Gay Life/Queer Art

Articles

Gay Life/Queer Art

I

I used to be a gay man. Now, I am a queer. What used to be a private matter of personal relationships, friendships, and enculturation is now a public matter of cultural politics, allegiance to my values, and an examination of the fluid boundaries between being in and out of the closet, in and out of the margins, in gay culture and in queer politics. My coming out, as it were, was grounded in a personal experience, and my transition from being gay to being queer was shaped by performance art and my desire to get inside my own body.

On Wednesday, December 18, 1990, my boyfriend, Kim, had to go to the doctor’s office for another test of some sort, and since his mother was in town, she would take him. I could spend the day at the office getting ready for the final exams I would be giving on Thursday. I was relieved—I had read every magazine in every doctors’ office in Scottsdale, and this would give Betty something useful to do. I talked to Kim in the early afternoon, we did not say much, but then, around 5:30, he called me from the doctor’s office. He had to go to the hospital right away. I remember only three words: liver, bone, and cancer. I stopped thinking.

I went home and went into the bathroom where I started to pack an overnight bag: hair dryer, gel, bathrobe, hair spray, wrinkle cream. I heard the front door open. Kim entered the bedroom, closed the door behind him. He was wearing a purple mock neck from the Gap, a pair of faded inverse silhouette Levi blue jeans, London Fog black loafers, a black belt, white socks, and he said to me in a voice that could not have been more clear, more precise, more terrified, “I have cancer.” He started to cry. As I held him, I knew everything was changed. I began living on two simultaneous planes: the first, the survivor, the task master, he who packs an overnight bag, remembers the toothpaste, an extra toothbrush, a list of phone numbers and the insurance card; the second plane, the knower, the sad one, he who now understands everything in life will not be okay, will not be good, will not work out, no matter how much planning, trying, manipulating or hoping, no matter how good things may seem, life is a tragedy punctuated by a few pleasant moments.

Twenty-five days later, Kim died from what the doctor spent four months calling the stress of a new job, from what turned out to be a quick and ferocious cancer in the brain.

And in the spring, I had to come out of my emotional coma and get back to work. I study performance. On occasion, I perform. I specialize in the study of literature as an act of speech, of taking a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, scanning it, analyzing it, memorizing it, and “doing” it for an audience. A lot of fags “do” things like this: focus on some delightful obscurity because, after all, we cannot really talk about who we are or what our bodies know. But with Kim dead and suicide on my mind, I could not concentrate on sprung rhythm or the latest developments in semiotics. Such stuff was completely irrelevant to my life.

I ended up in Los Angeles, exploring the world of performance art. What I discovered was a whole new world, an arena of broken silence, body knowledge, political intervention, and cultural consciousness. I found people who, like me, engage themselves with performance, but while I opted for academics, they chose sociopolitical art. I became especially intrigued by gay and lesbian performance art.

II

I wanted a ticket to Tim Miller’s Sex/Love/Stories. It was sold out. In a big way. I really knew nothing about the show and nothing about Miller, this being before he became one of the famous NEA Four, but my intuition was strong. I wanted to see this performance. That afternoon, I wrote an impassioned letter to Miller begging for a ticket. He left a message at my hotel. A ticket was waiting for me at the door.1

Is it pathetic of me to liken my first encounter with Tim Miller’s Sex/Love/Stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer? Is my comparison nothing but a hangover from my literary days, or did I feel like the narrator/captain who, quite by surprise, stared at the naked Leggatt and saw himself, his double, risen from the bottom of the sea? “And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land.”2 The comparison is absurd. I was not within the great security of the sea, but rather in the unrest of California, in the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. I sat toward the back on a folding chair, and I watched the people enter. How nice, I thought, to be able to go to a performance with my own people. This is a mostly male audience, a few women here and there, but mostly guys, and all gay. The audience-as-community takes on a new dimension, different from the traditional view of the “collective audience.” Group laughter is irrelevant here. I am bored by the interesting nonverbal system of codes that set the space as a theatre space. Instead, I am intrigued by the cultural norms and values given in the space: the guys hold hands without being self-conscious or conspicuous; men who might otherwise be nervous about male/male affection kiss casual acquaintances on the lips; everyone touches everyone, and here, it is in to be out. It is as though we are in a bar, but no, a theatre is very different from a bar, because in a theatre, the audience acts as a collective in the communication processes inherent in aesthetic performance. As a group, we listen, watch, laugh, or sit in silence together, but here heterosexual privilege is non-existent.

