoint, taking a more playful, light-hearted approach to serious topics that deserve our attention, including gender, religion, and climate change. I recently asked Peterson about why he has made it his life’s work to delve deeper into these themes, who inspires him, and his latest project, which has roots in one of FGC’s most-watched Bible Half Hour presentations, from the 2012 edition of the Gathering

You explore themes of gender, religion, and climate change in your work as a performance artist and scholar. What inspired you to focus on these themes?

Part of it has been personal. As a young adult, I was active in Evangelical churches that did not welcome or affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people. As a young gay man, I attempted and failed to become straight and masculine. The personal conflict between my faith and orientation, and the ultimate resolution of coming out gay while holding onto my Christian faith, has given me a lifetime of material to explore in writing and on stage. As I began to engage with LGBTQ people in and out of the Quaker world, I was affected and influenced by their experiences and struggles. Learning about the oppression transgender and gender non-binary people experience in every part of society, including from cisgender gay and lesbian people and organizations, influenced the way I saw the Bible and talked about it. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I got involved in climate work. Back in 2012 my partner, Glen Retief, went through a profound existential crisis concerning climate change. His epiphany about the seriousness of climate change as a human rights issue propelled me into climate work. I see all of these areas connected when it comes to looking at justice, privilege, and equality. Yes, we are all in the same boat together, just not all on the same deck.

Who inspires you and the work that you do? Are there individuals/groups in the world of Friends you admire that our readers should know about? 

If we are talking about long gone folks, I have been influenced by the words of Walt Whitman, Issac Pennington, Caroline Stephen, and Logan Pearsall Smith. I have been guided and challenged by the words and witnesses of Lisa Graustein, Trayce Peterson, John Calvi, John and Debbie Humphries, and Kody Hersh to name just a few. I am inspired by Quaker performers and artists like Evelyn Parry and Amanda Kemp. Now that I am engaged in climate work, I have found much comfort and insights in connecting with Eileen Flanagan, Gretchen Reinhardt, Beverly G. Ward, Ruah Swennerfelt, and Jeff Hipp.

Your latest film, Transfigurations, examines variations of gender in the Bible. It’s a refreshing look at the Biblical stories we all know (and a new take on ones we aren’t as familiar with). What motivated you to make this film? Why did this perspective on gender in the Bible need to be shared?

I had been performing Transfigurations live for ten years. Some of this material I shared during my Bible Half Hour presentations at the 2012 FGC Gathering. I wanted to get it out to people who do not have the opportunity to see a live performance. In fact, it had been my dream for many years to make a film version, but it had to be well-done, not just a recording in front of a live audience. So much can get lost when a piece goes from stage to screen. Unexpectedly, I received a generous unsolicited donation to make the film. As a result, the movie is a high quality rendering of the performance with gorgeous camera work and editing, lots of intimate close-ups, and a well-orchestrated soundtrack.

Many people have been traumatized by religious people using the Bible as a weapon to destroy a healthy sense of self. LGBTQ people have been attacked in the name of God. Providing interpretations of sexual and gender minorities who are celebrated in the text is useful work in recovering from religious abuse. There are also non-LGBTQ people who look to the Bible for inspiration and guidance. Some of these folks have been painted into a corner in regards to LGBTQ issues. There were told that the Bible discriminates and gives them moral authority to also discriminate.

I come with good news. There are other stories in the book that have been overlooked or hidden from sight. These positive portrayals of people who do not fit certain well established notions of gender can serve as bridges to help traditional Bible believers find a loving and respectful way forward.

What aspects of Transfigurations do you think audiences will enjoy most? What parts do you think will be most challenging for viewers who are more familiar with a limited view of gender roles and identities in the Bible?

The DVD offers two versions. One is a performance lecture. I perform Bible stories while also talking about the Bible scholarship, the original languages, and how I get the interpretations. The other version is a dramatic play. It tells the story of a disciple who has been on a gender journey. The disciple reveals stories of other gender outlaws. Regardless if someone is more interested in Bible scholarship or the performance, most people say they enjoy the shape-shifting I do as I morph from character to character. On stage I only have my body and a scarf to help in the transformation. In the film we do a lot with makeup, lighting, and editing. Wait until you see my beard when I play Esau from Genesis; it’s downright Biblical!

In the presentation, I refer to gender non-conforming people. Many people are used to working in a binary—you are male or female. I present characters who are not male or female. Or they are somewhere in the middle, or a gender altogether different. This is no stretch, as the Bible has many characters who are eunuchs. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them. Some people may find this middle ground of gender to be uncomfortable to consider. I see beauty and power in these gender non-binary characters.

You use humor to share stories that might otherwise be too serious or heartbreaking to share with audiences. Why is humor such a powerful storytelling tool?

Humor of course can be used as a weapon to hurt and belittle others. It may also make light of serious issues that require our attention. Humor also has the ability to shed light on issues that need to be exposed and explored. The comics of our day offer up some of the most insightful political and social commentary available. Humor also relaxes people. This is so important when talking about deadly serious issues like LGBTQ liberation or global climate change. The physical act of smiling and laughing alters the body and brain. We let go of our tensions, our neural pathways open up, we relax our diaphragms, and we think deeper.

What’s next for you? What projects are you working on now?

I am currently the host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, a monthly podcast for a group called Citizens’ Climate Education. I get to interview people all over the world and provide a platform for people who are hardest hit by climate change to tell their stories. I feature many women, people of color, and non-Americans to broaden and deepen the discussion. This summer I will work on the third draft of a memoir, Waking Up from a Biblically-Induced Coma. I am trying to better understand how I got so caught up in harmful theology and how I ultimately escaped. What gives me the most pleasure these days is my garden—ah the Swiss chard, the strawberries, and soon to appear, those plump, juicy tomatoes! 

Peterson Toscano will make an appearance at the FGC Gathering this summer at the Author Event Series. Details coming soon. Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible is available now at QuakerBooks.org.

Watch Peterson’s Bible Half Hour Presentation on Gender Identities in the Bible from the 2012 FGC Gathering here.

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