I feel a kindred spirit in Alexandra Billings. We both were bullied in elementary school, came of age in Chicago in the early ’80s, danced on some of the same dancefloors, probably hooked up in some of the same alleyways, yet somehow survived the AIDS epidemic.
In her new book with co-author Joanne Gordon, “This Time for Me: A Memoir,” Alex’s story of survival and her unique journey from sex worker to performer to actress to teacher will resonate with many of us. We overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, toyed with death, and endured endless trauma and pain. Yet here we are. Alex exemplifies to me the qualities it takes to be a survivor: grace, humor, empathy, and truth-telling. Her unflinching look at her own struggles teaches us that, yes, we are made of stardust, and indeed anything is possible.
Just coming off of playing the role of Madame Morrible on Broadway for the acclaimed show “Wicked,” Alex is probably best known for her role as Davina on the Emmy award-winning TV show Transparent. I sat down with her recently to discuss art, AIDS, and the teachers in her life.
Jeff Berry: I want to acknowledge the very difficult time we're in in this country and the world right now. I saw your very heartfelt post the other day talking about how there's no safe space for you. It really made me think about and acknowledge my own privilege. I also want to thank you for your videos and posts on social media [during the pandemic shutdown in 2020], how wonderful they were for me, and I'm sure a lot of other people. You're on your balcony clapping for people who had masks, shaming those who didn't. It was a scary time, and you helped lighten it up. So, thank you.
Alexandra Billings: I'm so glad. It saved my sanity. I really don't know what I would have done without social media; I really think I would have lost my mind, because I still love it. It's such an outlet for creativity for me. And this whole live thing where you can converse with people is just extraordinary to me. I mean, when you and I were little, we didn't have any communication [with] any other LGBT people on the planet, let alone you'd be able to see them. I know that this new generation is like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But for us? It's extraordinary. Social media just opened up a portal I never dreamed possible. And this was our second plague. This was the second viral plague this queer generation has been through so I was already triggered.
JB: Thank you for sharing your life with us in this incredible journey you take us on in your book. I know it'll be instantly relatable for many in the queer community, especially the Chicago theater and queer community. And me personally. There are so many familiar places and faces. I came to Chicago to DJ at the Bistro and you have the scene where you're on the Bistro dancefloor. You mention TPAN [publisher of Positively Aware] in the book, and Ross Slotten [who] has been my doctor for over 25 years.
Oh my God, that's incredible!
JB: And I was bullied growing up, like many gay men and trans people. So, reading about all of this trauma in your life, it resonated with me. But then thinking about collective trauma and trauma in our community, and your post the other day got me thinking. I’m a white cis man, and I quickly learned that if I assimilated, there was a place for me. But you didn't have that option, right?
Well, it's an interesting question for the trans community, because some of us can assimilate and some of us cannot. And that the only reason that that's true is because…remember, gender identity is the construct, meaning it's an idea. It's a collective decision. I always talk about gender the way I talk about my recovery meetings, because when I go into my recovery meetings, we're all sitting in a room, a bunch of drunks and drug addicts and prostitutes, and we're all talking about recovery, and I remind everybody, this isn't a thing. It doesn't exist. What I mean is, there's no head of this organization. Nobody's the president, nobody's keeping this together. Nobody's organizing it. It's just a bunch of people who got together in a room and said, You have a similar experience. How are you dealing with it? And so we all make up our own rules.
The same is true with gender. All of us as a country got together in one room—say the United States of America is one room—and we all said, Okay. So how do we do this thing, this mating thing and love thing? And we all made up the rules. It's not true—it's just what we've decided. Because we've decided now in the 21st century what gender is supposed to look like. Remember, in the 17th century, it looked very different than it does now. In different countries, it looks very different than it does in America. But since we're talking about this country, because we have made a collective decision as to what it looks like, what it sounds like…there's a whole bunch of people that [got] left out. Because the people that actually did the organizing [were] a white cisgender patriarchy. They did it in the way that they felt safest, they felt most seen, and they could keep their power. So, when you're talking about assimilation, what you're actually asking me is, how best can you fit into the idea that the cis white male has of you? And when you ask me that question, I go, I have no idea. Because I'm not that person. So, I don't know. That's really all assimilation is, like your ability to assimilate is easier. It's not easy, but it's easier for you, more familiar to you, because you're closer to that icon than I am. I'm much farther away. So, for you, it just makes more sense. So that's true. Anybody in the trans community, anybody who's Brown, anybody who's not that icon, the farther away they get, the harder it is to assimilate.