Maybe we are within the great security of the sea.

The house lights dim and now we are in the dark. A voice shoots from the back: “SEX. LOVE. AIDS.” And then a more calm tone, “We’re here now in the dark. We’re all in it together.” I appreciate the ambiguity. “It” refers to both AIDS and the darkness of the theatre, to the complications and comfort of community, and as though the script is a reflection of my imagination, Miller continues talking about being in a dark performance space with a bunch of gay men. “We’re sitting very close to each other,” he says, “a little afraid of the person next to us. Grab that person’s hand to remind us we’re in it together.” He is building his audience as a community of queer consciousness. The lights come up on the stage.

I am taken aback, not in a large way, but more as a matter of slight surprise. Miller looks like me. Not entirely, but I look at the program searching for a date, and yes, he was born in 1958 (I in 1957), and he is around six feet tall, as am I, white, brown hair, brown eyes (mine are blue), thin, and he must be from a suburb. He has that I-was-born-in- a-suburb look about him. Whittier, California. Birmingham, Michigan. I try not to think about it. But for all the theatre and performance I have seen, I cannot get it out of my mind that I have never seen a performer who reminded me of me. “Stop it,” I say to myself. “You are a formalist. You do not believe in subjective criticism. You do not accept post-structuralism. Look for the metaphors. Distance. You need distance.”

Miller is alone on the stage, and he begins to tell us his life story. He is eighteen when he breaks up with his first boyfriend. I was afraid to be gay when I was eighteen. He goes to work for the May Company, selling wrist watches. I went away to college. Miller moved to New York. I moved to Carbondale. He has lived the life I wanted to live.

“Time passes,” Miller says. “You get a little older. Try to create a queer identity for yourself.” Suddenly, I am struck by sadness. At one point in my life, I was going to be a performance artist. 1983. Living in downtown Chicago. Applying to the School at the Art Institute. Changed my mind. Went to get a Ph.D. instead. Time passes. Miller meets Doug. Tim and Doug. They are still together. Almost eight years. Miller tells us about his coming out, discovering himself, falling in lust, having sex, finding a boyfriend, becoming politically active, doing performance, and embracing his queerness. While I was in graduate school studying SPEECH, Miller was breaking silence. There’s that old saying, If every lesbian and gay person suddenly turned lavender, discrimination against us would cease because everyone would realize just how many of us there are. This is a futile saying, though, because we are not going to turn lavender. We need to speak out. This whole idea of speaking out and breaking silence has become something of a fashion, thanks in no small part to the television talk shows where the intimate details of personal lives are broadcast coast to coast: how it feels to be a woman, silenced by men; how it feels to be African American, oppressed by white people; how it feels to have been abused by a parent, or an uncle, or the local minister. Breaking the silence of homosexuality is different from these other forms of silence, though. When we tell people we are gay or lesbian, we are talking about something that is in no way visible or obvious, nor are we talking in order to recover from something. Furthermore, when we tell the world who we are, we invite stigmatization. As a gay, white man from a privileged class, for example, I enjoy a luxurious duality. I can be gay and powerful; I can tell selected people about my being gay but appear straight in oppressive contexts; I can go in and out of the closet at my leisure; I can be with my boyfriend at night but be promoted at work. In short, I can be a happy hypocrite.

Queer theorists deconstruct such hypocrisy in the context of “outing” others or being “out” by choice. In the conventional heterosexual/homosexual binary, to be straight is to be inside the power structure, while being gay or lesbian is to be outside, in the margins, or without power. Diana Fuss critiques this convention, though, presenting a paradox:

To be out, in common gay parlance, is precisely to be no longer out; to be out is to be finally outside of exteriority and all the exclusions and deprivations such outsiderhood imposes. Or, put another way, to be out is really to be in — inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the culturally intelligible.3

Being out, then, authorizes the insider’s view of marginalization, and this in itself becomes a source of power.

This power is more than a point of privilege. For queer activists like Miller, speech is a responsibility. Tired cliches like “the love that dare not speak its name” or being “in the closet” have been replaced by new slogans like “SILENCE=DEATH” or “in-your-face” lesbian politics. Thus, breaking silence through performance goes beyond the personal and into the political.

