HIV and Bumming Cigarettes: A Conversation With tiona.m. – The Feminist Wire

HIV and Bumming Cigarettes: A Conversation With tiona.m.


I first met award-winning Black lesbian filmmaker tiona.m. (Tiona McClodden) in Atlanta in spring 2005 when she was working as a freelance videographer at Spelman College. I was in the near final post-production stages of my film NO! The Rape Documentary when I was an Artist-in-Residence at Spelman College’s Women’s Resource and Research Center’s Digital Moving Image Salon. Our friendship and camaraderie developed when she provided invaluable technical support and advice during a time of critical need. During this same time, Tiona was also in production on her first documentary film black./womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent. From the first moment she told me about her documentary in progress, I expressed an interest in being an interviewee. After all, it wasn’t everyday that a Black lesbian filmmaker embarked upon producing, directing, photographing, and editing a feature length documentary, which would create the cinematic space for Black lesbians to speak in their own voices to counteract the often vicious stereotypes that are aimed at us. Less than three years later and on a no-string budget, Tiona completed black./womyn.:conversations.

This documentary is not a Hollywood fabricated fantasy. Nor is it a representation of every single Black lesbian. However, through interviewing over 50 Black lesbians across the United States and in Canada, Tiona dug beneath the surface to begin a long overdue intergenerational conversation for Black lesbians to speak in their own voice. A recipient of the Audience Award for Best Documentary from the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival{now QFest} in 2008, black./womyn.:conversations has screened extensively throughout North America and internationally. It is also used in numerous college and university curricula in the United States.

In The Feminist Wire’s Women’s Filmmaker Forum, Tiona said:

I primarily focus on subject matter within my work that focuses on black women – subjects that I feel need to be explored in order to fill a void and work that is progressive…This goes for both fiction and nonfiction work.

Presently, Tiona is in production on The Untitled Black Lesbian Elder Project, her second feature length documentary, which features interviews with Black lesbian elders who are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Simultaneously, Tiona executive produced, wrote, directed, and edited her first narrative film Bumming Cigarettes. Premiering at the 2012 Philadelphia Q Fest, this short film focuses on a brief and intimate encounter between a young Black lesbian woman who is waiting on the results of an HIV test and a middle-aged Black Gay HIV Positive man. With HIV as its solid foundation, this multilayered film also explores additional themes including the impact of gentrification on Black queer people, and intergenerational relationships between Black lesbians and gay men. Each of these themes is directly connected to love and loss.

I was initially drawn to and financially supported Bumming Cigarettes through its Kickstarter campaign because the film centers on a Black lesbian woman who takes an HIV test. I’ve been tested several times. And yet, I must admit that as a Black lesbian I don’t think I have to worry about contracting the HIV virus because I haven’t had consensual heterosexual sex since 1989. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that there are no confirmed cases of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States database (K. McDavid, CDC, oral communication, March 2005). Yes, the CDC also discusses the risk factors and barriers to (HIV) prevention for lesbians. However, what always stood out for me and I would offer many other lesbians, was that there weren’t any confirmed cases of female-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States database.

The must read 2009 released HIV Risk for Lesbians, Bisexuals & Other Women Who Have Sex With Women, report published by the Women’s Institute at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is a serious wake-up call for any non-heterosexual woman who, like me, may want to hold on to the very incorrect belief that she is not at risk of HIV or (other STI’s – sexually transmitted infections). The author(s) of this ground-breaking report are very clear that they are not comparing the risk of non-heterosexual women with the risk of heterosexual women. However, they emphasize that there is a considerable risk of HIV for lesbians.

While lesbians and WSW (women who have sex with women) are at relatively low risk of HIV infection, lesbian sex is not risk free. In 2006, the CDC issued a report stating that there were no confirmed cases of HIV from female-to-female transmission (CDC, 2006). However, the CDC did acknowledge that there have been several documented cases of women who have sex with women that have been infected with HIV. One such individual, a 20-year-old African-American woman, revealed that while she contracted the HIV virus, she did not have a history of the typical signs of risk behavior. She had never engaged in sexual intercourse with a man, did not use injection drugs or other substances, had no tattoos or piercings and had received no blood transfusions. Her only partner was a bisexual female who had HIV. It was concluded that the regular use of sex toys contributed to the contraction (Ghobrial, 2003).

This report underscores the fact that in spite of the low risk of female-to-female transmission of HIV, it is important that lesbians are aware that they are not immune from the virus. How do we raise the awareness amongst lesbians about the critical need to take the steps to find out their HIV status without egregiously blaming bisexual women (and/or men) for the “spread” of the disease? It’s completely counter productive. The question between lesbians and their sexual partner(s) shouldn’t solely be “Have you slept with a man?” I believe some of the questions should include “Do you practice safe sex?” and “When was your last HIV test?”

