Cure Chronicles Episode 18: James Tison

The Cure Chronicles: HIV with James Tison

The Cure Chronicles is delighted to welcome James Tison. James is a New York-based stand-up comedian, actor, HIV LGBTQ advocate, and social media influencer who has over 60,000 followers on TikTok. He was raised in a family of truck drivers and ranchers in California and studied theater at NYU. Praised by Out Magazine and Broadway World, James has spoken openly about being queer, HIV positive, and sober for more than seven years. James uses humor to combat HIV stigma and fight discrimination, which has earned him praise from The New York Times for opening the door for non-binary representation in the stand-up arena.

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Jeff Galvin: James, thanks for being on the show with us today.

James Tison: Thank you for having me. 

Jeff: It’s a pleasure, of course.

Jeff: Hey, right off the bat, you have had a very successful career as a comedian. You've been highlighted in magazines, even an article in The New York Times. This is really fascinating to me. I know there's a lot of stuff we're going to talk about, but what initially inspired you to go into stand-up comedy?

James: Trauma. I mean, that's always the way in for most comedians. I don't know that I'm very successful, just putting that out there, but it has been a good couple of years in terms of building stand-up. I use humor to cope with difficult things, and I have since I was five years old. My whole family is like that, and it became, as an actor, the only path where I could just do it all the time as a creative. Often, you're on other people's terms, even as a writer, and you need to find other people to read it or find it, you know, and then sell it, but stand-up I could just do. I could just go out any day and do it. I could end this conversation right now and go and find an open mic or find a show, because they're happening all the time, everywhere in New York.

Jeff: That's interesting that you say that. I think a lot of art comes from trauma, or let's say emotion. I've talked to a lot of people where they say that their art is sort of their outlet for the feelings that they have inside. So, that's very interesting that you say that came from that. And, by the way, very successful in art to me is anybody that can afford to eat, right? You know, I used to think struggling is one word. If you can do your art, and I noticed that…

James: Well, in that sense, I'm a successful waiter.

Jeff: Well, that's good. I mean, the whole point is fulfillment in life. Something that has some meaning, but no, I gotta say that I looked at a lot of your stuff on YouTube and the internet. I just kind of assumed that maybe this was totally your full-time gig.

Jeff: Regardless of that, I think it's super cool that you are using your humor to educate the public on HIV. And, I think that's so important to the idea of reducing stigma out there. I think stigma is a big issue. You know, how do you use comedy? I mean, like how does that fit into the idea of going out there and being funny and getting people's attention and sort of connect with them on that level? How do you utilize your art for reducing that statement?

James: For me, there's a formula I think, and it sort of passes between like what I do or what a comedian does and what on your end you, like the researchers and scientists, do in terms of where the treatments are and so forth for HIV. So, in order for me to use my sense of humor to fight stigma or whatever it is, it really helps that the medication keeps me healthy and it's not a big deal for my life, as long as I have access to the medication. That is huge. 

If this was 1981, my jokes would be completely different. It would be impossible to take the approach that I take now 30 years ago, almost 35 or 40 years ago now. That's a huge part of it for me.

I mean, I was really, for myself when I tested positive for HIV, I guess five or six years ago now, I was stigma. I was misinformed. I did not know about the state of the treatment, and I was really upset for three months. I was just in shock. 

And at a certain point my doctors were like - they didn’t say this flat out, but there was sort of an attitude that - “You're fine. It's gonna be fine.” And once I had that personal experience and then test results and data I could point to and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, I'm fine.” And then when I realized nobody knows this, it's this thing that really shocks people and really puts people in a state of fear, which I personally experienced, and then you have all the… 

It's like in comedy where you talk about anything hard when it's emotional, and you don't have data to point to that it’s okay, you have to figure out a way to make the audience okay with that. For me, it's like, “No, I have test results that say it's undetectable. There's all these studies.” And so I can really shock an audience with something, and then I as the performer know how okay it is, and I can pretty easily bring them back to how okay it is.

Jeff: Yeah, so you've taken the journey yourself and now you're sort of expressing it in your art form, and of course the overall message is that the feeling that you had when you were first diagnosed and the feeling that the uneducated have about HIV has a ton in common, so that journey is really relevant.

James: Yeah.

