The Austin Chronicle

Forced From Home

Tim Miller Fights to Stay in the U.S. With the Man He Loves

By Robert Faires, October 20, 2000, Arts

Life in exile. To you, that phrase may sound vaguely romantic -- suggestive of some Hollywood version of the noble dissident, driven from his homeland by political repression, stoically enduring a lonely existence on foreign soil -- but to Tim Miller, the phrase has a cold and bitter ring. See, the nationally recognized creator of Shirts and Skin and My Queer Body is staring life in exile hard in the face nowadays. His partner of six years, Alistair McCartney, is an Australian in the U.S. on a student visa due to expire in about a year. Under current U.S. immigration law, the fact that McCartney is involved in a longstanding and committed relationship with Miller is irrelevant to his situation; same-sex couples have no immigration rights in the eyes of the system. Not so for straight couples in the same situation: They can marry, which automatically makes the foreign-born partner eligible for American citizenship and a work permit. And not so for same-sex couples in many other Western countries: They can get their governments to recognize a gay or lesbian relationship for immigration purposes. Without the immigration rights accorded to heterosexuals, McCartney will be forced to leave the U.S. and Miller will be forced to choose between his nationality and his relationship. As far as Miller is concerned, the decision is already made; if that day comes, he's going with McCartney, most likely to Canada (where same-sex relationships are recognized by immigration).

But in characteristic Tim Miller fashion, the performer isn't going without having his say. He has written a new work titled Glory Box, which taps into the legal difficulties facing partners of the same sex but different countries while charting Miller's thoughts on commitment and marriage from childhood to the present and his relationship to McCartney. Glory Box is said to be full of Miller's trademark provocative sexuality, political passion, and barbed, frequently self-deprecating humor, but it is also said to reveal a tender side to Miller not often seen in his work. He shows himself full of hope -- the work takes its name from the Australian version of a hope chest -- both for his personal happiness and for the possibility of securing immigration rights for same-sex couples in his homeland. Miller pins some of those hopes on a Gore victory on Nov. 7. The vice-president has expressed support for immigration reform in this area, while his Republican opponent ... well, let's just say he's never been exactly progressive when it comes to rights for gays and lesbians. So presenting Glory Box in Austin during the final weeks of the presidential race is more than just another whistle stop for Miller. It's taking a stand in George W.'s back yard.

Austin Chronicle: Your friend and colleague Michael Kearns has called your work "a series of self-portraits." If we can consider these works images of you created by you at specific points in your life, what is the image of Tim Miller at the outset of Glory Box?

Tim Miller: For more than 15 years, my performance work has explored the joys and contradictions and trials of being a gay person in America. We're a nation where lesbian and gay culture is simultaneously the most vital in the world as well as endlessly under attack by the U.S. right wing's bigoted laws and their endless reservoir of hatred for gay folks. There have been times I've engaged this battle as Tim Miller -- ACT UP Cheerleader during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. I took on the forces of censorship as Tim Miller -- NEA Four/First Amendment Poster Boy, when Jesse Helms and George Bush (the Daddy) did whatever possible to silence lesbian and gay freedom of speech at the National Endowment for the Arts. I've been a champion of the body and sexuality throughout these struggles. I think Glory Box has me diving into a situation where my most personal identity as a gay man in love with his Australian partner of six years crashes against the hypocrisy of America that treats gay people and their relationships so unjustly. Sparks will fly! Rodan meets Godzilla!

AC: Have the events surrounding Glory Box brought you to any new sense of yourself as an American?

TM: I think this solo performing and spouting off is quintessential of the best of what we get as Americans in our cultural traditions -- a focus on individualism and a willingness to raise your voice. One of the most admirable parts of our collective culture as Americans is the value that is put on individuals fighting for social justice in the face of bad laws and systems. In this sense, a show like Glory Box is so American.

AC: Glory Box is very tightly bound up in issues of American policy and the possibility that you might have to leave this country. You've said that you are "very much an American artist." In what ways?

TM: "My mission, if I decide to accept it, is to have Glory Box be a moving, funny, sexy love story about gay, binational couples that will delight and embolden audiences, dissipate homophobia, transform society, keep Bush out of the White House, and clear pollution from the Barton Springs aquifer!"

I'm joking, but I mean it, too. I actually still have the faith that as an American artist I can make a case to my country and perhaps get these laws changed before Alistair and I are forced to leave. This is so American in its self-importance and belief that individuals count. I do have this faith in the power of art and a deep belief that someday America may stop putting so much energy into hatred of gay people. I know this faith in our country being able to become more just is both really naive and grounded in historical reality. I will do the show in probably a hundred cities over a three-year period in order to raise people's awareness of this issue and get them off their butts to do something about it.

AC: Is that sense of being "American" a plus in dealing with your current situation?

TM: Oh, yes. Having the classic American chutzpah to think that little me could artistically expose the unfairness of these homophobic immigration laws has helped me so much. It stopped me from going nuts from the stress of having your relationship under attack by the U.S. A big chunk of the show, I wrote during a very hard time in 1997, when the U.S. consulate in Australia had refused Alistair his student visa. This put us in a huge crisis, kept us apart for months, and ended up costing us thousands of dollars. I knew right then that I had to get my butt in gear and make a piece that would let people know about the unbelievable injustice that lesbian and gay binational couples face in our country. This is a job for performance art! Especially in this incredibly important election year. As a gay American in a binational relationship, I take the November election very personally. Unless Bush is defeated and the Democrats take back the U.S. House of Representatives, there will probably be no hope for Alistair and I to remain in the U.S. A bill has been introduced by Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the U.S. Congress (Permanent Partners Immigration Reform Bill HR 3650) that would give couples like Alistair and me the same immigration rights that currently only straight married people can get (one of those many "special rights" just for straight folks!). The bill is being sponsored by dozens of Democrat congresspeople and, naturally, not a single Republican. The bill could never pass or even be brought up for a vote in the current GOP Congress. Gore has endorsed the change in immigration laws to give gay people the rights currently afforded only heterosexual married couples. Should the bill pass, we know from the hostility of his Texas track record that Bush will do nothing to help gay people. When we consider everything from Bush's ongoing support of the Texas sodomy law now being appealed to his cynical backroom deals to make sure gay folks are not covered by Texas' weak hate crimes law, it's obvious that Bush works against gay people's equal rights whenever possible. If Bush wins, I think the hope that America will grow out of its childish homophobia in the foreseeable future will be gone, and Alistair and I will have to begin filing the preliminary papers for immigration asylum in Canada the day after the election. We only have a year left on his student visa. The clock is simply ticking too fast.