“Bumming Cigarettes” is a primer on the importance for everyone, especially Black lesbians, to know their HIV status. It is also a call to action for all of us to be mindful about how we treat people who are living with the virus. This film is subtle and yet profound. It’s not your typical (albeit very important) “Know Your HIV Status” PSA (public service announcement) under the guise of a short film. No, this is a film about two protagonists – a Black lesbian and a Black gay man- whose paths unexpectedly intersect because of HIV and bumming cigarettes. The incredible performances by Alia Hatch and James Tolbert are compelling and very real. So much so that it’s easy to believe you’re viewing a documentary and not a narrative film. This is a testament to Tiona’s beautifully written script and her powerful direction.

On the heels of Tiona juggling multiple balls, including preparing for a major trip, I asked her if I could interview her about Bumming Cigarettes for The Feminist Wire’s 2012 Forum on World AIDS Day. Without any hesitation, she said, “Yes!”

AS: Your first film black./womyn: conversations with lesbians of African descent is a feature-length documentary, which features interviews with over 50 Black lesbians telling their stories. Yes, one could argue that as the director, photographer, producer, and editor, you framed how their stories are told. Regardless, it’s in their voice. In contrast, “Bumming Cigarettes,” is a narrative short about a Black lesbian taking an HIV test. You created this story. What’s the difference between documenting stories and creating your own story?

TM: I think the biggest difference between documentary and narrative work is control. The level of control that you have within fiction narrative is unreal in comparison to documentary. You are at the will of real life and your subjects when it comes to doc work. Like you might start out with one film and end up with another. With fictional narrative you go in with a script with a goal of rendering a predetermined image or visual story. Documentary has always been about exploration to me, I make docs on things I’m interested in learning about and that I may have not experienced. In fiction I’m coming to show you something that I’ve prepared and have spent a lot of time on researching and developing alone. It’s mine, from my voice and experience despite the characters decisions. I make those decisions for them in the end.

AS: Lesbians who do not have sex with men (or haven’t had sex with men in years) often think that they’re immune from HIV. I believe this is because most of the HIV information available to cisgender women is for those women who had or are currently having sex with cisgender men. Additionally, the rates of lesbians contracting HIV are barely non-existent in comparison to other populations. This doesn’t mean, however, that women who identify as lesbians (regardless of their sexual herstory) are not contracting the virus.

TM: Exactly. What I found in my research in talking with folks who gather statistics on HIV/AIDS is that often times when a lesbian woman goes to get tested and they answer yes to the question about if they have had sex with a man, they are automatically counted in the statistics with heterosexual women and not in the statistics with woman who has sex with women only. In the HIV/AIDS prevention world the terms are MSM (men who have sex with men), etc. There really isn’t a lot of research around WSW (women who have sex with women). As a result, the statistical data reads as non-existent. I think there should be more public research that actually focuses on the sexual behaviors of Black lesbian women. We need research that also factors in the reality that some lesbian women have had sex with men in the past and many lesbian women have only been sexually active with women. What does it mean women from these two categories become sexually intimate with each other? I’ve personally known and heard of some lesbian women who’ve contracted HIV. This was one of the motivations to make an effort to explore this issue on screen and produce something that would inspire dialogue around the need for everyone to get tested.

AS: Why did you make this film (i.e. why is your protagonist a Black lesbian)?

Alia Hatch “Vee”

TM: I made the film because this is something that happened to me in my real life. As an out Black lesbian, I’ve been in relationships where things became dishonest and I had to question my sexual health. It’s my story and yet, I wanted to construct and deconstruct it in a way where folks could identify with it across the board. I also was born the same year as the discovery of HIV/AIDS. So every year since I’ve been aware of things, I’ve always known that my birthday coincided with the epidemic. Last year was intense because I turned 30 and it was the 30th anniversary of the discovery. I felt super overwhelmed by a lot of the imagery, especially the preventative imagery that featured faces that just did not look like mine. There was absolutely no Black lesbian representation and no masculine women were used in the ads. Additionally, I found many of the narratives that included black women’s imagery to be quite problematic. With the release of more and more statistical data that discussed the rising rate of HIV/AIDS cases across the demographic of Black women, I felt that I was being cut out of that conversation because I was lesbian. It was as if my being a lesbian meant I was no longer a Black woman. It was really weird for me that year. The presentation of hyper-sexualized imagery to talk about HIV/AIDS was also always odd to me. I wanted to make something different, something that would focus on mood and conversation. I also had a very profound meeting with a homeless man in Harlem a few years back while riding a bus with a friend that inspired the root of the main character of Jimmy.

AS: To whom are you speaking with this film?