Jeff: Yeah, that's really something. That makes total sense to me. You know, so you got diagnosed, and you said you had a few really hard months, and I hear that also. Sometimes I hear a couple of really hard years, like I hear people who are suicidal, that they have so many misunderstandings about what it means to be diagnosed with HIV and what the implications are to your future, and we live in the United States, so we're kind of lucky right there, right? Because anybody should be able to get the meds. I know it isn't actually as good as it should be, but there are health care exchanges in most places. So you should be able to get health insurance, and health insurance pays for the pills and for the doctor's appointments and things like that. It's easier in some places.

Jeff: I heard in New York they give you a bus pass so you can make sure you can make your doctor's appointments, you know, stuff like that. Some areas are more responsive to it, and in other areas, they are less responsive. But provided you can get somebody into one of those safe spaces, okay. And maybe you can attest to this from your perspective living in a place where, I think, that folks are really open and empathetic towards this health issue. You can get on the medication and you can kind of resume a normal life at that point. Is that true?

James: Well, yes. In terms of the last question, absolutely. If you have access to health insurance, whether it's through the state or whatever it is, and you can get the medicine consistently for decades, then you will be fine.

But that's my experience. I know that there's a very rare, you know, some people don't respond to some medications, or some medications stop working. They have to switch and the treatments, maybe, become more pills, and if it's caught early, yeah, all of that is true.

I will say I think in most states, it's actually not that easy to just get the medication. I might be wrong, maybe you have more data than me. I know I'm very clouded by my experiences in Texas and my second hand experiences in Texas where it is very bad. My mom has a friend who's literally, and now part of this is her son has an addiction problem as well, like there's co-occurring things going on. But he has AIDS and is on his deathbed, and I think had to be...I actually don't know where that story ended. But I know it didn't end with him getting medication through the state because that program doesn't exist.

You can't let whatever the illness is, you can't just let people die of it, especially when the medication doesn't actually cost them anything to make. There's no reason for it to be $3,000 for a bottle of 30 pills. It doesn't cost them that much to make it. That's how they're pricing it.

James: So no, Texas is not doing anything correct. There's no reason for people to be dying of AIDS at this point. The medication, it's honestly, I'd make this joke in my stand-up, but like diabetes seems worse to me, honestly. It seems like insulin is way more of like, there's gotta time it, you gotta watch your diet, and if you screw it up, then you're out for the day. And that's not my experience. I don't think about it. I take one pill a day and it...that's how easy it should be.

Jeff: So, sorry. That's a great observation because I haven't heard that observation made before, but you're right. Measuring your insulin and balancing out your sugar and insulin in your bloodstream is way more complex. And also, the consequences of just missing it...right. It doesn't just throw you off for the day. You could lose a leg, you could go blind if you don't manage it properly, right? 

James: There are no states where if you get diabetes, the state is like, "Oh, we'll cover all of your insulin." That doesn't exist. Whereas in New York, this program in New York saved my life, turned my life around, gave me access to the health insurance like you're talking about.

Yeah, so, diabetes seems, in New York, a way bigger drag. 

Jeff: And, in exchange, New York got a comedian and apparently a very successful waiter.

James: A very successful waiter.

Jeff: So, yeah, but is the thing: these are human beings and they're productive, right? There's more reason to have empathy for a human being than just the fact that, you know, “Let's be charitable.” No, it's like that's how society works. You know, people that are healthy are productive, and this is actually not that difficult to manage. 

And, you're right, yeah, there's a lot of profit in that three thousand dollars, you know that. But I think that in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, there should be a way to pay for it for the people that need it and to derive the benefits of having those people re-enter society and also not be contagious. 

Think about this: you don't have to worry about passing the disease to somebody else. You're undetectable. 

James: I mean, from a policy perspective and from a capitalist perspective, it makes no sense to let people die from this. It's contagious. You need able-bodied people to generate income, and it costs the system next to nothing to make sure that they do.

James: Honestly, the stigma is always, it's never about rational fact, it's never about rational reality. The decision to not take care of HIV patients in these states is steeped in homophobia, it's steeped in other forms of stigma. It is not a sound policy decision for any community. It doesn't make any sense.

Jeff: But that's interesting, like you said that it's steeped in homophobia, but it's like HIV is not a gay disease, it's an everybody's disease. 

James: It is to these people, you know. You talk about stigma, it really is hard for me to get too hung up on the actual details of, like, yes, yes, the medication solves it. I could talk all day about it, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter to them. 