AC: What would you lose by living in exile?

TM: For me to be forced to leave my country would be an amputation of such a huge part of who I am. I am a millionth-generation American citizen (Revolutionary War ancestors, Civil War ancestors, etc.). I am an American citizen and artist who has contributed a lot to the nation as a teacher at UCLA, an activist, and an arts organizer. Alistair and I do want to stay in the States, of course. It's where our home is. But we do have to face the real likelihood that at a certain point we will no longer be allowed legally to remain in the U.S. We'll see. I do think that it is important to stay and fight if people can. We will have been doing that for six years! On the other hand, I know the fact that we may well be forced to leave the country does shake people out of their denial and apathy. Everyone can relate to how terrible it would be to be forced to leave home. The notion of where "home" is is becoming very murky. It's so hard to face the fact that my home, the U.S., does not respect the humanity of my six-year relationship.

AC: How does Alistair feel about living in exile from his homeland?

TM: Well, of course, since Alistair and I have been together for six years, most of that time in the U.S., America feels like home for him. I get more upset than he does about the thought of us being forced to leave our home here in L.A. In that sense, I am a typical American, since we, of course, tend to be more nationalistic than just about any other country. We Americans are all raised with a "we're the best -- the most democratic" kind of ideology. The fact is that I, like all gay people in the U.S., am a second-class citizen in the country I live in and am denied the thousand or so special rights that only straight people get with marriage. That fact drives me cuh-razy! Almost every other Western country recognizes gay relationships for immigration purposes. Someday our country will join Western civilization.

AC: Does his being an expatriate color your feelings about this situation?

TM: I think what feels weirdest for me is that in the countries Alistair is a citizen of -- Australia and Great Britain -- our relationship would be acknowledged and valued for immigration purposes. I could immigrate to those countries as Alistair's partner. Then it's so embarrassing that I can't offer the same thing for him here in the U.S. It is so bizarre that Alistair's countries respect our human rights so much more than the U.S. does. So much for the "land of the free and home of the brave"!

AC: Where has Glory Box taken you as an artist that you hadn't gone before? And where has it taken you as a human being? Or as a citizen?

TM: Glory Box is simultaneously my most personal piece and my most political, my funniest show and the most intense. The subject matter really cooks in that harsh reality of the fact that gay people's most intimate and sacred love relationships are treated like shit in America. By necessity, these charged feelings bring forward humor as a way of dealing with the situation. But ultimately Glory Box is a love story about the deep capacity of gay people to love one another without any help or encouragement from our society. I want the piece to conjure for the audience a new glory box, a new kind of hope chest, that can be an alternative site for the placing of memories, hopes, and dreams of gay people's extraordinary potential for love.

AC: You've been performing this around the country for several months. What has the response been?

TM: This show has gotten the strongest, most emotional outpouring from the audiences of any piece I've ever done. I've been doing the show all over the U.S. and meeting hundred of les/gay, binational couples. I am really moved and inspired by the love and commitment these gay couples show, managing to maintain their relationships in a country like the U.S. that is so hostile to gay relationships. In America, binational gay couples are offered only three options: breaking up, separation, or exile. It sucks. Glory Box opened very powerfully in San Francisco with a benefit for the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force. The theatre was packed, and practically the whole audience was binational dyke and fag couples from all over the world. American citizens and their partners from Russia, Thailand, Colombia, Switzerland, Holland, Sri Lanka, Mexico. It was so intense to have all these people who are living the situation that the performance deals with in the same room. It was a little overwhelming, there was so much psychic energy of queer love under attack by the U.S. It made for a powerful show.

AC: You've said that with this show you have made discoveries about "what performance is capable of." What discoveries?

TM: The audiences get so involved in the unfairness of what couples like Alistair and I are forced to go through that people really want to storm Congress at the end of the show! Several times in the week after I've left a city, the audience phone calls pour into the local congressperson's office about passing the Immigration Reform bill and one or two more Democratic sponsors in the House sign up. This has renewed my faith in the power of theatre and performance to really have an impact in our communities.

Of course, we are making progress. But unfortunately, I think that America is stuck with some very bigoted and hypocritical political and "religious" leaders on the right who are happy to attack gay people as a way of keeping themselves raising fat contributions and staying in power. They have made homophobia as American as apple pie. The blatant bigotry against gay people is truly a shameful part of our society. The absence of gay people's human rights in the United States is so extreme (being denied the chance to serve in the military, having laws against gay people's sexuality, and being denied marriage and immigration rights) that these human rights violations would actually keep the U.S. from being allowed into the European Economic Community of Nations! At this point, it really feels like America does whatever it can to destroy our gay families. This should piss all of us off, not just gay people. But! In spite of that, I have had amazing glimmers of hope these last months that come from our community itself. I have been inspired by the depth and power of gay love, and it is what keeps giving me hope for the future.

Glory Box runs October 25-28, Wed-Sat, 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor. Call 478-LAVA for info.

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