TM: I’m speaking to anyone who may not have taken an HIV test and needs to. I wanted to show the actual process so that folks could get over the myth of what happens in the room-like show the truth of things. Specifically I’m speaking to the Black queer community, and even more specifically Black lesbian women with the hope that we take the initiative of knowing our status, while also engaging with the Black gay men’s community about some of the things that we have in common. We have become oddly and dangerously separate in this fight against HIV.

AS: Without giving the story away, I appreciate the reasons for Vee taking an HIV test are not catastrophic; devastating, yes, but not catastrophic. They are reasons that too many of us (unfortunately) experience. As a result, the film conveys the critical message that knowing your HIV status is important and necessary. Was this intentional on your part?

TM: Yes. I wanted folks to know that no matter what the diagnosis that you can and will be okay and be able to move on. The character of Jimmy is a testament to this.

AS: What messages do you want to convey to Black lesbians about knowing their HIV status?

TM: The biggest message or idea is to get the [Black lesbian] community to actually take the steps and make the necessary effort to find out their status in spite of what folks are telling them that our demographic is not at risk. Everyone is at risk. I wanted to acknowledge that fearful space as well and work within and through it by portraying the conversation that happens with Jimmy & Vee in those 10-minutes. Let’s visually explore the wait, which can be the toughest part of the entire testing experience.

AS: What type of research was required for you to write your script? I had a hard time finding detailed information about lesbians and HIV. Did you?

TM: More than folks would probably imagine. I spent a lot of time talking with men in various areas who formed the voice of Jimmy in the film. Detailed information is barely out there and its really quite ridiculous when it comes down to Black lesbians specifically. My girlfriend at the time worked in HIV prevention and statistical research. She was an immense help with learning the language and making it something to be able to relate to in a manner that someone outside of the medical field could understand.

AS: Where did you film the clinic scenes? How did you choose the site? Is the counselor who administers Vee’s HIV test at the clinic an actor, or is he an HIV educator in real life?

TM: I filmed at the very clinic where I took my HIV tests when I had a similar situation as Vee had in the film, The Washington West Project in Philadelphia, which is located in the Gayborhood. I went there shortly after moving to Philadelphia. I really thought they were cool for having night hours, which is when I had my test. My fiction work is all about re-memory and I tend to place these obstructions within my narrative work where I must occupy elements of realism no matter what. So in this case, I actually shot in the real location where I experienced these situations. I filmed at 12th & Locust where the clinic is located as well as the stoop across the street and the outside of Knock Bar. It was like reliving a moment. And yes the HIV Counselor played by Vincent is an actual HIV Counselor. I didn’t want an actor for that role because I wanted someone who could just be as sterile and straightforward as real life HIV counselors have to be to do their job effectively-to the point.

AS: I thought Alia Hatch’s and James Tolbert’s performances were powerful. Their on-screen chemistry was strong. I had to remind myself that they were both working from a script, which is a testament to their acting skills and your screenwriting. During many scenes, I literally felt like I was watching a documentary. In several scenes, Hatch’s facial expressions conveyed pain, confusion, concern, and compassion without speaking one word. Tolbert’s delivery of his lines was on the mark every single moment. I respect the fact that you hired Black queer actors, one of whom has been living with HIV for 21-years. Will you briefly share your process of selecting both of them for the leading roles? Did you know them prior to selecting them? Did they know each other prior to production?

TM: Yeah they both were really great and I was blessed to work with them. I wrote a really tight script with little room for improvisation so it was really important for the cast to be able to perform their roles efficiently. The casting process was intense. I actually had a lot of setbacks when it came to casting. I did two open calls and actually cast another lady as the role of Vee and had her drop out like one week before production. I had such a hard time casting for the role of Jimmy that I was really distraught at one point wondering if I would ever find him. James came as a referral and I was set to see about three other guys in addition to him on the last day I had to cast that role. When I met him, however, I just knew he was the one. I knew Alia for a few years from living in Philly and paid attention to their career and what they were doing in the art and theater scene. I knew Alia was a runway fashion model and could really serve a different look in such a high contrast. James and Alia actually knew each other from working at the Freedom Theater in North Philly. It was a lovely moment when I brought them together and they chopped it up like old pals. So the chemistry was there somewhat from the get go. Alia has a strong silent presence, which is what I needed since the first half of the film has such little dialogue. James is a trained fine actor and he brought that strength to the project. He was my rock. His performance really is the cornerstone to the entire film really. James told me that he was 22-years HIV positive the day before we shot our first scene, and I was really moved by his story. He actually shared many similarities with the main character as he shares in his actor interview for the film. The whole thing was a magical moment really. My DP (director of photography) Sienna (Pinderhughes) also had a major hand in setting a nice tight and intimate space for the camera to be able to capture the stoop scene where James & Vee interact. The whole process of filming on the street was really intense and had to function in a certain way to get the results that we wanted.