JB: Yeah. Well, it makes perfect sense when you explain it. You describe being horribly bullied at school, and your girlfriend Cin helps you and takes care of you, and she says,‘You don't have to use your fists, Scott. That never solves anything.’ She comforted in her easy tone. ‘Peaceful resisting doesn't make you a coward. It makes you kind.’ I never forgot her advice.
That was so beautiful.
You know, it's funny you should bring her up. I just spoke to her, strangely, about a week ago. And we were talking about the book—she's a poet now, and very well known in her poetry circle—a very, very well-known poet, actually, and has written several books. And we were talking about writing a book and I said, ‘This was a nightmare for me. This is a nightmare. This was not fun. It wasn't joyous. I did not … I did not enjoy this. It was very difficult for me to do. I'm glad it's done. And now I'm enjoying it. But the process was very difficult, because I'm not a writer.’ And she said, 'No, no, no, no, no, Alex. All of us write, everybody writes, and I don't know anyone who writes something personal that enjoys doing that, unless they're talking about how fabulous they are, and that's not really descriptive writing. So that's true of everybody on the planet. Don't take away the gift of you being a writer simply because you've had a hard time writing.’ I thought that was really interesting. Hemingway, I think, said basically the same thing—Tennessee Williams too—that they were these prolific writers, and yet they were like, ‘Blech! God, I'd rather be a beggar!’
One of the first things I remind my students is, nobody can teach you acting. It's bullshit. And it's a sham. Listen to nobody. If anybody tells you they're an acting teacher, run screaming from the room.
JB: You start out the book with "I lie." Why was that important to you?
I know. I did that purposefully. Because I have to be honest with myself. If I don't speak out loud about the elephant in the room for me, it all becomes about the elephant in the room and I can't concentrate. I do it in class all the time. One of the first things I remind my students is, nobody can teach you acting. It's bullshit. And it's a sham. Listen to nobody. If anybody tells you they're an acting teacher, run screaming from the room. It's a ridiculous thing to say. Because you can't teach art. You either do the thing with relish, or you don't want to do the thing. That's it. I can teach you technique. I can teach you how to specify. I can remind you when you're full of shit, because I'm a liar. So, I understand other liars. But that's the only thing I can do. So, I wanted to start the book off—and that was really hard, starting the book off—but I wanted to talk to people the way I talk. And one of the first things I always preface any story with is Alex, tell the truth. If you're gonna tell this story, tell the truth, because you're a liar. So, I wanted to warn everybody before I started. And you know, it's funny because I wrote stuff, and because Chrisanne has been in my life since I was, you know, 14 years old, I would write it and then hand it to her and go, ‘Did this happen, or is this a Bette Davis movie? Like, which is a Bette Davis movie?’ And she would read it sometimes and go, ‘Mmm, no, that's a movie, honey. You didn't...that didn't happen to you.’
JB: We all have angels who come into our lives. You're an angel in my life. But I'd like to talk about your dear friend, Joanne Gordon, about whom you write, ‘She had the courage to tell me the truth. And I really hated it.’ So, how did it come about that she became your co-author? Did you have the material and think, Oh, I need someone to help me get it down? Or did she approach you and offer her help? You don't really talk about it in the book, but maybe that's the way you want to leave it.
Oh, no, please. She and I met at California State University in Long Beach when I went to go get my master's degree. I actually never went to college, and I didn't know in order to get a master's degree, you had to have an undergrad degree. I met Joanne, who was the chair of the Theater Department, and I told her what I wanted to do and she said, ‘Well, let me see you teach.’ So she hired me as just a teacher, and she watched me teach and she loved it, and she said, ‘Yeah, you should go to the program, you should absolutely do that.’ So, she went into the office of the big cheese. And they had a contract that was a minority hire for one year. And she said, ‘I'm going to get you this contract. And if I can get you this contract, and you teach for one year, I can possibly get you into the MFA program.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ So, she goes into the office and says to the old white cis dude, 'Listen, I have this Brown transgender lady,' and she lists my credits. And he laughed at her, literally laughed her out of the office.
