'The problem is not the terminology; the problem is fear of change.’
Positively Aware Editor Jeff Berry
Jeff Berry @paeditor

We first spoke with Alexandra Billings in POSITIVELY AWARE’s issue on transgender people and HIV in 2008. We recently caught up with the co-star of the Emmy-winning Amazon TV series Transparent to talk about the show, the shifting terminology around identity, and how Co-Ed Prison Sluts may have changed the course of her life.

Jeff Berry: So much has changed in the nine years since I first interviewed you for POSITIVELY AWARE—marriage equality is now the law of the land; there’s an increased awareness in the general public around issues facing transgender people; PrEP has been approved for HIV prevention; you’re in a hit TV show! So what do you have to say about all of that?

Alexandra Billings: I think what’s great is the transgender community’s identity and how specific it’s now become, because it’s no longer an idea or a philosophy, it’s actual, and it means something now. Ten years ago, it was true, but it wasn’t practiced. And now it is. That’s largely due to the political movements, the size of the revolution, awareness of the LGBTQ community at large, and it also has to do with the acceptance of our allies, our straight allies, and our parents and our grandparents and the people who come along with us. So really I feel very hopeful, even in the climate that we’re in right now, with Mr. Trump at the helm, that poor, lost, sad soul. I feel great hope. I also want to say, without saying too much—our show is dealing with the transgender community and the onslaught of the HIV virus [Season four premieres in Fall 2017]. Our community has always been hit very hard by this virus, especially among trans people of color, and we’re starting to look at that, in a sort of black comedy kind of way. So the advances of medical science are catching up with the advances of our spiritual science as well, so I’m very hopeful.

Davina (Alexandra Billings) has a heart-to-heart with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor). Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Back to the show in a minute, but in terms of increasing awareness around transgender and gender non-binary people, the terminology can be confusing for some, and it keeps changing so rapidly. [Gender non-binary actress] Asia Kate Dillon was on Ellen recently, and even Ellen seemed to stumble a bit. I’ve even found myself struggling when interviewing people for this issue. Have you ever found yourself in the same situation? Because there’s almost a generational kind of difference.

Well, you’re exactly right. The problem is not the terminology; the problem is fear of change. Even in our own community, we have generations fighting generations. That’s always been true, since the dawn of consciousness, since we’ve decided, “I’m going to dress this way, and you’re going to dress that way, and it’s going to stay the same forever!” Since that was sort of decreed, we’ve all been resistant to anything upsetting the apple cart, so to speak. I’ll tell you what I have a real problem with, anyone—I don’t care where they sit on which side of the fence—who flat out refuses to attempt something new, simply because they don’t like it. That’s where my problem lies. I understand that we are adopting new vocabulary, that we are taking terminology and turning it upside down, but language is malleable. That’s always been true. Language is musical; it’s the music of the universe. I mean all of us have been singing the same song for generations, we just do it in different keys. That’s why there are different languages. So people who have specific problems and refuse to use certain words, simply because they feel some kind of ownership to them, are working from a place of fear and ignorance. That’s very different than, “I don’t understand this, it doesn’t make any sense, help me through it.” I’m not on the gender binary, I consider myself a transgender female, I do not consider myself female, I never have. I married a female. But that’s just the way I identify. But I have friends who are on the binary, who consider themselves either gender fluid or genderqueer, and they prefer the pronouns they/them, and some of them prefer the word it. I had a conversation with a really good friend of mine who said, “Well I’m not going to call anybody ‘it’.” And I said, “Yes, but that’s not really up to you.” And they said, “Well I’m just not going to use it. They need to find a different word.” And I said, “Well, okay, but until they do, why don’t we just acquiesce? Why don’t we just surrender, give in, allow their terminology, so they can begin to blossom? Why don’t we just do that first, before we say no?”

That’s great advice. I think it’s about us all educating each other.

I started transitioning when I was 20 years old in 1980. I’ve been living this way for many decades, I’ve been around LGBT people all my life, my father was in the theater, so I’ve been around queer people since I was seven years old. So that’s my tribe, these are my humans, and I understand them, and I love them. And there are problems in our own community, but look, if we cannot meet in the middle, if we, the LGBT tribe, cannot meet in the center of who we are, how do we expect other people outside the tribe to do that?

Good point.

If someone says to you, “call me ‘they’,” I don’t understand what the problem is. If someone says, “I’m Sam, in the afternoon, and then at night when I go to work and put a wig on, I’m Jacqueline,” I don’t understand the problem. It’s just something that doesn’t make sense to me.