Stigma isn't rooted really in, “Oh, what is my life going to be like tomorrow?” It's rooted in the feeling you get thinking about what would your mother think of you knowing that you have HIV?

Jeff: That's self-stigma, right? I mean, that's not even that… you know, I guess you know your mother better than I do, so…

James: It's not about your mother…

Jeff: Right, I know it’s not about your mother, everybody knows their mother, but the point is you might be actually making an accurate observation about, like, “Yeah, my mother may be shocked by this, and maybe I can't tell her about it,” but I'm just thinking about, you know, this stigma that not just the self-stigma, but that stigma that's all around us, associated with even the idea that not everybody falls into cisgender heterosexual category, and that's not a problem for most people. It doesn't create problems in the world. 

James: I mean, anytime I get any kind of attention on social or whatever for anything trans-related, anything HIV-related, they're there. 

Jeff: Really?

James: Yes. 

Jeff: And they can anonymously snipe, right? 

James: Or just as themselves, they're not ashamed. Nobody's ashamed of their homophobia or their thoughts about HIV or their thoughts about trans people. They're not. They're actually quite proud of it. First and last name on a lot of these accounts. 

I mean, that's I think one thing about… like you talk about fighting stigma and you mentioned earlier there are people who even in years stay in this place of feeling about it or stigma or depression or whatever it is and not wanting to talk about it. And there's an irrational, deep-seated homophobia around the issue of HIV and a deep-seated, even beyond homophobia, hatred of otherness. 

I mean, if you look back to the 80s and when it was spreading, even as it spread to other communities, those people were lumped in with, you know, those [___], those...whatever, you know? It became a brand of being associated with “other” and with “sickness” and with “whatever.” And that's why it's like, you can talk all day now about how healthy people can be, but that's not actually what people's issue is. 

There's an irrational sense of, “You have a societal sickness.”

Jeff: You're somehow associated with “the potential breakdown of all of society and humanity.” Wow! 

James: Or whatever it is. 

Jeff: That's that level, the level of fear of “other,” you know? 

James: Oh, yes.

Jeff: Like the United States wasn't already proof enough that that's not true, right? I mean, think about our entire origin story of people coming from everywhere and every “other” has gone through this, and then now they're the mainstream, and they're looking at others. This whole idea with immigration, right, in a country of immigrants, that we have a problem with immigrants is kind of ironic.

Jeff: So, okay, so you get out there, and I feel like I'm taking this interview, you know, to a dark place, so it's not as funny as I was hoping it would be. So let's, let's lighten it up here a little bit. So let's talk about your stand-up and and so you're in front of an audience and you're actually using your life as, you know, sort of source material for your stand-up, I'm assuming. How's the audience react to that?

James: It’s funny you ask because they're shocked every time. I've never done this bit and not had a room full of people go dead silent waiting for, like, “Uh, oh, what, what's next?” like, the second I say that I tested positive for HIV.

I do think if that ever stops happening, I'll stop doing the bit. In terms of my motivations, I do love that I do educate and destigmatize the issue as I talk about it, but my primary motivation is traumatizing the audience and then getting the laugh out of that.

But every time they go dead silent, which I think is a testament to truly what a… I'm in New York where, you know, a lot of these people, I'm in gay bars, a lot of these people have HIV or are educated about the issue, but it's still… *gasp*.

Jeff: Wow, yeah. Yeah, I guess, people may even be afraid to respond to that because they're looking around and like, “Well, if I respond to that, are people going to think I have HIV?” You know, I mean, right, it's that's the whole thing, and it reminds me of an old joke about the guy who manages to get the mule to laugh, and nobody can figure out how he does it, and it turns out that he hits him with a two by four first because he said, "You can't get him to laugh until you get their attention," right? 

James: That's exactly right. Yeah.

Jeff: So then you're delivering that shock line, and you're right, like, “Oh, by the way, I was diagnosed with HIV.” It’s a room-clearing statement.

James: Every time.

Jeff: Can you imagine your waiter tells you that? I'm guessing that when you're serving food, you're not like, “Oh, by the way, I'm HIV positive,” because you have time to get them to recover from that even though it makes no difference to them at all. Right? This is the whole point. It's not like you're holding back something that actually has any impact on their lives. You know, but you know you could go, “Oh, by the way, I'm gay,” and they'd be like, “Yeah, because cool, like, all right, can I get a glass of water?” Right?

James: Right.

