Toward the end of his performance piece Us, Tim Miller stands to the side and rocks a folded American flag in his arms like a baby. Meanwhile, the audience watches a video of him parodying in close-up all the reasons gay Americans should not complain about the numerous injustices they suffer.
It was my favorite moment in Us, presented at 7 Stages last week, because it reveals the way too many gay people deal with their oppression by minimizing it and denying their anger. The result, besides sub-cultural neurosis, is babying the state that oppresses them.
Miller should certainly know. He is famous as one of the "NEA four" who successfully, in part, sued the federal government in 1990 after their grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were cancelled for violating "standards of decency."
Now, Miller finds himself at odds with the feds again. He must decide whether to immigrate to the United Kingdom this fall when his Australian partner of nine years, Alistair McCartney, loses his student visa. Were the two able to marry, immigration laws would permit McCartney, who holds U.K. citizenship, to remain here. Fifteen industrialized western nations permit partners of gay citizens to immigrate. A bill to change U.S. law, the Permanent Partners Immigration Act, is before Congress, where 100 members have signed on as co-sponsors.
Miller's performance piece concerns more than his personal battle with immigration policies. Us, whose title suggests the collective "us" of the U.S. as well as the coupled "us" that is Miller and McCartney, is a blistering if artistically uneven indictment of American hypocrisy. The land of equality, Miller remembers, is also the country that practiced slavery, disenfranchised women, stole land from and murdered Native Americans, conducted the insane Vietnam War. The land of the free is not so free. As of last week, for present example, 2 million of us were in prison -- one of the world's highest incarceration rates. A huge number are imprisoned for drug or minor offenses under draconian repeat-offender laws. Prison, any fool can observe, does more to ruin a life than smoking reefer.
Growing up in a suburban middle class home in southern California, Miller is thoroughly American and thoroughly gay. One of the tropes of Us is the way his views of life were fashioned by the peculiarly American form of entertainment called the Broadway musical. A love of show tunes is a virtual cliche of gay life, perhaps because gay people have learned to live with their oppression by putting on a show, hiding who they are, often sabotaging potential hostility with quick wit and dramatic flourish. In the world of the musical, Miller riffs, people often suffer but always have hope. More often than not, things turn out OK.
Real life, however, doesn't always redeem injustice in time to spare us its consequences. Miller, like me, learned that during the Vietnam War when he saw thousands of men die in a war that made utterly no sense. Weirdly predictive of his present circumstances, Miller, already an outsider, related to conscientious objectors who fled to Canada.
This link between gay otherness and political leftness is something that has been disappearing from the lives of gay people as they become more assimilated. There's less to protest in terms of sexual oppression, to be sure. But assimilation has also come to mean normalization and many gay people take on the "normal" values of the dominant culture in order to better fit in, even though the culture tends to marginalize them. It is almost certainly two such people who walked out of one of Miller's performances during the video rant that parodies gay apologists.
Us doesn't exactly frame this dilemma in terms of an appropriate affinity for the left. Instead, Miller picks the metaphor of the stripper. His favorite musical as a child was Gypsy and he staged strip shows for his brothers -- an expression not only of his sexual difference but also of gay people's need to strip away the lies that can cause them to hide and make them complicitors in America's general oppression of the deviant.
I confess, watching Miller's performance -- which ended with some of the nudity that once made him so controversial but now tends to make him predictable -- I felt a bit like I was watching an anachronism. And that had the unintended effect of making me wonder about the state of my own views. Although I fully identify with the politics of the left, I've also come to realize that not every gay person who shares the dominant culture's values is a sell-out.
And, in any case, I have to grant other gay people their own measure of diversity if for no other reason than that I, personally, would rather be set on fire than listen to show tunes. Yeah, I prefer poetry and -- here comes the advertisement -- if you are of a similar bent, plan to attend (take a breath) gay-lesbian-bi-transgender poetry night at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24, at the Ponce de Leon branch of the public library.
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.
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