“I don’t have to work very hard to get into trouble,” remarks Holly Hughes, one of the NEA four. “I’m a lesbian, and expressing homosexuality artistically is illegal in this country.”4 Here, Hughes is given to hyperbole, but her point must be taken to heart. “Sodomy” laws are still on the books; national political conventions are filled with hateful rhetoric towards homosexuality; many gays and lesbians who are discriminated against in employment or housing have no legal recourse; performance artists who discuss openly being gay or lesbian risk having NEA funding pulled. In his promotion of the highly political performances of ACT UP, Douglas Crimp underscores the importance of art that does not somehow rise above obstacles such as homophobia or the fear of AIDS, but rather confronts such fears. Through performances that challenge existing legal and social codes, he argues, art has

the power to save lives, and it is this very power that must be recognized, fostered, and supported in every way possible. But if we are to do this, we will have to abandon the idealist conception of art. We don’t need a cultural renaissance; we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS. We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it.5

Miller is a member of ACT UP, and political rhetoric is central to Sex/Love/Stories. At one point midway through Sex/Love/Stories, Miller reenacts a performance that took place in front of the Los Angeles County General Hospital. “The biggest hospital in the world,” he says as he sets the scene. “Right here is a big mean iron fence.” He tells the audience that as a member of ACT UP, he has been asked to perform a protest speech, and in his meta-performance, Miller reads the inscription from the facade of the County Hospital, a long and noble statement about how no citizen shall be deprived of health or life due to social apathy. The inscription is cast as an irony against the reality of what goes on inside the building, a place where people with AIDS look at “blood-stained walls” and sit on “a hard bench getting their chemo and throwing up from the side effects in full view of all.”

Miller uses his meta-performance as an example of performance as political activism and a call for more political intervention from the audience before him. The AIDS crisis must be seen as important to us, he says, using the inclusive pronoun to refer to bourgeois gays, “as it is to shop for a new leather jacket or to make yet another performance piece.” Thus, Miller implicates himself along with the rest of us. Everyone who cares about people with HIV needs to ACT UP, Miller says, and “maybe we fags and lesbos can become a model for how Americans can stop forgetting.” He acknowledges this is a difficult task, because it is easier to go shopping than it is to remember how many friends are dead, and in the most compelling scene in the performance, Miller expresses this difficulty through a postmodern, panic integration of his body, the performance, and the gay male culture. He begins the scene by saying he has to find a way “to remember AND to be here in my body.” He pauses, and then, as he is talking about the bodily experience of being gay, he begins to touch his own body. Within moments, he is disrobed and while his black jeans bind his ankles, his tank top has become a sling holding his hands over his head. His arms are stretched upward and backward, and his head is tilted to expose his jugular. As I watch the image, I am reminded of Guido Reni’s portrait of Saint Sebastian, echoed not only here but also in Kishin Shinoyama’s portraits of Yukio Mishima, deepening the allusion of bodily vulnerability/persecution.6 Miller holds this pose motionless for about 90 seconds, and then he talks to his penis. “Come on,” he says, “get hard.” He then establishes a dialogue between his body and the act of performance when he says to his penis, “Don’t talk to me about performance anxiety.” He plays the humor of the scene through and then begins a poetic discourse using the ambiguity of the word “hard” as being both a symbol of being a queer male and the difficulty of social consciousness. “Get hard,” he says, “because it still feels good to be touched . . . get hard because the world can be a fine place . . . get hard because there’s work to be done . . . get hard because I am a queer and it is good and I am good and I don’t just mean in bed . . . get hard because it is time to make a move.” This entire scene creates tensions between the body as a house of knowledge, the body as a contested zone in contemporary society, performance as an act of speech, and the need to be political.

Miller is in a state of panic performance now, and he is making every effort to reclaim his body and let his flesh appear (or re-appear) in the hyper-modern condition. The body is the source of power, agent of change, and topic of public discourse over individual rights versus social policy. In this scene, is Miller articulating what the Krokers call “body aesthetics for the end of the world”?

Indeed, why the concern over the body today if not to emphasize the fact that the (natural) body in the postmodern condition has already disappeared, and what we experience as the body is only a fantastic simulacra of body rhetorics?7

Miller is on the stage virtually nude, looking for a direct connection between the phallus and the penis, looking for a metaphor between the necessity to be hard in order to create change and the potential hardness of the male sex organ. The construction of the metaphor is in the hands of the audience, and Miller pulls his pants up.