Jeff: Right, you know, and exactly. But it's totally different now. But I believe the gay thing at one time, even in New York, was probably like a little bit of a show-stopper, right?

James: Oh, yeah, especially around the AIDS crisis. 

Jeff: Yeah, yeah, but then again, that was because of the, you know, the mix-up, right? The association of two things that aren't really associated.

James: Right, right. But even before that, you're right, I mean, it was actually illegal to be gay in New York, I think, until like the late 70s, like not just sodomy, but like publicly being with another man. Also, breaking the rules of gender was illegal in New York until much later than it should have been. Like, you could not basically walk down the street trans without the police arresting you for solicitation. 

Jeff: Wow.

James: So these things are very recent still.

Jeff: Yeah. I guess, you know, I had such an idyllic childhood, I wasn't aware of it, you know? I grew up in an incredibly liberal enclave outside of Boston and with highly educated parents and you know, just no real sense of that discord.

James: In your defense, I will say because I do think that, like, I'm a little bit younger than you, and I think older liberals get a lot of flack for exactly what you're talking about of just not being aware. I mean I was born in '87, I was like coming of age, you know, 10 in the '90s. The '90s is a perfect example of what you're talking about, everyone thinks it's so liberal, what a horrifically homophobic decade that was. Growing up closeted in the '90s was terrible. But so many liberals at the time thought, “Oh, I’m such a liberal, whatever.” 

In your defense, the internet wasn't there. It was way easy for the monsters of this world to be very, very sneaky about the laws they were passing, the people they were arresting, without someone filming them and putting them on the Internet. What we all know now, what they do, but we, or I, wouldn't have known then what we know now because of the internet. 

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, think about the fact that George Floyd's death would have gone unprosecuted, right, except for everybody had cell phones. 

James: And that stuff’s been happening for 80 years, but yeah, but you didn't know then. And it's the same. I didn't know until three years ago - and I was on a comedy show - about the history of Stonewall and I was like, “Oh my God, it was illegal until when, what, what?” Like, you know, you don't know what you don't know until you know it.

Jeff: It's true, you know, and back in the days when it was all television, and you know, whatever, and the internet wasn't really carrying the messaging, that resonated. But I think humor is, you know, gripping when it comes to that. Think about what a Saturday Night Live cold open does in terms of shining a light on the irony of what we're just all experiencing together and we all need a good laugh too about it, right? 

James: It also helps you embrace hard truths, I think, like you're saying.

Jeff: Yeah, it really does. So, do you see that going on with the people that you meet and the work that you do out there? How's it making a difference? Are you chipping away at this?

James: I hope so. It's kind of like Batman does need his villains, so part of me is like, “Well, I hope they don't learn too soon because then I gotta write some new material.” 

I will probably stop doing it when it stops shocking people, and when anytime I have a show in a gay bar, which there are a lot in New York, of like gay bars with their little comedy show… Every time I do that material in a gay bar, someone comes up to me after and says, “I just tested positive,” or in fact, someone just said, “I've been positive for years, and I still can't talk about it openly, like I've never seen anyone talk about it the way you talk about it.” It's so niche, and I have to figure out something more mainstream in order to make money at this career, but that is so special and it does keep happening. 

I've been doing this material for four years now and that's never stopped happening.

Jeff: Your openness about all this stuff can build momentum, right? If enough people are that way. It was like back in the days when Harvey Milk was saying, “You know, one of the ways to reduce the stigma around a gay and lesbian is for everybody to come out of the closet and everybody out there to realize these are all your friends, you know, all the people you know, right? You know, and they aren't monsters.”

I felt like maybe there's some common element there about HIV, because the reality of it is that it is not scary. It doesn't affect somebody else. Your status does not affect anybody else, right? And yet they take it like it does and that's just, you know, naivete or ignorance if you want to be a little bit more negative about it. But you know that the education that you do through comedy may be providing those sound bites and those moments of relief for people you know, to help foment that whole revolution.

James: Yeah, and I do think we're all like, I was just thinking about that, like you're saying naivete or ignorance, and I do think on like my most judgmental days, I'm like, “Well, they're ignorant and they're dumb and I hate them.” But I do actually understand at least being scared about society falling apart and trying to identify the reasons for that. Because I think we all feel that, especially in the past six to ten years,, that there's this underlying fear that, like, “Is this the end?” Or, “Is our government falling apart?” Like the images of the insurrection. Like those sorts of things. Like where are we in the maturity of our republic and our society? 