I think for some people it’s...okay, I’ll just say it, for me, sometimes I get a little nervous and get tongue-tied, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to get this wrong.” I’m the type of person, when I have my current partner and my former partner in the same room, I’ll call them by the opposite...the wrong name. Every time. It never fails.

Yeah, but that’s different. That’s you being nervous, or working perhaps from a place of apprehension, and needing to please, I mean, who knows. But that’s very, very different than a flat out refusal to even make the attempt to allow someone to live in what is their truth. Those are very different things. If you make a mistake, someone should be kind enough to correct you. And it really depends on how I’m misgendered. If I’m misgendered and it’s used as a weapon, then you’ll get a very specific response. I just went to McDonald’s, and I have a voice that can be mistaken for male or female sometimes depending on the time of day, and if I’m sick, or limping, and it didn’t bother me. I drove up, she looked at me, and she didn’t really say anything, and I didn’t say anything, because there was no point. Which is very different from walking up to me when I’m at an awards show in a gown with jewels, lashes, and lipstick, and carrying a purse, and saying, “Hey, mister, can you hand me that glass of water?” That’s very different. It really is about approach, and about attempt, and about willingness.

TRANSPARENT CAST MEMBERS Anjelica Huston, Jeffrey Tambor, Alexandra Billings, and Ray Abruzzo. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

I love that. So about that hit show.

About that hit show!

It’s honestly my favorite show right now, I signed up for Amazon Prime a few years ago just so I could start watching it—and the free shipping isn’t bad either. Two questions, did you think nine years ago you’d be where you are today, and how did the opportunity to play Davina come about?

I don’t know, where am I today? I never thought much about anything. I always wanted to work. I just did the next thing that was in front of me, really. So as far as me saying, “I never thought this would happen,” it just never occurred to me that it would or it wouldn’t. Now having said that, when I’m standing on the red carpet at the Emmys, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that this middle-aged, brown, transgender lady from Englewood, California is standing on the red carpet at the Emmys; that makes no sense. Plus the fact that in 1990-something—I was diagnosed so long ago—they said there’s nothing. We have no drugs to give you, everyone’s dying from this, we can give you AZT, but you have about 10 minutes left. So max out your credit cards because really, there’s nothing we can do for you. So the fact that I’m anywhere is a gift, to be perfectly honest with you. But the fact that I’m at these award shows with these amazing artists, that irony is not lost on me. I have to say that I never in my life would have dreamt up a vehicle where the trans community could have been seen with such compassion. That is beyond my imagination, I think beyond anybody’s—and the fact that people actually like it, and that it has become honored by some critics, that’s extraordinary. I never thought as a trans person living with AIDS in my life that that would be true. So that’s astonishing, and quite a miracle.

Are you talking about Maura’s character, or yours?

Well either, quite frankly. But certainly [my character] Davina. [Producer] Jill [Soloway] and the writers listen very carefully to me when I tell them, “Listen, just write me, you don’t have to write a finger-snappy, girlfriend, miss-thingy kind of lady. We can, I love that, that’s part of my culture and I love it, but that’s not all of who I am. This is how I dress, this is how I sound, this is the way I talk, these are my friends, this is how I fall in love, I had AIDS, I’m a recovering drug addict, I’ve worked the streets. This is who I am; write from here. And they do.

Are you ever asked for advice or expertise as someone living with HIV with the dialogue or storylines that relate to HIV? I mean, you were talking more broadly, but...

The fact that I can walk into a meeting of Hollywood people, and… You know, I’ve lived on this planet for a long time, over half a century, and I’ve battled this disease for a very long time. We’re in desperate need of our community to pick up an enormous amount of space. I don’t have time, or the patience anymore, or the willingness, to compromise my own well-earned set of principles. And by that I mean my principles in my transgender life. I’m not going to be marginalized anymore, I’m not going to be fetishized, I’m not going to be de-sexualized, or devalued in any way, anymore, on screen or on film. I will not be a part of it. Because I don’t have to. I’m not a 20-year-old desperate actress yearning to take any role so that I can win an Oscar, that’s just not who I am. So I’m working from a place of great peace in my life, to be honest.

