On the tail end of his three-week stay at Haverford as the 2013 Friend in Residence, performance artist, bible scholar, and queer and environmental activist Peterson Toscano sat down with us to answer a few questions about his work and time on campus.
How have you spent your time here?
I’ve been nicely busy. I’ve done a variety of things—classroom work, teaching theater classes and bible classes and even the Quaker seminar. I visited a bunch of groups on campus, including the environmental group [EarthQuakers] and SAGA, and in the beginning of the three weeks we had a climate change summit, for which we brought a bunch of organizations together to discuss climate change. I did performances, both on campus and off. [Director of Quaker Affairs Walter Hjelt Sullivan ’82] reached out to the Quaker Meetings nearby, so I did presentations at three different Meetings in the area. And I did a presentation at Temple University.
What was the best part of your residency?
The best part is that, of all the places that I’ve been [to teach and perform], I feel I can be most myself here, because most of “me” is represented somewhere here. I’m a Quaker. I’m a scholar. I’m gay. And those things are very welcome here. So I don’t have to explain a lot of stuff to people who don’t understand one role or another. That’s been great, and I feel like the conversations have been deeper as a result of that.
What have some of those conversations been about?
Sometimes they are about climate change, which is an issue that is really pressing deeply on me these days. I recognize that so much conversation about climate change is fearful and hopeless, because the situation is really dire. But we have to be able to have conversations about what our positive roles will be in a changing earth and what roles this generation has in having real work to do to advance forward—reminding people of history that as Americans, as gay people, as Quakers we have all faced moments where we had to rise to a huge challenge, and we use all of our creativity and our passion and our discipline, and we do it. There’s no reason to think we won’t do that again. So the conversations have been about trying to find positive, hopeful ways forward so that we’re not all dreading the end of the world, and are, instead, seeing that there are other options here. There have been other conversations about being a Quaker and social justice and how Quakers can function in the world—being contemplative on a Sunday, perhaps, but otherwise, being very engaged in the world the rest of the week. That’s been cool. And we’ve definitely been having conversations about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender issues. And lots of those great conversations go on all the time here, and I got to be a part of them and add my own perspective about being a person of faith who is also gay and who is also concerned with the environment, and talk about the intersection of identities.
How has the Friend in Residence program been different or unique compared to the other college campus visits that you do regularly?
I’ve done other residencies, and I prefer them [to one-day visits] because they give me a chance to get a flavor of the campus and to build some relationships over time with both students and staff. And this Friend in Residence program has had some of that. But because Haverford is near Philly, which has so many Quakers, there have been a lot of people from off campus who have come onto campus to take part in some of our events—the climate change event or the public performances. Some other colleges are there own little islands where people in the community don’t feel welcomed into it. And this has been nice because that wall of separation isn’t there, and that is probably something Haverford has worked hard on.
How have you found campus life at Haverford?
Overall, it is a very friendly campus. It is fun to hear people who are not Quakers say Quaker-y things—like saying “Friend” a lot. At the SAGA meeting we started and ended with a moment of silence, which I loved so much. But it doesn’t feel like an imposition of Quakerism on the community. Quakerism has been woven in. You’ve found a way to be a secular college with high academic standards and students who, I can see, are very serious about their studies, yet you’ve also been able to successfully weave in a Quaker-like culture that complements what happens here.
Can you tell us a little bit about the piece that you performed as part of the President’s Social Justice Series, Transfigurations, which explores the stories of transgender and gender-variant people in the Bible?
I premiered it in November 2007 at UMass Amherst. It’s changed a lot through the years. It has become more of a lecture at most places, but here at Haverford is one of my rare theatrical performances with full makeup and lights. Another special feature of the Haverford performance is that there were two men from Philly who shared some of their own stories—they transitioned from female to male—and shared a slice of their life for the audience. So in addition to hearing ancient stories of gender non-conforming people from the Bible, the audience also heard some contemporary stories from their neighbors.
Why are you interested in the Bible as inspiration for your work?
It’s a place I resisted going to for a long time. I know the Bible really well because of my background in evangelical churches, and in many ways I was terrorized by the Bible. It was a tyrant, as I was taught it. So part of my own personal work has been to have a conversation with that text and see it with new eyes. And that has been really useful to me and has been useful to my audiences. Instead of looking at laws and precepts, I look at people in the text. I embody these different characters. I give them voice, I give them flesh. It is what, in the Jewish tradition, is called midrash. The Bible, for good or for bad, is an important document in our world today. If you think about it, some of our foreign policy is based on certain readings of the Book of Revelations. Some people treat their children certain ways—sometimes, oppressively—because of how they read the Bible. It’s a text that has given people a great deal of comfort, and it has given some people a great deal of grief. So it is important that there are people in our culture who are literate in the Bible.
You were here to teach our students, but are there any lessons that you, yourself, are taking away from your time here?
I learned more about specific topics, like mountaintop removal, which a lot of the students are very passionate about and Walter is very passionate about. I was aware of mountaintop removal before, but I now have a lot more details and know more about the people who are affected by it because I’ve heard stories from people who have gone to West Virginia. Another lesson that I’m taking away is that people have intellectual needs and they have emotional needs, and when we are facing something huge like climate change, if our emotional needs aren’t met, we can’t even begin to address the intellectual needs because we are so terrified and so ashamed and so hopeless that our brains stop functioning. It has reminded me to continue to consider the emotional needs of my audiences and the people I work with. Another lesson I take away is hope for the Religious Society of Friends. As a Quaker it always seems like we are such a small group of people who are dying out, but seeing that some principles and ideas and practices are infused in people’s lives, even if they never become a Quaker, will make the world, the workplace, the home, communities, better places.
Photos by Brad Larrison.