By Jeff Walsh
Tim Miller was the first naked man I saw after moving to San Francisco from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in June 1996. Two days after I had arrived, he was performing his show "Fruit Cocktail" for a one-week run. I didn't yet have my own apartment or a job, so I was trying to be frugal, but I knew I had to see him.
His name had somehow etched in my mind as I was coming out, after seeing a picture of him in some New York newspaper, probably the Village Voice. He was performing "My Queer Body" in the city the week I was planning to drive into town and see a show. I already had tickets to see Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me" and I didn't think my straight friend would handle going from an AIDS drama to a naked performance artist in the space of two hours.
So, a few years later, having only been in San Francisco slightly more than 48 hours, Tim Miller was now in front of me, naked. At one point in the show, he took wedges from an orange and walked through the crowd in some sort of queer communion rite.
He approached me, peeled off a wedge and said, "the fruits of your faggotry," and then fed me a piece. I told people back home about this, and I'm still not quite sure they believe such a thing happened. To be honest, when I saw the ad for "My Queer Body" in New York, I didn't think he would actually get naked, either. I guess that's part of growing up in a small town.
Since that time, I've seen Tim in two other pieces in San Francisco: "Carnal Garage," an imagery-rich performance piece which features he and his hot, young boyfriend Alistair naked for nearly the entire piece; and "Shirts & Skins," a best-of Tim Miller piece to coincide with his book of the same name.
One of the first things I had to ask Tim was whether his stories are true or reality-based fiction. For example, the boy to whom Tim loses his virginity has an auto-repair sign over his bed which reads "All Deliveries Must Be Made In Rear." Tim said that, indeed, the sign existed.
"The wildest stuff tends to be the most true," he said, in a phone interview with Oasis. "They are certainly, for the most part, stories from my life. Obviously the book begins with imagining the queer sperm and dyke ovum meeting. I kind of enjoy playing with it, heightening it. But for the most part, they are the stories from my life that have jumped forward that I find I needed to put into my shows initially and doubly got my interest to put into the book."
Miller, now 39, said it was a natural fit to repurpose his performance pieces into a book.
"I felt really overdue putting a book together, because I'm a big reader and I fetishize books. They're very important to me," he said. "So, it just seemed high time and it was clear to me that through these dozens of shows I've been writing a book through performing. So, finally, I disciplined myself enough and got a book deal, sat down for a year and rewrote everything and discarded most of it. A lot of it's brand-new writing."
Miller said the book is by no means just a printed version of his performance pieces.
"It's completely another thing. Some of my favorite things from the performance absolutely don't work on the page, such as if you're working with music or the audience," he said. "What really made it into the book were the strongest narratives from the shows."
Miller has been performing since 1980, and nudity has been a part of his shows from the beginning. In fact, there's no such thing as a Tim Miller show where his clothes don't eventually come off.
"There's no such thing, like most of us, as a Tim Miller day where I don't take my clothes off either. So, it's not that strange," he said. "I'm really interested in the body and what the body communicates in live performance at that point as a teacher. In Professor Miller mode, I teach actors and dancers about seeing the body as a place of narrative and memory.
"It's just something that happens when the body's present, especially the naked body in theater. For me, I'm mostly interested... like in the current show based on the book, the naked moment is the funniest part of the show, the most psychotic as far as my crazy thoughts during the sex," he said. "I'm so interested in the naked body being represented onstage. It's just kind of making itself look good. I'm kind of covered in clothespins and stuff, which to me actually looks good. It's sort of, in a way, the most vulnerable, fucked-up part of the show. It's something that continues to interest me."
Miller said his body is one of the primary things an artist has with which to communicate their stories.
"You've got your voice, you've got your body, you've got your clothes, you're got your skin, you've got your stories. It's kind of the stuff you have, in a way," he said. "The body, in the different ways it's clothed or unclothed, is kind of the way the title of the book, Shirts and Skins, represents how clothed and being naked are two different ways of being in the world."
In a poignant moment in the book, Miller evokes the feelings of being a young fag in gym class and having to be either on the shirts team or the skins team. Miller, as fate would have it, was a skin. He now realizes that moment was a turning point in his life.
"I would always be on the team where the boys take their clothes off and get close to the other boys," he writes.
Miller's work plays off of his body, so it's a natural segue to ask him his thoughts on body fascism in the gay community, as exemplified in Michelangelo Signorile's Life Outside book, which has caused a controversy within the gay community.
"It's something for us to be attentive to. I think Mike has extremely good point, but the judgmental, shaming tone I found counterproductive, speaking as someone who works with thousands of gay men a year," he said. "It's not a useful signal to be sending. It's unfortunate, because his first thesis around body fascism I really agree with. I see that in my workshops where you have perfectly attractive men thinking they're ugly because they feel substandard. It's like we created our own concentration camp. I've certainly someone who's been reinforced as being reasonably attractive in the world, through performing and all that. I'm also not a gym boy, I just run around and ride my bike. It's never been a huge panic place for me."
Miller became most famous, or infamous, during the Bush administration, when the National Endowment for the Arts came under attack for funding gay-themed art. Miller became part of the "NEA Four," artists who filed a lawsuit against the NEA and won their grants and court costs.
