In a move that would speak well of any university in America, Villanova University agreed earlier this year to have gay performance artist Tim Miller come to their campus to facilitate a week-long workshop for students on personal narratives, which would culminate in performance pieces to be presented on campus. In a move that doesn’t speak particularly well of Villanova, this week they canceled Miller’s engagement, citing their Roman Catholic affiliation:
With regard to the upcoming residency and performance workshops by Tim Miller, we had concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission. Therefore, Villanova has decided not to host Mr. Miller on our campus. Villanova University is an open and inclusive community and in no way does this singular decision change that.
Miller is openly gay and often considered “controversial;” his own work often discusses his own sexuality. In the 1990s, he was one of the “NEA Four,” four artists (all but one gay) who sued the National Endowment for the Arts when they were granted NEA grants, but NEA chairman John Frohnmayer overruled the grant-review panel and refused the grant money in light of the NEA’s “precarious political situation.” Now, Miller suspects that his sexual orientation may have something to do with Villanova’s similar reversal of opinion:
“The thing that they worry about, I think, is that I am a gay person,” he said. “Being a gay person with political opinions. …This is not my first time at the dance,” Miller said, noting the cancellation came after blog postings that were critical about him. “It’s clearly homophobia and panic.”
Some blogs have also described Miller as “anti-Catholic,” apparently in connection with his work with ACT UP (Miller has been arrested numerous times for demonstrating for AIDS research). But one of the places where Miller has previously run his workshop is at DePaul University, the nation’s largest Catholic university. In 2008, the professor who arranged for Miller to perform at DePaul described his workshop as “terrific.” His performances occasionally feature “nudity and simulated sex acts,” but this was not to be the case at Villanova. And whatever the content of Miller’s performances, his workshops don’t generally focus on students’ sexuality, at least no more than any work around personal narratives usually does. And Miller’s reputation as a queer activist has been established for almost 20 years; it wasn’t off-putting enough that Villanova didn’t make the engagement with him to appear in the first place. What could have changed their mind?
A private university, Villanova is proud of its background in the Order of St. Augustine, but also describes itself as “rooted in the liberal arts” and a place where students learn to “think critically and act compassionately.” Their Division I basketball team, the Villanova Wildcats, attained fame of a different variety when Will Sheridan,who had been a starting forward from 2003-2007, revealed that he was gay. Although some friends and teammates knew, and he “quietly and privately dated a man from another Philadelphia school,” Sheridan wasn’t out while he attended Villanova. It’s unclear what role the university’s atmosphere or religious affiliation might have played, and to what extent it was simply personal choice — but when Sheridan describes games with Villanova’s similarly religiously-affiliated rival, St. Joseph’s, it seems clear that being fully out would have taken a great deal of courage.
They call it the Holy War in Philly, though in truth the rivalry between Saint Joseph’s and Villanova is more profane than holy… there was plenty of stereotypical ammunition and rumor mill gossip to load up opposing fans. And when Villanova played Saint Joe’s at the Palestra, the Hawks students unloaded. “I remember at some games, especially Saint Joe’s games, they were unreal,” said Sheridan, recalling taunts about specific homosexual acts. “At first, I was like, ‘My grandma is sitting right there,’” Sheridan said. “And as a human being you feel it when people say nasty things. But then I thought, ‘That’s just stupid. If you were gay, you’d like to do [those things], too.”
In the same statement in which he refuses to comment further on the decision not to bring Miller to campus, Villanova President politely declines to consider how the experience of a gay student might be harder on a Catholic campus: “Asked if it might be more difficult for gay students on a Catholic campus, he said: “I honestly don’t know.” He was apparently not asked what kind of message those same hypothetical gay students might be receiving when they hear of Miller’s canceled appearance; presumably he wouldn’t know anything about that, either.
Tim Miller is admittedly a provocative performance artist, but he wasn’t coming to Villanova to perform. He was coming to help students talk about and understand identity, both their own and their peers’. He was going to use his own experience as part of a marginalized community to help students be able to “think critically and act compassionately” in their own campus community. Since Villanova declines to comment any further on its decision, we may never know why he’s not going to be allowed to do that, but it seems clear that as far as the welfare of actual Villanova students goes, it’s certainly a less “open and inclusive community” because of it.