Asha Molock: Fighting stigma through film

Some like it hot, but for most of us, this climate-change driven, scorching hot weather is a lot to take. And with gas prices keeping many from weekly drives down the shore, what’s there to do? I’d say a good solution would be to check out The Women’s Film Festival here in Philadelphia August 18-28. It’s a chance to cool off in an air conditioned theater and take in some amazing films. This year’s festival stretches 11 days and has an enormous selection of films to entertain, educate and enlighten. 

For our community there’s a short documentary, “Love, Barbara” about legendary filmmaker Barbara Hammer (interviewed in this column back in 2014!), “Prognosis” a feature documentary about the Oscar-winning documentarian and LGBTQ+ activist Debra Chasnoff and her battle with cancer, “Queer as Folx,” a program of both funny and moving short films, and “Ahead of the Curve” a feature film of the story and impact of Curve Magazine featuring Melissa Etheridge, Lea DeLaria, and Philadelphia sheroes Amber Hikes and poet Denice Frohman (both also featured in this column). We are excited to announce that Amber Hikes will also be attending in person at the screening to do a Q&A with the audience.

We also have a two films of interest in our ever popular “Home Grown” program of local filmmakers: “Don’t Let Go,” Mel Orpen’s film about homophobia and families, and Asha Molock’s “Fuel For The Fire: HIV Stigma in The Black Community.” We caught up with the first time director Molock to talk about her allyship to the LGBTQ community and about the wonderful Andrea La’Mour who will be performing live at the screening.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m a native Philadelphian, originally from North Philly, but now I live in Mt. Airy.

What took you out there?

Well, I was living in West Oak Lane and I just wanted to explore. When I came across this house, the address was the same as my birthday! It’s also my father’s birthday so it seemed like fate. I was supposed to have that house and I’ve been here for 45 years now! 

Nice! What is your birth sign?

I was born in September and I’m on the cusp between Virgo and Libra. I claim both. On the Libra side, I like balance, [laughing] if I see a crooked picture I have to straighten it out! 

Ha, so you have a little OCD as well.

I do, I do. 

I’m the same, when I see someone with pants sagging it drives me crazy, not just for reasons of respect but because I hate the imbalance, [laughing] either have them up or down! 

When I was teaching I would keep a long piece of rope in my classroom and when the boys would come with their pants hanging down, I’d cut off a piece of the rope and have them tie their pants up! 

I love it! So who’s in the house with you?

Right now it’s me and my mother and my son. I moved her in here about 6 years ago. She’s going on 94, and her mind is sharp as a tack! My son is 49 and he’s special needs so he lives here too. 

What were you like as a kid?

Quiet, very quiet. Looking back I think I suffered from low self esteem. I got picked on a lot as a kid. They would tease that I had skinny legs, big feet and a big nose. I was an average student, but I always passed all my classes and everything. It’s funny, in the pecking order of the family, I had a sister who was three years older, but I always acted like her big sister.

Sounds like you’ve always been the caretaker. 

You know what? You’re exactly right. I was always the one helping my mother with the younger ones. I was mommy’s little helper. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be a nurse (there’s that caregiver thing again), so I volunteered at Jefferson hospital as a candy striper. While I was there I got to see what really went on and would hear the nurses complain about how badly they were treated, and yet they weren’t very nice to me either so that kind of turned me off of that idea. It seemed that a lot of the people I was hanging around with in high school wanted to be teachers, so I fell in with that. I went to Cheney University and got a degree in education. I taught home economics for 28 years. 

Wow! So are you a good cook?

I think I am. I don’t know if my mother would agree because I’m plant based  and she’s old school, down home southern ribs and chicken! I can’t do all that grease and stuff. 

The stuff that makes it taste good! But I feel you; my mother’s not supposed to have salt, but anytime I make something low sodium, she just adds salt to it! 

Yup, I’d get my mother onion powder instead of onion salt, so she’d come shopping with me and sneak it into the cart. I got rid of it so she had my niece order her a big container of onion salt from Amazon! After that I was like, “Mom, I’m not gonna fight you any more on this, you do you.” 

