Finding Hope ... in Bed!
Tim Miller's latest trip to Austin finds the noted performance artist optimistic about being gay
The last time Tim Miller came to Austin, he actually had cause to celebrate being a gay man no small feat given the homophobia so deeply ingrained in the Lone Star State, much less the hysterical kind that's been driving national policy for umpteen years. As the performance artist explains in "Oklahomo!," an essay in his new book 1001 Beds, he flew here to perform his piece Us at the Vortex the day the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision on Lawrence v. Texas, declaring Texas' sodomy law unconstitutional. It was a rare victory in the long, bruising battle for gay rights a battle in which Miller has logged a full quarter century on the front lines and he found it strange and sweet to be savoring it in Texas' capital city, what he calls "the hip town of this extremely complex state that ends up controlling the fate of our nation in almost exclusively negative ways." It makes being in Austin, he says, "a very charged and interesting position, as it was being in California during Reagan or Nixon."
Three years later, Miller returns to this charged city on the heels of another political victory. Granted, most midterm elections didn't directly affect gay rights the way the Supremes' sodomy smackdown did, and the ones that did suffered more losses than wins in the pro-homo column. Still, Arizona's rejection of a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to partners of different sexes was significant, as was the trouncing that the politics-of-fear party took in the congressional races, and that can't help but be heartening for the gay rights camp. It surely is for Miller, who feels optimistic in ways that he hasn't in years. After all, he says, "Three years ago, who would have thought Tom DeLay would be in incredible legal trouble and have to step down? Anything is possible right now. It feels like a very hopeful time."
Hopefulness feeds Miller's work now both the book, just published by University of Wisconsin Press, and the performance work of the same title (which he performs this week at, yes, the Vortex). In them, Miller takes stock of his life: as a gay man, as an American, as partner of 12 years to Alistair McCartney, as artist and activist. His 1,001 beds refer not to Wilt Chamberlain-esque sexual conquests but to the hotel beds Miller expects to have slept in if he performs for another 20 years on top of the 21 he has to date. It's a symbol for what he does, what he now considers his life's work: "doing my lean-and-mean homo-drenched performances, my cultural agitating and teaching, and offering myself as a way-out gay role model and/or target." Besides creating "queer space" in unlikely locales small Southern colleges and fading Midwestern cities he believes he's touching lives. Tim Miller's thousand beds also represent a couple hundred thousand individuals with whom he's making connections, and it's that contact that keeps him going. Miller spoke with the Chronicle by phone about his career, his new work, and this season of hope.
Austin Chronicle: Obviously both 1001 Beds the book and the performance were created before the midterm elections, but does the hope you feel from that bring anything different into the theatre?Tim Miller: This is a pretty hopeful show in lots of ways. Within this conceit of 1,001 beds and all my travels and efforts to embolden queerness, challenge the government, and all that, it ends with this big queer orgy overthrowing the government, which has felt like an exhortation toward engagement and imagining that we're in a dramatic time of change which we clearly are, but much more dramatically than I thought we would be, which is very heartening, of course. I've only been doing this show for eight months, but I imagined this piece to invite in some of that feeling of hopefulness and change and optimism. It's also a very romantic piece. Amid all the politics I've charted around Alistair and me and this ongoing jeopardy we are in [McCartney, an Australian, has been fighting deportation for several years], I'd never really told the story of how Alistair and I met, so it's lovely to have that finally and have it lead toward the gay sex orgy that overthrows the government. [Laughs] This will be the first performance post-election, and I think the end of the show will seem not so much a fantasy. It may seem a little more like something we can actually do. This country is going to look really different in a couple of years, I think.
AC: When you talk about hope, are you drawing largely from that sense that change is coming or from other sources? Because you're in such a struggle, as you say, and have been. It's an awfully cold wind blowing on that tiny flame.TM: Right, and certainly another little message of this election were the seven states that voted to ban civil-marriage equality and all the legal rights thereof to gay couples. These [amendments] are not about marriage; these are about denying us any rights under law, period. One of Bush's most hideous contributions to undermining democracy in this country is the Federal Marriage Amendment that he has championed. So that's pretty grim.
You know, I was just up in Wisconsin me in the Midwest! and there was a real feeling they were going to beat back this constitutional amendment to deny gay people any relationship rights, but they didn't, and that was very, very upsetting and, for people up there, incredibly horrifying. It paints them as a "hate state" in a way that is very depressing. On the other hand, one state, Arizona, did defeat these things and was the very first state that's done it. The next time, a couple of states will defeat it. And who would have thought Arizona would? There is that kind of Republican/Libertarian thing in Arizona and the Rocky Mountain states that is ascendant, so for me that's incredibly hopeful. So you win one, you lose seven. [Laughs] Which may be my own American Pollyanna way to look on the bright side. But amid all the positive election news, it's not hard to look on the bright side. It was brighter than many of us thought it would be.
My brother's wife is South Asian, so my nephews are Euro/South Asian, and they live in northern Virginia, and the fact that one South Asian man in Virginia with a camera basically brought down Senator [George] Allen, it just shows the power of one person. It's a testament to YouTube certainly, but also to individuality, to risk-taking, and to art as well, because for me all that YouTube stuff is sort of video-art interventions.