Prior to the lawsuit, Miller had received over a dozen NEA grants and was an established artist, touring worldwide. If anything, becoming involved in the lawsuit was more distracting than anything else, he said.
"It was a huge pain in the butt. I was mostly caught up with performing and ACT UP stuff and suddenly, in addition to the crisis around HIV/AIDS, performing became incredibly difficult and wherever I'd go there'd be protesters," he said. "Eventually, it became a court case, which will finally go to the Supreme Court this month."
Miller will be at the Supreme Court on March 31, although he will not testify, when they rule on one outstanding facet of the lawsuit.
"There's a little bit of language about standards of decency being an acceptable criteria for federal funding," he said. "The judge threw it out as unconstitutional and the government appealed it and now, the Supreme Court is going to decide whether that is Constitutional language, something as vague as standards and decency."
After the out-of-court settlement, Miller never received another NEA grant. He now teaches full-time to ensure a standard income level. He teaches in both a university setting as well as doing gay men's performance workshops.
"I do my kind of actor/dancer training in the university setting. But, I'm very close to the work I do in my gay men's performance workshop, which in some ways uses similar techniques, for queer men to locate their stories and symbols to create a performance of our lives with each other," he said. "They have a very strong community quality and are enormously rich and exciting, and I learn a lot."
After he finishes performing "Shirt and Skins," Miller plans to rework a performance piece called "Carnal Garage" with his boyfriend, Alistair. He is also writing a fictional novel about gay marriage and immigration rights, largely due to Alistair being from Australia, which opened Miller's eyes to some of the holes in the legal system when it comes to dealing with sexual minorities.
"Because I'm in a relationship with someone from another country, I'm finding it shockingly unconstitutional the absence of rights gay people have. It's just painfully unfair. It's taking the form of a novel," he said.
As for "Carnal Garage," I felt compelled to ask Miller how one determines it is safe to light their hair and public hair on fire during a performance.
"Scientific query, I've been burning the hair on my body since I was seven. It's just something to do," he said. "The body's a place you can explore, whether it's for sex or art. It does seem to get people excited. It's pretty easy to contain, but by the end of seven shows, I'm not that hairy, so I start running out of areas to set on fire. It's pretty dramatic, though, especially pubic hair -- the burning bush. And it fills the theater with that smell."
Alistair is a big part of the book's last chapter. At that time, Miller talked about having two boyfriends, Alistair and author Doug Sadownick. The dynamic between Miller and his two lovers was still finding itself when he wrote that chapter.
"That last chapter was written more than a year ago. At this point, Alistair and I are functioning much more in the world of boyfriends than we were at that time. So the whole thing of 'I have two boyfriends' phase as I describe it in the book isn't happening anymore," he said. "Doug and I are still boyfriends in a zillion ways, but not as a I described it in the book. We spent 12 years of our lives where we were really connected.
"I'm also, for the first time in my life, in a monogamous place with Alistair, for the last year or so. That's very new, interesting and good for me, actually," he said. "Quite a little change of lifestyle, but I'm finding it quite suits me. Doug and I are finding this other way we related. We're still quite near each other. It's been a long, and incredibly difficult process shifting our relationship somewhere new.
"The last chapter is the one people always read first, for some reason. To get the more immediate dirt, I guess," he said.
Miller said he came out in the mid 70s and lived in a Los Angeles suburb, so things could have been worse.
"The mid 70s were a relatively benign time in some ways. That's bullshit actually, that's when the cultural war began. But growing up in California, there's a pretty strong free zone after the 60s," he said. "We had the Carter era, glitter rock, the Rocky Horror Show which I went to constantly. It was a weird period where it was cool to be bisexual, to the point whereby people would pretend they were even if they weren't. I feel like generationally, people born in the late 50s early 60s got a pretty easy ride, as opposed to coming out after Reagan.
"When I came out, things were significantly better than they were a few years later. It kind of goes up and down. It's obviously still incredibly grim. In my workshops, I talk to a lot of queer men under 25 and the stories they tell me are stories that are quite foreign to me. I didn't have anything like that, they're so horrible," he said. "I was growing up in suburban L.A. with relatively hip parents at a time when gay people were gaining political clout. I have an empathy for people five to 10 years younger than me who had to come out during the grim 80s.
Miller has also witnessed the power a story well told can bring, through Paul Monette's "Becoming a Man."
"I think that book is the most useful book anyone could read, whether you're 16 or 46, around the long arm in the law around the shit we go through as kids, knowing how that lingers," he said. "I think it's a really, really important useful book. I remember when it was first out, I was traveling all over the country and I would go into the bookstores. It had just won the National Book Award, and you could be in Kentucky and just watch the display and within 10 minutes some Kentucky queer boy would sidle up and look over his shoulder and buy it."
Now, Miller has added his own voice to the list of available books. It's appropriate considering that Miller used books to find his queer sense of self.
"For me, as a kid, when I was 15, 16, 17, Oscar Wilde and Literature stuff in a weird way helped me because it was historical and big culture. And Mary Renault novels, which talk about classical Greek homosexuality. Books helped me understand myself," he said.
Now, a new generation of queers can find that same solace in "Shirts and Skins."