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Queer Commencement

Queer Commencement


Author and performance artist Tim Miller spends a lot of his time touring universities teaching students about performance art. In this essay he imagines the graduation speech he might one day give at the fictitious Queer U.

When I am not busy crafting my Nobel Prize and Academy Award acceptance speeches, I often take a moment to conjure the commencement address I would inspiringly deliver to the LGBTQIA graduating students at Queer U to mark this juicy time of year of poignant endings and new beginnings. The commencement anthems are sung! The graduation caps are flung! The celebratory shots are slung! What can I possibly say to these fierce and inspiring artist-citizens I get to work with at all my college performance gigs?

Should I channel Larry Kramer ... "KEROSENE WORKS BETTER THAN PERFUME!" Hmm, that's a bit too incendiary.

Or maybe go all literary and highfalutin ... "Perhaps the great gay Greek poet C.P. Cavafy said it best... 'He who hopes to grow in spirit will have to transcend obedience and respect.'" That'll make them head for the exits.

If you are going to steal, you should always steal from the best: our great, gay President Lincoln. "One score and 19 years ago, our queer forefathers and mothers at Stonewall etc." Wait a second, Lincoln knew that the people you speak to already have done the heavy lifting; you just have to look to them and the words will follow.

I perform at around 25 colleges every year, where I do my wildly queer solo shows. I also lead intensive performance workshops with the local crew of students, and these get cobbled together into ensemble pieces of the narratives of their lives and then performed on campus. Through my shows and the workshops I do in both the reddest of red and the bluest of blue states, I get a pretty interesting camera angle on the fierce and feisty state of 18- to 22-year-old LGBT Americans.

As I gird my loins -- or at least manage to do my laundry -- and crazily pack my luggage for my big commencement address at Queer U, I would call out to my queer animal guides -- I am a native Californian, after all! In my imagination I see the animal mascots of all the institutions of higher learning where I work gathering to help me. Just as the mice and birds in Cinderella's Disney garret pimp her up for the ball, I visualize the University of Minnesota's Goldy Gopher toothily encouraging me to chew boldly at the truth, Southern Methodist University's Texas Mustang helping me trample down self-doubt, Wisconsin's Bucky Badger -- the sexiest of all the mascots because he has been seriously working out and is wearing no pants! -- fluffing me to help face the horrors of changing planes in Dallas or Dulles!

As I step up to the stage, covered with enough polyester rainbow bunting to circle the earth, I realize for inspiration I need only look to at the public performances of some of the queer students that came out of the workshops I did this last academic year. These young artists performed so boldly while witnessed by their communities in sardine-packed student unions and theaters. Their stories, their texts, their imagination offer all the inspiration and challenge that any commencement address should be chock-full of.

I would point to the courage of Travis Acreman in his performance at SMU in Dallas daring to acknowledge and fiercely claim the target on his back that he shares with every gay American. I think of Megan Lenihan at University of Nebraska's Lied Center for the Performing Arts reading a letter where she comes out to her parents with her parents in the audience and later their family hug that would thaw even Bush's icy heart. I would remember Sentell Harper at Arizona State exploring his identity as a young black gay man and Robert Galloway at Davidson College in North Carolina rejecting being seen only as the gay clown, forever Jack to Will and Grace. I would invoke Colin Wait and Allison Witham, who explored the edgy borders of gay boy sex and the joyous heart rhythm of dyke desire as undergrads on the University of Minnesota campus.

All of these performances by these queer citizens of our troubled country offer fierce avenues of hope, desire, and open-eyed courage far stronger than any possible commencement address I might concoct. Perhaps with their example and artistry -- along with me doing my bit assisted by Bucky Badger in his humpy half-naked glory -- there may just be more than a little hope for our country.

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