Performance artist reflects on a life of gay rights activism

AJ Naddaff

Staff Writer

Internationally-acclaimed performance artist Tim Miller has spent his lifetime fighting for a just and equitable society for the gay community.

Miller performed snippets of his life’s journey in the Lilly Family Gallery late Monday afternoon for an audience of mainly Gender and Sexuality Studies students. English professor Dr. Ann Fox, a long-time friend of Miller, introduced him by highlighting his enduring and essential role in shaping queer activism in the face of nearly three decades of censorship and adversity.

Miller spent his initial 13 to 14 years of activism responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, while he spent the latter portion of his work on a personal cause: tackling same-sex marriage. Not long ago, immigration laws prohibited foreign gay and lesbian couples from securing a green card, forcing his then-boyfriend Alistair to return to his home in Australia.

The six months Miller spent separated from Alistair marked a watershed in his career. He set out to change same-sex marriage laws, a goal his personal happiness depended on. The long-sought victory for same-sex marriage this past June is the culmination of the decades of activism by Miller and the countless others involved in the gay rights movement.

Miller opened his solo performance with his first memory of social justice. Revealing his famous sense of humor, Miller told of the time in fifth grade when he and his best friend, Scott, bickered back and forth over what he later understood was the right for same-sex marriage.

Switching voices between himself and Scott, Miller created an image of the two marveling over a house surrounded by ceramic garden gnomes. When Scott says he wanted to live in the house with his girl crush, Katy, Miller interjected, “I thought we were going to live together?” To Miller’s chagrin, Scott vehemently opposed such an idea, responding, “Are you crazy Tim? Boys can’t marry boys.” Scott pushed Miller to the ground and shoved a Twinkie down his throat. But, Miller continued, “I have to admit, some part of me had been longing for his physical closeness for so long that being tortured was simply going to have to do.”

Miller played out solemn matters, such as the countless bomb and death threats from KKK members and neo-Nazi storm troops, with a sarcastic tone. Noting that ad nauseam “f” epithets are nothing new to him, Miller recounted a time when a Colt 45 bottle was thrown at him, a hit that stung like nothing before. During a gay pride parade in Montana, a group of angry white men launched a “family-sized screw top jug of Colt 45” at him, cutting his hands. Miller presented the image of his bloody hands as a symbol: the queer communities’ hands have been slapped a lot in their lives, he explained.

In 1990, Miller and four other performance artists received National Endowment for the Arts grants, but the decision was vetoed because of the homosexual themes in the works. “President Bush in 1990 decided to throw the performance artists to the Christian wolves and to make them like him more–it didn’t work, but that’s why he did it,” Miller said.

After a nearly ten year legal battle, Miller won back the grants in a United States Supreme Court decision.

In Miller’s last performance of the afternoon, rehearsed only a few times prior, he contemplated what could come next for queer artists and activists. Miller talked about getting married to his current husband, Alistair, and then walking into the Department of Homeland Security to finally secure a green card.

Conor Hussey ’18 said that the “emotion surrounding the end of his 20-plus-year struggle absolutely filled the room,” and that “everyone felt it.”

For Dylan Goodman ’15, Miller’s theatre has served as a unifying force in his undergraduate career. Goodman met Miller when he came to campus three years ago. “Not only was my home state of North Carolina in the midst of passing Amendment One, a reform to our state constitution that would publicly ban marriage equality for LGBT couples, but also I was just starting to come to terms with my queer identity as a closeted first-year,” Goodman explained. “Yesterday, I watched Tim perform in response to the next big struggle for the LGBT movement in the U.S., yet this time as an out queer senior living in a country that has now ‘achieved’ LGBT marriage equality nationwide. This world would have been inconceivable to me mere semesters ago, but some things never change: I was in the same Lily Gallery, seeing the same (slightly older) Tim Miller. In that moment, I was reminded of how much I have grown while at Davidson, and more generally, of the immense power in seeing differently.”

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