But the body rhetorics are in motion. The economic rhetoric “that would target the body as a privileged site for the acquisition of private property.”8 The political rhetoric of the body as an argument against mediated images of gay men as sex mongers. The psychoanalytical rhetoric of one man on the stage trying to recover sexuality in the age of AIDS. The rhetoric of desire: queer rhetoric. Indeed, the gay man’s body is different from other bodies. He knows he is different from others at a very early age. A secret passion, an extra glance at the lifeguard, the electrician, a haunting feeling lurks deep inside. He is six, maybe, or thirteen, but in any case, he is silent. This is, to be sure, the thought that stays in the body.

At some point, the gay man learns language that describes what the body knows. Faggot. Queer. Fairy. Sissy. None of the words is too appealing. The body is excited about what it knows, but the mind is horrified by what the body feels. He looks at his penis. The villain. Cut it off and be done with it.

But the penis is not the source of body knowledge. It is only the instrument. The panic point.

As I watch Miller perform, I think: I shall learn to let my body speak for itself in its own language.

III

I returned to my hotel and started to think about creating a performance about my life with Kim. He was the start of my life as a gay man, and his death shook my very being into a state of vulnerability and honesty.

Six months later, I was ready. For 90 minutes, I told stories, showed slides, and engaged in a little political intervention in a performance titled The Death of a Married Man. The driving force behind my performance was my new maxim, “speak out.” As an assistant professor in a huge public American university, I was accustomed to speaking out about cultural sensitivity, the rights of the individual, new conceptualizations of `family’, and other liberal issues, but I had always remained notably silent on the topic of gay relationships. I was a coward. When I first arrived at my university, I felt quite confident about myself and actually considered integrating my personal life with my professional life, but my then-Dean suggested (kindly) I remove all of my service related to the local AIDS project from my file. “I appreciate your work,” said the Dean, “but some people in the college, some people in high positions, have an attitude.” And one of the most prominent professors at the university told me, kindly, not to mention the fact that I am gay. “My god,” she said, “are you crazy? Wait until you get tenure.” Fine, I thought, I will be like all the feminists before me: plod along, do a series of banal studies on dead straight white people, get tenure, and then, maybe, I would abandon my cowardly ways and shout: Surprise! I’m a fag and I will write on Queer Theory. And then Kim died.

I don’t know if I stopped caring, or if Diana Fuss is correct when she says, “recently, in the academy, some would say that it is `in’ to be `out’.”9 In any case, I had a new Dean and I went ahead with my performance. So much for Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“I would hate to be a straight white Christian man trying to get tenure right now,” I said in passing to one of the senior professors in the Department. She looked at me as though I were some kind of kook, and she marched off to a personnel meeting.

My performance was a political move. Either I positioned myself as marginalized, searching for my voice, or as a straight white guy— doing what? Shedding new light on the orality of poetry by Milton? I could not even imagine. And would I be tenured? In the politics of academia, a quasi-democracy operates. Committees vote on issues such as promotion and tenure, and administrators dread ferocious memos from angry professors. During the two-month run of my performance, I carefully noted my support and determined without qualification that my greatest support came from straight faculty who practice or advocate strongly feminist theory and criticism. Their support was open and vocal; they brought friends to the performance, wrote letters, talked to people in high places about my work, and let me know that if I ran into “trouble,” I could call upon them (and their powerful heterosexuality). A less public, more personal level of support came from openly gay faculty. These were the people who helped me rehearse, move set equipment, and arrange my performance spaces before the shows. The difference between these two levels of support is important: while openly gay faculty were supportive, they were less likely to make a public display of their relationship to me and my performance. The vocal feminists, however, acted as political billboards.

