Ex-gay survivor's tales of exorcism in middle England

BBC News/September 22, 2012

After $30,000 for controversial conversion therapy, three attempts at exorcism and one failed marriage, Peterson Toscano finally resolved the conflict between his faith and sexuality - he was gay.

It took 17 years to accept it.

Whether called straight to gay, conversion or reparative therapy, the practice Mr Toscano put himself through purports to help individuals change their sexual orientation.

There are those who claim the practice, largely supported by fundamentalist Christian churches, to have changed them from homosexual to heterosexual. They are know as "ex-gay".

But as far as Mr Toscano - who calls himself an "ex-gay survivor" - is concerned, not only does it not work, the process is "psychologically damaging".

Mr Toscano, now 47, grew up in an average Italian American Catholic home in Upstate New York.

But as a devout Christian, and member of the Evangelical Church, he found it difficult to resolve what he saw as a conflict between his sexual orientation and his faith.

"I was doing something spiritually and morally wrong that I would be punished for in the afterlife. And so there was a lot of fear and terrible desperation," he told BBC Religion.

As a teenager in early 1980s America, Mr Toscano experienced a time when the word "gay" was synonymous with Aids. Up to 1973, US psychiatrists had been classifying homosexuals as insane.

"I put two and two together and made what I thought was a logical equation at the time of saying 'that's wrong, that's bad, I need to fix it'. And then 17 years later I finally woke up and came to my senses," he said.

His years of treatment are painful for him to recall. After an interview with US National Public Radio that triggered a period of depression, he now avoids recalling the specifics.

However, he recounts one of the darkest incidents in some of his performance work. During a two-year residential stay at Love in Action, now called Restoration Path, in Memphis, Tennessee, Mr Toscano was required to record all the homosexual encounters he ever had.

He was then told to choose the most embarrassing to read out to his family.

The post-exorcism cuppa

Such therapy was not confined to the US. Mr Toscano visited England for an extended stay in the 1990s as part of his quest to suppress his sexual identity.

Most tourists plan trips to London or Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon; Mr Toscano took a trip to Kidderminster for an exorcism in a cottage overlooking a safari park.

He had already undergone two failed attempts at exorcism in the US. But he describes his experience with a minister in Worcestershire as "more like Reiki than deliverance".

"She never touched me, there was no screaming, there were no buckets of vomit like previous experiences I've had," he said.

"She felt the demons were dislodged enough to come out and then she just said in the most sweet gentle way, 'all right the demons are ready to come out now, all you need to do is take a very deep breath out and poof. There they go'.

"And then she literally put on the kettle and we had tea.

"She was very well meaning, but yet again she re-enforced this notion that there was something, very, very wrong with my insides, that my feelings weren't natural, they were actually demonic.

"That sort of teaching is so psychologically damaging, especially to young people. If you believe that, you will then do whatever you can to rip up your own soul."

In the US, moves are now under way to partially ban the practice in California. Governor Jerry Brown is currently considering a bill to make reparative therapy illegal for children in the state. If this is enacted it will be the first of its kind in the US.

The Evangelical Alliance, which oversees the UK Evangelical community, did not wish to comment on Mr Toscano's experience.

However, there are those within the Anglican community who believe in offering different kinds of support to people of faith conflicted by their sexuality.

Post-gay priest

Church of England priest Peter Ould believes men can live together as partners and have holy and fulfilled lives, as long as those lives are celibate.

He argues that sexual desire can be suppressed for both homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals and that God will replace those wants with something else.

Mr Ould is married with children and calls this stage of his life "post gay", Although he never had sex with a man or conversion therapy, in his 20s he was provided with pastoral support for his attractions to men.

"A holy life means abstaining from sexual relations until one is married to someone of the opposite sex," he told BBC Religion.

Mr Ould now offers pastoral support to homosexual Christians, through both the Church of England and an organisation called the True Freedom Trust (TfT), which had given counselling to Mr Toscano.

In a statement, the UK-based group said that it did not engage in conversion therapy, but offers "biblical support and encouragement to Christians who, for reasons of faith, choose not to embrace a gay identity or to pursue a same-sex relationship".

Dr Peter Saunders, CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, said: "Professionals providing such care should do so in a way that both respects the beliefs and values of the person seeking help and is also evidence-based."

Mr Toscano's journey eventually showed him a way to reconcile his faith and his sexuality. He now uses his experiences in theatrical performances to raise awareness of the harm therapies trying to change or suppress sexual orientation can cause.

Asked what advice he would give his younger self, he said "you are about to go through some really horrible, stupid things".

"There's nothing I can say to dissuade you, but... you are going to make it. You are smart enough to work yourself out of this and you are going to make it."

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