I think we're all feeling that fear. I think you then compound that with ignorance around a disease and it's easy for these people to be like, “Well, y’all are the reason we're falling apart.”

Jeff: Interesting. My theory on that has always been that we used to be in the middle of the food chain, you know, and we now eat everything in sight and we're so powerful as a species that you know, even mother earth needs to fear us, right? 

James: Yes, also a good point. Environmentally where we’re at, is this the end?

Jeff: And our genetics remember those old days, because our genetics haven't changed from 30,000 years ago. So we're still looking over our shoulder at things that will eat us. I heard that kids' greatest fears are being eaten. Where do they get that idea from? It must be wired in our DNA, so we must have a level of fear that is sort of natural, right? And it also has become a political cudgel, right? Or a way of accruing political power now, to go ahead and stoke those fears, so that's exacerbating it further. 

But I also think there's another side to this thing, that one of the things I've seen in life is that we generally make our fears come true, because we focus on them, and we actually draw the conditions closer to us that validate our fears. That there's also this natural thing where there is some positive aspect to being right, at least, being correct about your fears, and so you create them. 

Think about all the hate that is being projected out there in the world over these irrational fears of these “others.” What is that doing? Demonizing makes demons, and so we're actually creating conditions where we're validating our fears and going down even further into this spiral into the black hole or whatever. 

So, it's interesting. Yeah, it's like, to me, the difference is education, right? And education needs to be palatable, and there's nothing more palatable than art. Some form of art, whether it's comedy, movies, you know, whatever, art is something that can present information for this but also can sort of generate a little bit of energy in the heart. And those two things together make the experience memorable. 

When I think about my earliest memories, they were accompanied by huge emotion, right? It's like the emotion was the cement that locked in the memory and the thought and the whatever, and art does that. So I've got to laud you for standing up there and being open about this and also bringing your art form to it to make it a little bit more memorable and a little bit more accessible. That's an important thing. 

And you're feeling it, you're having people come up to you afterwards, and boy, I'm just trying to imagine that moment when the whole club goes silent, right? 

James: And even, I actually just did a fundraiser for an HIV organization. I wish I could remember their name, but every performer was HIV positive. Like there could not have been a more educated group or like we'd even done, like I think at some point, I did my HIV set after the non-profit did their spiel about HIV and still there was this level of like *gasp*, and still?!

Jeff: So we got a long way to go, it sounds like, right? But at the same time, yeah, you're seeing little bits of light through all this, all your interactions with these folks.

Jeff: What's the thing that you're involved in right now that you're the most passionate about? I mean, you've got your comedy and you're waiting. Are there any projects that you’re involved with right now that you’re excited about?

James: At the moment, no. I mean, I'm working on a script, I'm working on some personal projects, and I just did my hour where I performed at Stand Up New York. And I'm possibly gonna be putting that on, like, Patreon or something. But I don't have anything official to plug. If I want to plug anything, just follow me on Instagram. It means way more than it should in this business, so please @JamesTison, T-I-S-O-N. 

I'm pretty passionate about my stand-up, and if you're in New York, anybody out there, I am gigging and you can always see on my Instagram where I'm performing. And I'm often doing this set still, so it's definitely still a current thing for me.

Jeff: Well, I really encourage all of our viewers who are going to be in New York to see your show. And one of the reasons I didn't ask you how you get people from that shock moment, because I think that's going to be a thing of beauty. That cannot be an easy journey from that moment of silence back to laughter.

James: Oh, it’s fun for me. The audience seems upset.

Jeff: Yeah. But that's good. That’s what's so cool about it, right? You know, okay, go see this guy. He is going to hit you with the two by four, and now you are listening. And it sounds like you're gonna have a good laugh and also learn a lot at the same time.

It's been wonderful talking with you.

James: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: Yeah, no. Really, thanks for spending this time and congratulations on, you know, not being a totally struggling artist. That you're getting recognition. You're actually performing in gay bars. You might actually have something up on Patreon at some point, and writing, and enjoying life, I hope. Good luck on all that stuff. And I hope next time I'm in New York, I'll be able to catch your show. I really want to see.

James: Please do. Yeah. Let me know. I'll hit you up or get you tickets or something.

Jeff: That's kind of you. Yeah, all right. Well, thank you. Take care.

James: Have a good day.

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