What ages did you teach and what was the worst?

I taught K-12. The worst? I’d say kindergarten and 1st grade because they were always telling on each other! “Mrs. Molock! He didn’t put the glue back!” Mrs. Molock! She said I have a big head!” [Laughing] It was non-stop. 

How do you teach home ec to 1st graders?

Oh boy, it’s like, “Today we’re going to be making juice” and I’d have them take that concentrate that comes in a frozen can and we’d melt it into a pitcher and they’d get all excited like they were actually cooking, “Oooh, we made orange juice!” 

What’s a favorite memory or moment?

I ran a chess club, and I remember that there was one girl in school. She was so bad, well, in reality she had some home issues, so I shouldn’t call her bad, but she’d curse teachers out and cause problems. But she always wanted to play chess with me. So her teachers would call me and say, “We’re having a hard time with her today, can I send her to play chess with you?” She’d come down and play and I never had any problems with her. When she graduated 8th grade, I bought her a chess set. I hope our time together opened some avenues for her. 

Awww, sweet. 

Yeah, but it could get crazy because all the kids wanted to hang out in my room. Sometimes I’d try to pull down the shades during my lunch hour and hide but they’d be knocking on my door, “Mrs. Molock! We know you’re in there! Open the door, we want to eat lunch with you!” Since I taught home economics I had a refrigerator. I made friends with the lunch ladies so they’d save me extra milk and food which I’d send home in the backpacks of some of the kids that needed it. 

So how did you get involved with the LGBTQ community?

When I was diagnosed with HIV, the HIV community became my tribe. And that tribe consisted of mostly people from the LGBTQ community so that became my community too. As you see in the film, these are my friends, and these are the folks who stepped up when they heard I was making this film and said, “What do you need?” I mean it’s one thing to be open within the HIV community and in support groups, but to be in a film and you don’t know where it might get shown is something else. There were some who declined and I respected that, which made me appreciate those who did step up even more. I am truly inspired by the people in my documentary. The way they faced adversity and transformed their lives. Andrea La’Mour is amazing, she just shines from the screen. I admire all of them but I was especially amazed at one person in the film and his resiliency. William was a recent  amputee and explained that he feels stigmatized because he has HIV, a gay man and an amputee. I didn’t include the clip in the doc but he actually took off his prosthetic and showed me his stump along with the different kinds of prosthetic legs for activities like swimming and bike riding. His courage to keep moving through life still sticks with me. 

It’s definitely inspirational and I can’t wait to have Andrea perform live for us! When did you get diagnosed? And were you still teaching at the time?

It was 2001 and in 2002 I took an early retirement. In those early days, it was really rough. At first I didn’t know why I was sick all the time. I caught everything the kids had and then I developed a terrible rash behind my ear that wouldn’t heal. When I tested positive, the medications made it worse. I could barely get it together to go to school. I was taking 3 pills a day, and they were so powerful and toxic that they really wreaked havoc on my body. I would feel sick at school and would come home and crash. I was also starting to get in trouble for missing so many days, I was on the verge of being fired which would have stripped my benefits just when I really needed them. So I opted for early retirement/disability. The AIDS Law project really helped me. 

Was the school aware of your status?

No; at that time I was still trying to process it myself. I’d contracted it from my husband (soon ex), and I didn’t tell anyone for 10 years with the exception of my mother and my daughter. I needed those 10 years to heal and to prepare myself to be ready to receive whatever might come back once I told people. I wanted to be strong enough to handle it, because there was a lot of shame and guilt and worry about the stigma of having HIV. 

In the LGBTQ community, I think the stigma has lessened a little as people have been educated, but I don’t think it’s evolved as much with the straight community. 

It has not, and I have to say in the Black community both straight and gay there’s still a lot of misinformation and misconceptions. That’s why I wanted to do this film, because nobody talks about it. I want this film to open up some channels to start a discussion about HIV. Even talking about it at the festivals where it has shown, I was able to impart information about U=U and things they’d never heard of. 

