Villanova Redacts Gay Performer’s Invite ‘Cause He’s Gay and They’re Catholic

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.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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15 Comments

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    I’m breathless from that video. If I had half that creative energy… I would probably explode, but I want to see more. How dare any university turn away something like that! The catholic sponsored brave new world must be a boring place to live.

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      The big bummer about this to me is that there *are* so many practicing gay Catholics, and even though SO MANY families (like mine) and parishes welcome them, the leadership won’t. But for me personally, even if Cardinal McJerkface *did* give me a free pass to lez it up, I still wouldn’t go back.

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    I went to St. Joe’s and this right here is why there’s a Holy War! For example, a couple weeks ago, friends of mine were removed from an alumni Valentine’s Day contest because they were lesbians. The alumni associated sited the same thing, “we’re Catholic, therefore gays don’t exist ok bye”. There was campus wide UPROAR and huuuuge alumni & faculty backlash attacking whatever dumbass made that decision. In less than a week, it got over turned and they were put back into the contest. And guess what?! They WON (obvi!!!!). Hopefully the people at Villanova will have the same change of heart. See, not all Catholic places are bad! Why don’t you guys write an article about this and the happy times? Yay gays! =)

    http://articles.philly.com/2012-02-15/news/31063557_1_lesbian-couple-alumni-association-gay-students

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      Nice! I also went to a private Catholic university for undergrad. In my sophomore year, a student tried to start a gay-straight alliance and was told by the Dean of Students that the group wasn’t necessary because no gay students attended the school. Riiight. It took some serious petitioning and a lot of bad local press, but the school eventually folded and allowed a gsa to form seven months later.

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        haha no gays?! Ridiculous. Good win though! We had something similar. My freshman year St. Joe’s held a Unity Week, I believe one of the first of a Catholic university? The Vatican said bitches don’t you dare and St. Joe’s did it anyway. That was really cool. We got in a whole mess of trouble. I remember on of the Jesuit priests on faculty even had to go on FoxNews and defend us. They broadcast the show in the student lounge on a big projector and there were soooo many people clapping and chanting during it that were not gay in the slightest. When things get rough, it’s good to think of these memories. Evidence that the day we come when we will win ALL THE THINGS!

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        I’m at Notre Dame. And for the past…13ish years? every year the students have petitioned to start a GSA. And every single year they have been denied. Also, people have been trying to add sexual orientation to the nondiscrimination policy, but that still hasn’t gone through. TO SAY NOTHING OF GENDER IDENTITY. Which will be a whole other battle.

        Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s rough to be at a Catholic school, even though things are looking up here and I think it’ll happen soon…

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          Villanova does have some sort of GSA; I have briefly met the person who runs it. I think she said they have a decent amount of success with Day of Silence, etc?

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