“What is a queer response to climate change?” An interview with Peterson Toscano
What is a queer response to climate change? Here we enter into a conversation with Peterson Toscano, a queer Quaker comedian, actor, and host of both Citizen’s Climate Radio and former writer and performer of Climate Stew. He will be performing his show, “Everything is Connected” on Tuesday September 20th at 7 pm in the Freeman Auditorium at Penn State’s University Park campus. Learn more at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute calendar. In “Everything is Connected,” Toscano humorously explores the serious topics of LGBTQ issues, sexism, racism, violence, gender, and climate change and the myriad connections between them. He is an indefatigable champion of justice for marginalized people, but never a doom smith. His light approach to serious issues like homophobia, gender equality, peace, and who is and who will be damaged most by anthropogenic climate change is disarming. He lives in Sunbury, PA with his husband, the writer, Glen Retief.
In this interview, Toscano deals with a number of sustainability challenges. These include entangled problems of gender and sexual politics, the role of religion in our lives, and the ethics of climate change. Sustainability educators will likely find his approach to communication about these wicked problems refreshingly queer and quirky.
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Peter Buckland: Thanks for talking Peterson. What has drawn you to confront issues of dignity and justice?
Peterson Toscano: I have experienced indignities and injustices. Growing up gay and Christian in the USA during the HIV/AIDS Crisis, I felt like a second-class citizen. While I experienced the privileges that come from being white and male, the cabin pressure of power and privilege dropped the minute leaders at my little Evangelical Christian church found out I was gay. They saw me as a feminized male, and I began to experience the silencing and marginalization that has happened to women in all sorts of institutions, including religious ones. I bumped up against the stained-glass ceiling.
I reacted by going on a bizarre odyssey to try and find a “cure” to being gay. I spent nearly 20 years submitting to strange and cruel gay reparative treatments. Of course these didn’t make me straight, but enduring these treatments opened my eyes to begin to see the kind of pressure we put on ourselves and each other to conform to the standards of this world as we compete for power, value, and acceptance. I finally came to my senses and then came out. I then concluded I needed to do anti-oppression work, first to sort myself out and then to engage the world around me. I also understood that to do so I needed to draw on the tools of comedy and storytelling.
PB: You’ve called your newest piece “Everything is Connected.” What’s that mean?
PT: My brain works in strange ways. I see odd connections where they may not even exist. I might be speaking about LGBTQ issue and suddenly I’m reminded of a Bible story and this leads me to think of an environmental justice issue. When I first became concerned about climate change, I immediately asked myself and others, “What is a queer response to climate change?” Most people, including my husband, looked at me like I was from outer space. But with something as large as climate change and other human rights issues, it’s important to consider metaphors and examples from many sources to aid us in wrapping our heads and hearts around these issues.
PB: If everything is connected what does that mean for us, our actions, and our beliefs? One of the reasons I ask is that when we examine issues like climate change impacts, girls’ access to education or fresh water for people and other species we confront ethics and legacy issues. Religious thinkers, Quakers such as yourself among them, have been addressing some issues but not others. So what’s going on out there in the world of faith on our connections? What should be happening?
PT: Oh my God this is a HUGE question. I could write a dissertation about this topic. The very simple short answer is we need to listen to each other. My experience of the world is profoundly different from others. It is not enough to imagine how another person experiences the world: I need to listen. Lawmakers, policy makers, university leaders, and everyday citizens need to listen. We need to go out of our ways to read books and watch films about people different from us. As we listen, we realize there are no perfect solutions, but we can proceed with thoughtfulness and knowledge so that together we engage in harm reduction and propose solutions that benefit the most earthlings.
PB: You deal with a fair amount of technical information in your writing and performances. As a non-scientist, how do you go about processing that information? How did you start dealing with that information and how do you go about doing it now?
PT: I am so NOT a scientist. I come from the world of humanities—literature, theater, and Bible scholarship. In university I had to take some science classes to graduate, and they seriously lowered my once impressive GPA. Then years later starting in 2013 I took a year off to study climate change—both the science behind it and the ways people were talking about it. Fortunately I felt very motivated to learn, something that has been proven to push students to excel where they failed before. It’s like a parent with child suffering from a serious long-term illness or LGBTQ people during the HIV/AIDS Crisis. They are highly motivated to understand what is happening so that they can be part of the response and not just helplessly watch from the sidelines. When it comes to all the information, I process concepts and data by placing them in categories that make sense to me, categories that I understand already. I look for metaphors in literature and social sciences to help me comprehend and remember what I learn about climate change. Then through creating comic monologues for the stage and podcasts, I deepen my understanding more.
PB: You’ve taken humor as the vehicle for your work. Why?
PT: Humor relaxes an audience; it is a subversive art. I hope I use my comic powers for good. When dealing with heavy hot-button topics like sexuality, gender, white privilege, faith, and climate change, I know I need to help my audience get to an emotional and physical place of openness. They need to relax so that they have ears to hear something new or something they have heard for a long time but have struggled to grasp. Comedy is the most effective means I know to get to that place.
