Villanova Uninvites Queer Artist Tim Miller in Keeping With Whose Mission?
By Keiko Lane ()
I’m getting tired of writing variations on this article, about dear friends and colleagues banned from institutions of higher education because they are queer, because their work dares to address questions of sexuality, desire, and self authorization.
Tim was scheduled to lead a five-day workshop on personal narrative at Villanova, a Catholic university in Philadelphia. The statement from its president reads:
“We had concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission. Therefore, Villanova has decided not to host Mr. Miller on our campus. Villanova University is an open and inclusive community and in no way does this singular decision change that.”
Um… open to whom? Of the many disturbing things about the statement from Villanova is the embedded assumption that students should be – what – sheltered? Protected? From experiences that fall outside of those sanctioned by their faith?
As educators, we sometimes – naively at best, condescendingly and dismissively at worst – forget that our students live in territory – emotional, economic, and cultural – that we could not have imagined. The other day, I saw a friend, a long-time professor at a state university. I asked her what seemed different about her students this year and she said that most of them now articulate that they don’t expect to find jobs when they graduate. Not just that they don’t expect to quickly find good jobs in their chosen fields – they anticipate unemployment.
What do we expect our students’ experiences to be when they come into our classrooms? Who is sheltered? Who is being protected? Sex and nude bodies are the least shocking components of the experiences of most of the young people I see in my psychotherapy practice or in my classroom.
From Highways to Hip-Hop
The other night, I saw a performance called “Tree City Legends” at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. A collaborative piece of music and prose about immigration and dislocation, alcoholism and drug abuse, suicide, hopelessness, hip-hop, grief, community, and faith. It reminded me of the early 1990s at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, a space co-founded by Tim Miller, that housed many performances born out of AIDS, out of the collective grief and rage of our generation.
The floor of Highways was made a living installation, imprinted with the names of our community’s dead. The narrow entranceway to the “Tree City Legends” performance was hung with prayer flags decorated with the names of the dead and missing of the cast and of the community who came to see the performance. We were invited to write names on the piles of blank flags and attach them to the already fluttering collections.
I didn’t know anyone in the mostly young, mostly Asian, audience. As I stood in line to enter the theater, a young man of color in line in front of me said at the ticket counter, “Um, my professor said he’d leave a ticket for me.” The man was waved in the door. After the performance, I watched from across the room as he, with tears in his eyes, spoke intently with an older man who I imagined was the professor.
Good education means pushing the limits of what we know to be true by asking questions we couldn’t have conceived of yesterday and still can’t answer.
In October 2008, I chaired an academic conference called “Queer Bodies in Psychotherapy.” I knew from the start of conference planning that I wanted Tim Miller to perform during our opening night celebration. The conference was a few weeks from the presidential elections; the news was full of Obama, and here in California, of Prop 8. Tim had reworked his performance to include the landscape of our politicized lives. He was especially focused on marriage equality as a part of queer immigration rights, as his partner, author Alistair McCartney, is Australian, and they were uncertain of the geography of their future – if Tim would become an American artist in exile in order for them to stay together.
Tim’s plane was late. He sent me a cheery, unworried text on his way from the airport: “Hi! On the way. See you soon.” I watched the clock nervously. He trotted in that Friday night, unphased by the crosstown San Francisco traffic and looked around the hotel ballroom where he would be performing. I sent a conference volunteer off to get dinner for Tim, as he started a tech run with the makeshift sound and light boards cobbled together for the show.
Over the past 20-plus years, as I have watched Tim as a performer, I’ve noticed that he spends much of his time naked. Anyone who has seen Tim perform knows that I mean that literally. Tim is interested in the flesh, blood, and experiences of these queer bodies that we live in. Tim was one quarter of the NEA 4, a group of performers who had been awarded Solo Performer Fellowships, but who were then defunded in 1990 by the National Endowment for the Arts under political pressure from antigay Sen. Jesse Helms and the first Bush White House. The NEA cited “indecent,” and in Tim’s case, queer, themes in their work. This is one of the cited fears at Villanova – that Tim would expose his naked, queer body to the students.
But I also mean naked figuratively and emotionally. For more than 25 years, Tim has borne witness to queer lives and bodies, holding a mirror up to our most outrageous, most outraged, and most loving and hopeful selves. And isn’t that exactly what we should be modeling for young people?
After his performance that night in 2008, students swarmed around him to ask questions about performance, to flirt, to talk about politics and the elections and to simply be in his presence. I knew he must be tired and watched him back up against the stage, leaning against it as he talked to them. He caught me looking and winked. I walked over and gave him a hug, whispering, “Are you tired? Do you want to be done for the night?” “I’m ok,” he whispered back, kissing my cheek, “As long as they want to talk, I’m fine.”
I flashed back to my own young queer coming of age two decades earlier, Tim making time to talk with me about performance, about writing, about ACT UP strategies after long meetings, and never rushing me. And in the years since then, we’ve had ongoing conversations about education and how to support young people. “We keep getting older,” he would say, “but they are perpetually 18 and need things we couldn’t have imagined.”
Tim pulled himself onto the stage to sit as he talked, then pulled me up next to him. He then motioned for the students to sit on the stage with us, settling in for a conversation, for as long as they needed.
Here’s a sample of what the Villanova students missed, Tim Miller in Cleveland, Ohio in October 2001: