Growing up black and lesbian in a small Southern town helped inspire Tiona McClodden, 27, to make her debut film, a documentary called black./womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent.
Six years in the making, the film is now screening around the country at arts and LGBT festivals, in small towns and big cities. New Voices Pittsburgh brings the film to Lawrenceville's Grey Box Theatre on Fri., July 18.
"I made the film for a younger version of me," says McClodden, who works under the name tiona.m. "I felt like there were a lot of questions that needed answers." With almost no black lesbians in the media or, seemingly, her community, she says she felt alone in navigating the intertwined issues of racism, sexism and homophobia she was facing.
The film's 97 minutes include interviews with 49 black lesbians culled from all over -- McClodden's friends and heroes, women who answered appeals through MySpace and newspaper ads, women in clubs, women McClodden met at LGBT-pride events --discussing their experiences with coming out, religion and sexuality, and a host of other topics. The women represent a broad spectrum of ages, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, ethnicities and gender presentations.
Media representation of black lesbians, McClodden says, is almost nonexistent, and is mostly consigned to titillating images of "girls kissing girls." That's why the talking-head documentary format was so important: It allowed for "realism, for black lesbian women to speak for themselves."
Finding women to speak to the diverse experience of being black and lesbian was important for McClodden, but it wasn't easy.
"I have a lot of scholar/activist friends," she says by phone from Brooklyn, where she's beginning work on her next project, a film about black lesbians starting families. "Everybody is not reading books all the time -- I had to check myself. I had to reach out of my comfort zone." For example, the film introduces middle-aged Gwen Wells, who talks about breaking into the all-male world of crane-operating, discussing her success at overcoming multiple barriers.
McClodden says that black lesbians face oppression in many situations, even in identity politics: When trying to find meaningful work in women's-rights activism, she says, black lesbians face racism coupled with homophobia. In LGBT work, sexism and racism work against black lesbians. "If you analyze each trait -- blackness, how women are dealt with in society, homophobia -- it just pushes you lower and lower."
But rather than parse the differing aspects of being a black lesbian, McClodden says, society and the media are only too happy to be reductionist. "People don't know, but they do know for sure that we sleep with women. It's a taboo people might like to look at. People reduce it to the lowest."
In making the film, McClodden says she was compelled to confront her own ideas of what being a black lesbian meant. For example, she asked women who present as "butch" or "femme" about what those labels actually meant to them -- and was surprised that they contradicted one another at times.
McClodden says she was also surprised at how fractured the women were as a group, how people who share a common identity could be so far apart. "A lot of the women in the film wouldn't talk to each other" if they hadn't been taking part in the same project, she says. She found that women of different generations weren't always good at communicating with each other.
The first person in her family to go to college, McClodden says she rocked the boat by dropping out; sexism from instructors and peers, she says, kept her from having access to cameras and other equipment in film classes. She began independently working with a mentor and learning the technical aspects of filmmaking, supporting herself and her project as a freelance filmmaker working on educational films and, somewhat problematically, music videos -- not exactly bastions of enlightened portrayals of women.
"I was in Atlanta, and sometimes my position was to escort the models," she says. "As a woman of color, I had to re-evaluate how I wanted the community to see me. I didn't want a young girl to see me involved in the bullshit." So she got out of making music videos, but says the experience was important to forming her artistic identity. Now, she says, she can relate to women who've been models, in addition to her bookish friends.
"There's no way I can talk about these women like they're not me," she says.
black.womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent screens at 6 p.m. Fri., July 18, at Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Reception and Q&A with tiona.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. www.myspace.com/tionamproductions. For tickets, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.