Queer and Free on the Streets of San Francisco

This video is a co-production between KQED and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, with footage from Heather Smith's 'That They,' inspired by Peter Berlin's 'That Man.'

Of all the years to spend talking in a small room about a thing as large and contentious as freedom with 30+ very different people, well… 2016 was a doozy.

As the year went on (and on, and on), I found myself thinking about ways that I'd seen freedom erode. I was in Boston during the Boston Marathon bombing, and saw how Homeland Security completely shut down a major city, supposedly to protect us from murderers who weren’t even that good at murdering. It was like being an involuntary extra in an action film, forced into the role of "scared townspeople." (By the end of 2016, there was already a movie in theaters about the bombing; I assume the extras were paid this time.)

So the theater of security is used to constrict freedom. But if a theater of security exists, there's also a theater of insecurity, and a perfect example is found in the films of Peter Berlin. Berlin made his two greatest films, Nights in Black Leather and That Boy, in 1973 and 1974, when the movement for queer rights was still coalescing. At the time, they were not even noteworthy enough to incite the type of backlash that the late '70s would bring.

But Berlin’s films were a sign of things to come: a pornography of freedom even more than a pornography of sex. Freedom may begin with the simple desire to live in a different world, but in practice it's something that you perform, until, eventually, that’s what you are.

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Heather Smith is a founding member of the arts collective Shipping + Receiving.

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