AS: In so many mainstream films, people of color, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, are on the margins of the story, if we even make it on the screen. From the opening frame onward, your directorial lens informs the viewer that Black queer people are not only centralized, but also humanized in this film. Your characters are not stereotypes nor are they “perfect” people, whatever that means (laughing). What messages are you conveying, especially in the contexts of HIV awareness and Black queer visibility? Are there intentional multilayered messages?

TM: I’m not really into stereotypes and like to play with anti-stereotypes at times. Like try and present something as a stereotype but then flip it completely. I tried to do that with both characters really. Vee comes off as pretty strong but I really pushed for vulnerability with that character. With James I wanted him to tow the line of fragility, like someone who could fall apart at any moment but refused to. The main message is empathy for one. The way I position Jimmy with how he talks about his loss of intimacy over the years, as a gay man living with HIV is something very real. I wanted to address the stigma surround HIV/AIDS and the way we treat folks living with the disease.

AS: Usually when Black communities discuss relationships between cisgender Black women and men, it is within a heterosexual framework. Black love is not often viewed as queer and/or non-sexual. Simultaneously, there aren’t enough dialogues between Black queer people, across the sexuality spectrum. Bumming Cigarettes gives viewers an opportunity to experience a non-sexual, brief and yet very intimate intergenerational connection between a Black lesbian and a Black gay man. Vee’s character could’ve had a non-sexual, intimate connection with anyone. Why did you decide that she would engage with Jimmy’s character in such a profound way?

James Tolbert “Jimmy” & Alia Hatch “Vee”

TM: It was all about the cigarettes really. I know this sounds odd. I’ve always noticed how folks who smoke engage each other. I’ve seen folks who are polar opposites bum cigarettes off of each other and have some of the most random and intimate interactions with each other. It has always been a strange thing to witness. So I knew that would be an entry point for the conversation to start between the two. Vee is looking for a distraction or relief in that moment of waiting for her results and Jimmy is there and gives her more than what she expected due to his own needs and openness. It’s a real intimate discussion between two strangers, with one (Jimmy) understanding what the other (Vee) is feeling. Jimmy went through what Vee is going through and I think I wanted to approach his awareness of this in a nuanced manner. I wanted Vee to work through a lot of apprehension during that ten minutes and open up to him in a real way.

AS: I loved how you didn’t play the “oppression Olympics,” as coined by Native American radical feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith, between Black gay men and lesbians around any issue, but especially HIV and all of the devastating stigma associated with the virus, which often results in so much loss. Your directorial lens revealed mutual compassion between Vee and Jimmy, albeit for a brief moment in time on their respective journeys. I believed you were saying these are issues that we must collectively address in our communities.

TM: Yeah there was no room for that with a story like this. I wanted to really produce a film that would be able to start a conversation about how Black Gay men and lesbian identified women relate to each when it comes to HIV awareness. There has been a severe divide in the way we engage each other on the issue and I don’t like it. I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that Black women were passed the baton in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It was once seen as this disease that affected the gay men’s community. Now, the face of HIV/AIDS is a Black woman.

AS: I must share that I am biased as both a native and current resident of Philadelphia. Philly’s Gayborhood is beautiful in all of its color in Bumming Cigarettes. The film visually shifts the contemporary landscape of the predominantly white queer neighborhood while offering profound commentary on the impact of gentrification on low-income Black queer people. Different and yet I believe directly interconnected, your film’s commentary reminds me of writer and Anti Police Brutality activist Imani Henry’s brief history about the horrid impact of gentrification on marginalized queer communities in the West Village in New York.

TM: I had to keep it super real with visually depicting what Philly’s Gayborhood has become. There is a lot of unspoken tension about how it has been gentrified over the years. I did some field research and engaged with folks about how they felt about these changes so that I could get the tone of the area right. I also have had my own personal experiences where I’ve walked in the area and have been viewed as a threat or as someone who doesn’t belong based on my race and how I present myself in regards to gender. Sometimes these LGBTQ-designated areas are not very welcoming when it comes to class and race and I wanted to address this in the film for sure.

AS: What do you hope people will walk away with after viewing the film?

TM: I want people to have a reason to go and get tested. I think the film stirs a lot of questions. It is a decent opener to a tough conversation around HIV/AIDS and how it impacts us all at the end of the day on an emotional level. I want people to feel moved internally but also be inspired to actually make a move towards getting physically tested. I want folks to seriously think about how we treat those living with the disease and what we can do to change stigmas that hurt these individuals on an emotional level. And finally, I want folks to know that a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. There are many individuals who have had long lives post being diagnosed.

AS: How can people see Bumming Cigarettes right now?

TM: The film is on the Fest circuit and it’s also available for bookings and special screenings. Folks can contact [email protected] for more information as well as

AS: When will the film be available for purchase for individual, organizational and institutional use?

TM: The DVD of Bumming Cigarettes will be available fall 2013.