You know this thing happened because Jill Soloway, who’s amazing, and who is the creator, director, [and] producer of Transparent, and her sister Faith Soloway, who’s one of the head writers, as well as an executive producer, they worked with the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, and were there for many years, and they scored—they wrote the music and the lyrics—for a show called Co-Ed Prison Sluts. This was in the ’80s, and I was in a show coincidentally across town at the Torso Theater called Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack. This is when late night was hopping, late night Chicago theater was on fire. Cannibal Cheerleader  started at 9:30 Co-Ed Prison Sluts started at 11 or something. One month Susan Messing, who is a great actress, and a great teacher, who was playing one of the characters in Co-Ed Prison Sluts had to miss the show. Mick Napier who runs and owns the theater called and said, “She’s gotta go [for a few weeks], can you step into the role?” I said, “Mick, I’m in another show.” And he said, “Yeah, but she doesn’t come in until the second act. So you could actually do one act, and run over and still make your show.” So that’s what I did, I went and did one act of Co-Ed Prison Sluts and then I would take a cab and drive to the other theater to do Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, and did that for a couple of weeks. And that’s how Jill, Faith, and I met. Then, a hundred years later, out of the blue, I’m on Facebook, and I get this message from Faith Soloway, and she said, “Listen, we’re doing this little itty bitty TV show that nobody’s ever going to see, but it’s very dear to us, because our parent just transitioned. We want to know if you want to be involved in this little project that we’re taking to Amazon.” I remember writing her back and going, “Amazon?!? You mean the place that sells books? Why are you doing a TV show for a place that sells books, I don’t understand what you’re doing.” Because this was a long time ago, and they were like, “Yeah, but they want to do TV shows.” And I go, well, nobody’s going to see it and I love these guys, they’re brilliant, and I love that they’re doing something that’s true and that’s actually happening in their family, so I’d love to be a part of it. So I auditioned, and Jeffrey Tambor and I hit it off immediately, he is a genius, and so funny, and kind, and they cast me, and we did it, and all hell broke loose.

In Season three we’re introduced to Shea, the character played by Trace Lysette. Can you talk a little about the character for those who don’t know?

The great thing I can tell you, and this is a testament to Trace and her miraculous gifts, is that she was supposed to be the yoga teacher for five seconds in season one; you were only supposed to see her in this little itty bitty scene teaching yoga, and us going out to dinner afterwards, and that was it. She was such a strong presence, that the producers and writers said, “No, no, no, we gotta bring her back, we gotta flesh her out, she’s interesting.” She’s a friend of Davina, and she’s the other trans character in the show, and she represents a whole other trans generation. She’s a younger generation than I am, and I think that that voice is important. So in season three you get to learn a little bit more about her, and what happens to us as we fall in love, and as we are loved. A lot of our community, the trans females anyway, are idolized, because of the way we look, and the way we act, the way we speak, and we’re not humanized. That is not only Shea’s experience, but feels—I don’t know if this is true or not—a lot like it’s Trace’s experience too. So she brings that into Transparent. I think it’s important for people to see us that way; that we’re human beings, we’re not dolls.

I’ve been enjoying your Facebook live posts and the letters that you get from young trans kids, as well as your response to the occasional haters. I just read the one from the guy who hated your rendition of Radiohead’s Creep.

That was a female, actually. People think they’re mostly men, and weirdly, most of the mail that I get that is unkind is from women, which I always think ironic.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?

I am writing a book, I’m writing my autobiography as we speak. It’s slow going for me, I’m taking my time, I’m not in any rush, and I want to make sure I tell a full story, in the sense that I’ve lived through a lot of our LGBT history, and so I want to get the history correct, and my place in the history correct. Funny you should ask.

You’re writing is so profound, and moving, and funny, and sad, it’s everything that you are, it comes through so strong in your writing.

Thank you, Jeff, that means a lot to me, I appreciate that. Thank you.

I don’t know if you remember, but in [our first] interview I asked you where you thought you’d be 10 years from now, and you said, hopefully not getting any more Botox, and that you try not to look ahead, but that you hoped you’d be working, happy, and well. So, dreams really do come true?

Look at that, it worked out—don’t you love it when it works out?

It’s just amazing to me that it’s been that long, do you want to look ahead into the crystal ball 10 years from now?

Well, you know, I hate to repeat myself, [but] if I’ve learned anything in my life it’s to notice where I am, and to be grateful for where I am; so 10 years, maybe we should do this! Maybe this should be a decade check-in, with Alex Billings. I want to be living in my joy, I want to be healthy, and I think if I were going to add anything I would like to be in service to others as much as I possibly can. If those three things are true, everything else will fall
into place.

Thanks again for taking the time, it’s nice catching up with you.

Of course, love; that made me happy.