Students, surprisingly, were completely indifferent. They did not much care or even note that their professor was a gay man engaging in a splashy performance about his dead lover. Since I was not openly gay before the performance, I braced myself for a backlash from this largely conservative group. I thought I would find FAG spray painted across my office door, encounter rude graffiti in the bathroom, or hear snickers as I walked down the hall. Nothing of the sorts happened. The most delicate response to The Death of a Married Man came from faculty who are gay but discreet about their sexuality. “Courageous,” I heard, “Courageous. Bold, too.” That they would find my move courageous (read: foolish?) should have come as no surprise, but it did. I failed to recognize the omnipresent Homosexual Code of Honor. Inside the networks, everyone knows who is gay, who is married and gay, who is repressed, and who is dangerously out. Privately, inside information is shared, but publicly, the Code holds confidentiality as the precious rule. Time passes. Another friend is dead, and we are keeping secrets. The Code belongs to a culture different than mine, and any caution offered must be filtered through generational growth. Time passes. No one openly refers to the Code. It rules our lives, but it is not discussed. Instead, straw arguments are put forth about how queers should understand the dynamics of oppression. To wit, I was told that I was unfair to my parents and to Kim’s parents for my open critique of their unwillingness to accept our being gay and in a marital relationship. I was told to understand and accept our parents’ inability to accept or understand us, to recognize the Christian messages they have been fed about our “decadent” lifestyles, to realize they cannot hear about the facts of our lives and deal with it. These provisions create a communication labyrinth in which no one ever gets anywhere, no understanding is ever reached, and half the parties are dead and dust before progress is made and lives are shared.

IV

My reading of The Secret Sharer is misguided. I am not one who sees Tim Miller (who has a body far cuter than mine, I note enviously) and is the narrator/captain in Conrad’s novella. I am Leggatt. I am he who is naked, who has killed a man, who arrives on deck in need of help. I am he who appears to be, for all the world, a naked man from the sea, sitting on main-hatch, glimmering white in the darkness, my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands.

My body fails me. I have the body of a structuralist. When clothed, I adorn my body from the outside-in: my tie must be thin falling into width, my slacks — 100% worsted wool — have pleats that shape my hips and give me a little ass, my shirt must be baggy enough to hide my little gut, and the sleeves must be long enough to take attention away from my skinny wrists. I trim my body hair, and when I wear shorts, I drop my socks carefully so that I appear to have calves.

I reveal all of these details about my clothes with tremendous embarrassment. I want to be inside my body so that I may speak out, but I can describe only how it feels to stand in front of 50, 100, or 250 people and talk about being gay. Panic:

1. I use my body as a shield. As I stand in front of the audience, my muscles tighten to form an impenetrable force that protects me against rejection. I try to appear relaxed, but the truth is every part of my physical presence is on guard.

2. My mind keeps on talking. I want to occupy all space and time with language. If I can code everything and explore everything through semantics, I will be able to avoid the truth of the body.

3. My body wants no applause. I physically reject the notion of people clapping when the performance is over. My very best performance is only a commodity. The audience is a passive consumer of my life, and ultimately, nothing has changed.10 I am angry at the very concept of applause.

4. My mind and body agree on one thing only: I have nothing to lose. What-the-fuck: caution to the wind. Become confessional. Get queer.

Fredrick C. Corey, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, teaches performance studies in the Department of Communication and coordinates the HIV Studies Network in the College of Public Programs.

Notes

1. My discussion of Miller’s performance is based on two viewings, the first on 4 April 1991 at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, California, and the second on 14 September 1991 at Kerr Cultural Center, Scottsdale, Arizona. All quotes are taken directly from the manuscript, kindly provided by Miller.

2. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer, 1912, rpt. in Classics of Modern Fiction, ed. Irving Howe (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 287.

3. Diana Fuss, Inside/Out,” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 4.

4. Holly Hughes, “The Archeology of Muff Diving: An Interview with Holly Hughes,” by Charles M. Wilmoth, The Drama Review 35.3 (1991): 220.

5. Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), p. 7.

6. Reni has two paintings of St. Sebastian, one in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, and the other in the Galleria di Palazzo, Genoa. Here I am referring to the Genoa rendition.

7. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, “Theses on the Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition,” in Body Invaders: Panic Sex in America, ed. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), pp. 21-22.

8. Kroker and Kroker, p. 22.

9. Diana Fuss, p. 4.

10. I struggled with the source of my anger long after my performance, and then late one evening, I was reading an interview between the poet Carolyn Forche and Mary Strine [“Protocols of Power: Performance, Pleasure, and the Textual Economy,” Text and Performance Quarterly 12 (1992): 61-7]. In this interview, Forche talks about why she dislikes performing her poems, about how she feels angry when people engage in passive clapping in response to her life’s work. I understood her anger all too well.