Not to be deterred, she waited another year for the contract to come up again. And she walked back into his office and said, ‘Okay, look, I have the same person here, she really wants to study here, and if you don't give her this contract, I'm going to the press.’ And he went, ‘Oh, okay, never mind.’ And then she came to me, and she said, I need your undergrad degree. And I said, ‘I've never been to college, what are you talking about? I'm just an ex-hooker from Inglewood. What are you talking about?
JB: She didn't know.
No! And she said, ‘Oh, god, Alex, I don't know what we can do.’ So she took—because remember, I've been working since I was seven, literally—and she said, ‘I'm going to take all of your work. And I'm gonna put it like it's college and put it towards an undergrad degree and see if they'll swallow it.’ And they did, and so that went towards my undergraduate degree. I went for three years to get my master's degree and studied under Joanne, and what Joanne taught me was invaluable. One of the great things she taught me was that I was a good student. And that changed everything for me, it shifted everything for me, because I realized I wasn't stupid, I wasn't an idiot, and that I could learn. She said, ‘Stupid people are not curious. They don't want to learn any more. They don't want any more information. They have everything they need right in front of them.’ As I started to write this book, I thought—and she's written several books before, she's quite prolific in the Sondheim circles—I need somebody that's gonna keep me honest, that's going to direct the story, like, tell it linearly, because that's not the way my brain works, I work in the abstract, and also who I trust implicitly. And that was Joanne, there was no second guessing, it was her.
JB: I love the journey from your childhood, your life experiences, and performing cabaret and acting in theater and film and television. But it sounds like your real passion, and what you eventually realized, is that you are a teacher first. You have this beautiful passage about art. You're talking to your students, and you write,
And feeling my confidence kick in, I continued.
‘I have no idea what we're going to do. But I know whatever it is, we're going to move through it with kindness, grace, and compassion for each other. I'm not going to treat you as if you don't know how to act. I couldn’t care less if you know how to act or even if you want to. It's not really what I teach, anyway. I'm going to treat you the way I'd like you to treat me, and hopefully, before we leave the room, we can all do a little better job out there in the universe. So, we can take everything we've learned in here and give it away to the stranger we've yet to meet. And that's art, I think.’
And then you go on to write, ‘I began to understand that art isn't about winning awards. I explored the notion that art is a gift we all have and realized that everyone's story is worth telling. Art is not just for the shiny people in the front row.’
JB: I think that's so important for people to know, that their story is important. And we all have different stories. A lot of the work I do is about helping long-term survivors of HIV share their stories. Because I feel like even though our stories can be very different, there’s a common thread of humanity that’s woven throughout each of them that binds us together.
Well, I think you're absolutely right. And you know, the book, before the actual life journey begins, there's an anecdote in the very beginning of the book, which is me at the Golden Globe Awards. And I did that purposefully, too, because I wanted the very first thing to be this sort of image of shiny Hollywood, and the end to be something else. The last page of the book is a complete turnaround from the first page. And for me, the book is about the teachers in my life—those moments when, even as low as I got, where I had to stop and go, I think I'm supposed to learn something. I mean, most of the time, even if that were true, I would just skip off into the distance and pretend it wasn't happening. But the older I got, the more sober I got, the more grounded I became, I started to really listen for those moments. There's a Buddhist philosophy that says, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, you have to really be open, and you have to be ready for your teachers and your guides to come forward. We spend a lot of our time sort of cursing, you know. ‘What? Why isn't this working out?’ And, ‘My life is crap!’ There may be a lot of reasons for that. But one of the reasons that that may be true is that we're not listening. We're not listening to the humans in front of us, we're not paying attention to the events at hand, we're not taking into account that there are gifts in chaos. So, this idea that I became a teacher was sort of true for a while for me. And now what I realize was that I’ve always been a teacher. And now I’m living in it and revealing it—that really is the only action I’m taking.
