‘Transparent’ Alexandra Billings on Memoirs, Transgender Experience
Alexandra Billings keeps talismans. The white crew-neck sweater his mother unexpectedly gave him one Christmas. The gray suitcase she packed when she was homeless during the HIV crisis – still unpacked.
“Once in a while I take it to cross it, and I cross the top layer, and I just can’t do it,” Billings, 60, says of the suitcase. “And it’s been years.”
Still, ‘The Conners’ actress and assistant professor of theater at the University of Southern California unpacks the suitcase of her life in her memoir ‘This Time For Me’ (Topple Books, 429 pp., forthcoming Friday) . And it’s complete.
The actress’ journey from Illinois to California contains many layers, both harmonious and horrifying: her time as drag queen Shanté; the road to confirming one’s gender identity; the ongoing violence she has suffered, including rape and assault; a suicide attempt; drug addiction; his long-lasting marriage to his wife Chrisanne; his diagnosis of HIV; his college education; and his eventual stardom on television.
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Growing up, Billings thought she was “normal.” Not everyone thought so, including his parents. They thought they had to “be careful around her,” Billings writes, because she’s “beginning to lean” in a gay direction. Billings also notes that she would raid her mother’s closet for jewelry and clothes.
“If we say something is normal, it actually means different things to different people, depending on your experience,” Billings says. His whole life has been spent saying “this is my normality” and not receiving that affirmation in return.
“The demand for trans people is not about compliance for you,” she says. “It’s about honoring us, that’s all.”
Anti-LGBTQ legislation is brewing across the country, and transgender people face discrimination in everything from education to health care to even entertainment.
Billings describes the harassment she faced while working on TV – including ‘Romy and Michele: In the Beginning’ and ‘Transparent’. On “Romy and Michelle,” for example, she recalls in her memoir that someone called her the wrong pronouns: “I’m not going to learn that dance if I have to be sandwiched between you and him‘, referring to Billings. (She uses both the pronouns she/her and they/them today.) But, she notes, Hollywood has gotten better.
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What better ? Opportunities. She can’t watch the Oscars anymore, she says, because transgender people aren’t represented. They may occasionally appear on the red carpet, but they don’t enjoy meaningful inclusion.
“What angers me is that I always get the same question from people in the business, which is, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do? ‘”, she says.
Billings has an answer: invite them to the party.
“Why can’t you just have 20 seats? Twenty of these cis heteronormative white human beings brought husbands or cousins or someone with them,” she says. “These people can’t step back to allow representation? Art is a reflection of the human experience. And if we are not reflected in art, we are not reflected in human experience.
The “pose” is over. What future for transgender representation on television?
This is directly related to anti-transgender sentiment. “If you can’t see us, you can’t help us,” Billings says. She’s confident change will happen anyway: “I can come to my own party and bring my own table.”
Billings should know this – she has witnessed huge changes throughout her life, especially since being diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s. HIV education has evolved, and so have preventative drugs like PrEP and others that ensure that HIV-positive patients have an undetectable viral load and cannot transmit the disease to their partners. And of course, people with HIV can live their lives to the fullest; diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.
Billings recently spoke with someone about how the COVID-19 pandemic was the second viral plague they’ve experienced. This person said it was disheartening that the younger queer generation didn’t understand what it was like. It’s also a gift, says Billings.
“I don’t want them to go through what we went through,” she adds. “I don’t want them to bury their friends. I don’t want them to go to funeral after funeral after funeral. I don’t want them to go through this. I don’t need anyone to put me in my shoes. I’ve been saying that for years. These are my shoes. They cost me quite a lot. I don’t need you to walk for me. I need you to walk with me.
Walk with Billings on the yellow brick road and you’ll speak his language.
‘The Wizard of Oz’ has appeared as a theme – a talisman, really – in her life from time to time, leading at one point to her debut as Madame Morrible in ‘Wicked’ on Broadway several years ago. . History is full of teachers – something the importance of which she discusses in a letter to all students at the end of the memoir.
“The human experience is messy and chaotic, and filled with pain and grief, and pits of sadness,” Billings says. “But if we pretend that none of this is true and that none of this is happening, it is also related to our joy and our beauty, our love, our empathy and our compassion. You cannot not get rid of one thing without getting rid of everything.” As students progress through life – “this fantasy madness” – they must keep an eye out for guides and reciprocate.
Maybe easier said than done – and not as easy as clicking your heels three times – but as Dorothy says, there’s no better place than home.
“That story resonated like a talisman, kind of like the suitcase and the sweater, in that it’s the hero’s journey that you come back ‘the same but different,'” says Billings. “That’s true for all heroes, whether you start at home, and you go through the forest, fight the witches, and figure out how to get the shoes so you can go home because you’ve been home all along.”
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