AC: That seems to be in line with your conclusion in the book 1001 Beds, where you're making peace with your role as one guy, traveling around, doing your performance pieces, filling time in these 1,001 beds so you can make a difference where anyone needs you.TM: Oh yeah, which would mean that I have an investment in believing this stuff does anything. But of course it does. I just know it does, because I travel so much it's like I'm constantly running for president, certainly with the amount of time I spend in Iowa. In some ways, Austin is this whole other species: this incredibly hip, liberal town; performing at Vortex; doing UT Performance in Public Practice, one of the smartest university programs around performance and society. But a lot of times I'm getting invited to interesting Baptist colleges in North Carolina small towns bizarrely, I mean, how does this happen? For me, then, when I go do a presentation at an Intro to Theatre class with 200 freshmen, literally fresh from their Southern Baptist, incredibly conservative, rural, Republican upbringings they've never seen a gay person in a position of authority, sometimes there's not a single out gay faculty or staff member, no out gay students it's the opposite of preaching to the converted. It's so completely out there in terms of creating visibility and opposition and humor and theatricality. And again and again after a performance, some guy will come up to me, somebody who looks like a Southern Baptist, Republican, frat-boy football player will come up and identify himself, "I'm a Southern Baptist, Republican, frat-boy football player, and I don't know if you and Alistair should be able to get married, but you should have all the rights of a straight couple." So it's a huge, wonderful, lightbulb moment, you know. The Vegas cherries line up in a jackpot of somebody getting it, just as you or I may need to get it around issues of male privilege or race or whatever. We all have a learning curve. I am not complete. There's stuff I'm working on, and artists, writers, and theatre people help me do that, so hopefully I can extend the favor to other people.
AC: So do you also draw hope from these kinds of experiences, meeting up with the next generation whose prejudices aren't so ingrained yet and who might see the world in a more humane and compassionate way?TM: Oh, for sure. It's partly why whenever some state college in Tennessee wants me to come do something for no money, I'm ready to go there. The more time you spend with 18- to 22-year-olds, whether it's in expensive private colleges or underfunded state universities, you can't come away without feeling heartened and encouraged and hopeful. The crop coming up are going to be really interesting. I was just hearing something on NPR which means it's probably old news about some study on the post-9/11 undergrad population, and they're very, very interesting and skeptical and much more progressive than the previous 10 or 15 years of college students. I work at a lot of colleges now; it's sort of where the action is. If I'm going to rural Iowa or Appalachia somewhere to perform, I'm almost certainly performing at a college or university. The only people who are going to bring me to Boone, North Carolina, is Appalachian State University, where I'm going in a couple of months. There would just be no context otherwise. The more time I spend there, the more hopeful I get for what's coming next, these really, really bright, sharp, openhearted young people. Not that people don't get more conservative as they get older. People also can get more closed-minded. [But these students] just endlessly surprise me [with] their openness and interest. I know sometimes my work is really challenging; it's just not like anything they've ever seen: this big fag talking about sex and radical politics and queer orgies overthrowing the government. Actually, they find it really funny. Of course, they're all really interested in sex. It's all they think about. [Laughs] Every now and then, I think I'm going to cut some part of something out because I'm at a Baptist college in North Carolina; then I don't, and that's the thing the students [love]: "Oh, that part was so awesome! That really made me want to do a piece like that."
I just turned 48. With the freshmen, I'm 30 years older than them. I might as well have been born in the Crimean War. And so to have that time and space with them ... it's pretty great. This gives me a whole other chance to get to know who these people are as they enter their adult lives. I might not have that access otherwise if I weren't in colleges or weren't a congressional Republican perving on the pages. I just brought up something completely unrelated. [Laughs] I do think that the page scandal, along with orgasms and ice cream, is proof of God's existence. I'll take it as that anyway.
AC: But back to that idea that these students who are so open now might become more closed-minded as they get older. We're all creatures of the times in which we live, aren't we? Certainly, our parents and grandparents who grew up during the Depression and World War II had their characters shaped for a lifetime by those events, and the same could be said for people who came of age in the Sixties. Maybe this 9/11 generation will be influenced for the rest of their lives and shape American society in a good way.TM: That's pretty much what they were determining [in the study]. With 9/11 and the war in Iraq, how can you be a young person paying any attention at all and not have a healthy skepticism about our government and not just Bush, though Bush is liar-in-chief that our government is capable of unbelievable mischief? That's a very healthy thing for a young person to have early in life. I certainly had it. I was growing up in the hometown of President Nixon; how could I not have internalized this incredible lying psychopath who was running the country for six years? It's informed my world-view for my whole life.
AC: It's the kind of thing that can echo through your being for as long as you live.TM: I get these e-mails all the time, say, from someone from some college in Arizona that I was at five years ago: "I thought about what you said ever since. I just want you to know, I'm working to help defeat the anti-civil-marriage proposition in Arizona." Stuff does stick. It ends up resonating for the rest of our lives. Which is why I do what I do now.
AC: You're George Bailey.TM: Oh, boy. [Laughs] Well, we could do worse, for sure.
Tim Miller performs 1001 Beds Nov. 30-Dec. 3, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. For more information, call 478-LAVA, or visit www.vortexrep.org.