Let’s start with me, what is U=U?

Undetectable means Untransmittable. 

Okay, I did know that, just not the short version. 

Yes, so I’ve been undetectable for years and even I didn’t know that it meant I was untransmittable. So here I was thinking that I was a danger for those years not knowing what U=U meant myself. 

Well, I’m glad you’re out there spreading the word and educating people. What else are you doing these days?

I love to travel, especially to Africa. I’ve been to Ghana twice, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Zanzibar. 

What was your favorite and what are the realities there? I think we get a skewed view of Africa as a place that’s impoverished with starving kids everywhere because that’s all you see in the media here. 

Yes, it’s definitely a slanted view. Zanzibar is my favorite. It’s just so peaceful there. We stayed at a B&B and I’d get up every morning and walk on the beach with the cows. They’d just walk next to you and didn’t bother anyone; it was magical. Overall in Africa, what I’ve found is a sense of spirit. Just driving down the road, everyone seems to have a purpose for their destination. People are selling things, they are self-sufficient, and I feel a sense of pride there. We might look down and think, they don’t have the things we do, but they have a sense of culture and dignity. People are friendly and there was a serenity there that you don’t find in the states. And the people are talented. You look at the people doing intricate carvings on the side of the road, and other crafts by hand and it’s incredible. The kind of patience that it takes to do that. You come home and start to question things here, do I really need all this stuff? Is the rat race we’re running really worth it?  

Hard to tell right? What do you like to do back here at home?

I dabble a little with tarot cards, mainly for myself. I love to garden, that’s my happy place, in my garden tending flowers. I also make homemade tinctures, elderberry syrup and something called Fire Cider. Wooo! It’s got jalapeño peppers, oranges, grapefruit, onions, garlic, apple cider vinegar, and sits for 30 days. If you have a sore throat this winter, it’ll clear it right away. 

I’d probably look like a cartoon with smoke coming out of my ears after trying that! I forgot to ask you, this was your first film, how did it come about?

My nieces were in documentary programs at Scribe video, and I would go to the film screenings. I would watch and think, “You know, I have a story to tell.” I mentioned it to the manager and he said, “No one’s ever done a doc on HIV here at Scribe, you have to do it.” I applied to the program and got accepted and here we are! I originally wasn’t planning on being in it, but because of the pandemic I wasn’t able to do it the way I wanted. 

Well, I’m glad because you were integral to the film. So some random questions, last book you read? 

I read a book that a friend of mine, Davina M Conner, wrote called, “30 Days Getting Back To Happy: A Guide into Positivity and Affirmations for People Living with Internal Stigma”.

What was your first car?

A burgundy Ford Rambler. My mother bought it for me so that I could get back and forth to Cheney. [Laughing] I’d make gas money by offering students a ride back into town. I’d pile them in the car and charge 50 cents per person! 

A notable family member?

I found out that my mother’s grandfather was Noah Hardy, Sr. He was a preacher who built his own church and school. He owned farmland which his sons worked and he sent his daughters to school to become teachers. He built his house too and his children would come back after they married and build their own houses on the property. My mother remembered going there and the fish pond in front of the house. It was so refreshing to learn about history that wasn’t all about poverty or slavery. They still worship there though there was a fire in the original church. Everything was burned except for his picture which was still on the wall, scorched on the edges but intact. 

What’s something you want people to know in 2022 about HIV?

Here are the 3 things I want people to take away, that because of U=U:  

1. People living with HIV can be in loving sexual relationships without the fear of transmitting HIV.

2. Serodiscordant couples exist, where one person is HIV positive and the other is not and it’s possible not to transmit to the negative partner. 

3. A woman who maintains an undetectable viral load can have a vaginal birth and breast/chest feed her baby.

And finally that it’s not a death sentence. I had to respond to someone spreading misinformation on tik tok who was saying that she’d rather have Covid because at least it wouldn’t kill her like HIV. I had to school her on that and at first she resisted, but when she found out I knew what I was talking about she apologized.

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