PB: How do you keep yourself from cheapening the issues or even fetishizing them? For example, you have to address both personal trauma from gay bashing and civilizational challenges like super storms or killer heat waves. These could be just lurid or shocking. And shock can attract. Do you have rules to guide you on how you approach difficult issues?
PT: We have enough drama already when it comes to climate change and with LGBTQ issues. I don’t need to add to it! As an actor, I seek to create compelling characters who are fully formed. They are flawed and I try to develop them so that they are deeper than the issues they represent. This is essential. Humor helps too and leads to self-deprecation and introspection. While I hope to move audience members to think and to act, I do not want to manipulate them through guilt or shame. For too long conversations about sexuality, religion, or climate have drawn on shaming and terrifying people. Instead I want to appeal to their sense of justice as I point out that they have a part to play on this new planet.
PB: Last year in Huffington Post, you had an interesting piece on climate change deniers and what your friends were saying about them. You said that those of us calling for action on climate change could be “obnoxious” about people who dismiss climate change. What do you mean by that and what should we do differently?
PT: Climate denial is a very American thing. Some people mock skeptics and lump them together in the same camp. But denial is a complicated thing. I mean who hasn’t denied an unpleasant reality at some point in their lives? We understand what it is like to struggle with the fact that the person we have a crush on is just not into us. Some of us have had to work through our denial in accepting that a particular field of study or career was out of reach for us. In my case I struggled to accept the reality that my mom, and then six years later my dad, were diagnosed with terminal cancer. Be it a big or little issue, we can relate to denial, especially when the issue will bring about change.
And if we are honest, we each struggle with climate denial to one degree or another. To fully accept the weight and reality of climate change and all it means would crush us. Scientists around the world who study climate change have to develop strategies to deal with the emotions that hit them as the seriousness of the problem becomes more and more evident. By picking on other people about their denial, we then inoculate ourselves from seeing our own. There is the denial that says, “If we each just do our part, drive less, take shorter showers, etc, we will begin to tackle climate change.” No, that is not true. We need to look honestly at this problem. So that is one issue—we judge others than end up absolving ourselves or hiding out a very very low bar for our lawmakers. It is enough if they acknowledge climate change is a problem.
Also, by lumping everyone together in the same pile, we do not hold the right people accountable. There are political leaders and industry leaders who have known since the 1980’s that fossil fuel pollution alters the composition of the atmosphere and causes trouble for us all. They are not climate deniers; they are outright liars. That is a very different thing altogether. They have misled the public, their constituents, and stockholders. We don’t like it when people lie to us whether it be about smoking cigarettes and cancer, lead in the water, or greenhouse gases polluting the air.
PB: There’s an elephant in this room this year that hasn’t been here for previous guests on The Field Guide blog—the 2016 presidential election. And I bring it up for a specific reason. You’ll be visiting students of many stripes while you’re at Penn State. I wonder what kinds of questions you’re asking about the issues
PT: I regularly go to Washington DC to talk to lawmakers. While I know that lots of attention goes towards the presidential candidates, I am curious about how the House and Senate might change this election. Regardless of who is in power though, I need to see each lawmaker and leader as a potential climate hero. There is no choice. We must change energy policy, and for to that to happen citizens, young and old need to talk to policy makers and let them know that we demand change. It helps too when we go with actual solutions.
There is no one perfect solution, but I advocate for a fee to be place on carbon and other fossil fuels and that the money collected to go to households to help with the rising energy prices. With such low gas prices, there is little incentive for people to ween themselves off of fossil fuels. And the largest polluters—business and government will always go for the cheapest products. So change the system so that people have to pay for the right to pollute. I have found encouragement and inspiration from being a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group that advocates for carbon fee and dividend. They have a chapter in State College.
PB: For young people reading this and who come to see you perform, what can they do to lead? What’s their role on the changing planet?
PT: Ah, what superpowers you possess. Seriously, middle-age folks speaking to lawmakers about acting to protect the children and future generations don’t get that far, but when high school and college students show up, wow, what a difference. I’ll be in DC in early November lobbying congress to act on climate, and I would love to Penn State students to show up and join me.
Even with all of the corporate money that is out there, if you get enough citizens in the face of lawmakers, bringing solutions, and threatening to vote them out of office if they don’t act, we see movement. It takes time. It requires patience and resiliency. We can burn out quickly. But we need to show our leaders there is political will to act for climate and that we will not take no for an answer. We will return again and again, respectfully, prepared, and unrelenting. We are in a time in history when everyone has a part to play. I meet people on campuses all over the country and I get chills. I have no idea how the person I meet will be historically significant, but I have a sense that they will do something meaningful in this time of climate change.
PB: Any closing thoughts?
PT: We really live in extraordinary times. Yes, it can be frightful and infuriating, but also what an honor to be the people on the planet right now. To be those people who not only have to figure out how face, and hopefully avoid the worst catastrophes, but also to re-envision the world, to address issues of inequality and injustices, to pursue a stable, just future for all. We have work to do.