EVERYTHING WE DO in our lives is potentially a political act," Tim Miller says. For more than 20 years, he's been mixing the artistic with the political, and the personal with the public, in identity-based performances about what it means to be queer in America. His works have ranged from the mundane, with a Live Boys series in New York tracking his relationship with his then-boyfriend, to the profound, with a guerrilla-theater performance in a makeshift AIDS ward outside an LA County hospital in which he and ACT UP demanded better health care for people living with the disease.
Open Circle Theater, May 5-7
Miller hasn't performed all these years without accumulating a few impressive battle scars. He was one of the "NEA Four" artists whose National Endowment for the Arts grants were rescinded in 1990; he successfully sued the organization. Now Miller's journeying to 45 states with Glory Box (Australian for "hope chest"), an exploration of same-sex marriage and the struggle for immigration rights for gay bi-national couples—a performance he calls "my legal piece, my argument with my country."
It's ironic that Miller's become a spokesperson for committed monogamy. In Shirts & Skin, his humorous and often touching 1997 autobiography largely composed of past performance pieces, he calls the title husband "too bourgeois," and when explaining to friends why he chose an open relationship with a past boyfriend he says, "We aren't trying to emulate the straight, fucked-up marriage model that never worked for our parents anyway." But Miller has, in his own words, "changed, matured, shifted," and the "horndog mania" of his 20s and early 30s has been replaced by a desire to marry Alistair McCartney, his Australian-born boyfriend of six years. McCartney is in the US on a student visa that will expire in a little over a year from now, and unless immigration rights for gay binational couples suddenly manifest themselves, McCartney will be forced to leave the country.
MILLER'S COME TO RECOGNIZE that marriage is more than an official symbol of the love between two human beings; he calls it the "primary goodies delivery system" in American culture. Married heterosexual couples receive 1,049 more rights—immigration included—than their homo counterparts, and it looks like this gap won't be narrowing any time soon. Miller's native California recently passed the Knight Initiative (Proposition 22), joining the side of over 30 states by banning same-sex marriages, and although Vermont's made strides toward legalizing same-sex marriage in all but name, Miller points out, "The minute you leave the state of Vermont, you have nothing." Outside the marriage issue, the US is the last Western country to outlaw gay sex (16 states have anti-sodomy laws), and despite the witch hunt that Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has become, gays are still chucked out of the military. As part of a society that perpetuates "internalized dehumanizing of gay people," and where "faggot is a naughty word you get to say," Miller chalks these injustices off to America's slow progression. After all, it was just over a century ago that Americans owned slaves, less than a century ago that women were granted the right to vote, and it wasn't until 1967 that marriage between heterosexuals of different races was legalized. But the clock's ticking, McCartney's leaving, and, as Miller says, "America can't be as slow as shit on this, or I won't get to stay here."
When Miller returns to Seattle, where he spent a year (and performed his first naked art piece) at the UW, he promises not to be all frowns and politics. He admits to venting much of his rage to the press, while in Glory Box—which he calls his strongest piece—he saves room for the sexy, the funny, and the romantic. Even after experiencing first-hand America's "horrible and embarrassing" treatment of gay people, Miller refers to himself as a humanist, which is evident in his autobiography's rampant optimism and fresh takes on relationships and the body. Before he sells his Venice home, gives up his job at UCLA, packs his suitcases, and takes a final bow on his home soil, Miller would like a final shot at changing things by telling his story, which just might be enough. After all, he says, "When people hear the story, it does seem unfair."