JB: Yeah, that’s true, because we can teach the wrong thing sometimes by our behavior and our choices. And we’re always learning, hopefully. So, then there's Chrisanne, who you met in 1976 and married twice. I would be remiss not to mention her. You've both been there for each other—that's true love. There're so many things… you're just so candid in this book. I was really surprised to learn and read about your whole relationship with Larry [Kramer]. And I shouldn't be surprised, but it's just something I didn't know about you. There're a lot of things I didn't know about you, but you put it all out there. And you're probably thinking, well, actually, no, I didn't put it all out there. There are a couple things I left out of the book. But I think that's very courageous. But maybe it's the only way you could have done it?
Yes, it is the only way I could have done it. And that's why I started the journey off with, ‘I'm a liar. So, now I need to tell the truth.’ I spent so many years—I don't, I'm done, I don't care anymore. Lying takes an enormous amount of energy, and I just don't have it. I'd rather expend my energy on my wife, or going to the beach, or teaching, so I just don't do it anymore. And, interestingly, I told Chrisanne, who's an extremely private person, which is hilarious being married to me, because I'm like Bozo the Clown. So, I said to her, I'm gonna write this book. I'm not going to censor anything. I'm going to write absolutely everything down. And if there's anything you don't want, I don't care what it is, you tell me and out it goes, no questions asked. She took out two lines from the whole book, just two lines. And so, for me, when you're talking about courage, that for me is courage. Because I have a big spotlight on me. That's something I've chosen to do. She did not. She just fell in love with me. And all of a sudden, all this shit started to happen, and she's like, ‘Really? Really? You're kidding. Can't we just read?’
When we were living in Chicago, I was on the second story of our house looking out and it was dead of winter. We had a truck, a flatbed truck that we used to drive, and she's got those little scrapers that scrape ice off your window, but they're the little ones, we couldn't afford the big ones. It was a little one, and she's scraping ice off, and you know [makes a blowing wind sound] she's about four feet tall. She's a tiny person scraping ice, and weeping, with her sad hat, and her big Alaskan coat. And just this, you know, a little bit of face, pie face, but just tears turning into ice cubes, rolling down. And I said to myself as I'm staring out the window—we're moving. That's it. Piss off, Chicago weather! So, I went in the next day and I said, Honey, we got to get the hell out of here. This is crazy. Besides my career's going nowhere, let's go to California. So that's been our marriage. I just like to come up with ideas and go, ‘Hey, I've got an idea! Let's ride a camel.’ She's like, alright. So, when you talk about bravery, you're talking about courage. I always think of her, what she's done.
JB: A different type of courage for sure.
For me, the book is about the teachers in my life—those moments when, even as low as I got, where I had to stop and go, I think I'm supposed to learn something.
Oh! The other thing I want to tell you is, speaking of my wife, when I was first diagnosed with AIDS, 30-something years ago, I had seven T cells, which means nothing to the children now but [it did] back in the day. When I was diagnosed, [my doctor] Ross Slotten literally said to me, ‘I don't know how you're alive. I don't know why you're alive.’ I had hepatitis A, hepatitis B, I had AIDS. I had thrush. I had neuropathy. I had the beginnings of lesions. It was crazy. It made no sense, how I was still walking. And so we went through the usual, you know—I can't believe this is happening and what are we going to do and what happens next. And one day—because this is how [Chrisanne’s] brain works—she's like solution, solution, solution. One day, I'm crawling up inside myself, ready to die, and she said, ‘Look, if you're going to sit here in this house and curl up into a little ball and blow away, I'm not going to watch it. I'm going to go. So, you’ve got to figure out what you want.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don't want to do that. But what is there to do?’ And she said—I'll never forget this—‘I found an organization called TPAN. They're like 15 minutes away, and they have meetings. And at the meetings, there are doctors that you can apparently talk to. And you can be around other people that were just diagnosed, that are just as frightened and scared as you.’ And I said, ‘I can't go to one of those things, are you nuts? I'm not gonna do that,’ I said. ‘And come with me!’ She said, ‘No, no, no. This is something you should do. And something you should do by yourself.’ And walking into that first meeting, I don't remember who the doctor was, he was sitting in the center. And there was this huge circle of all of these people. And all of us looked exactly the same. It looked like we belonged to one family. All of us were just as sick. Just as scared. And we were all the same age. And it changed my life. TPAN changed…I would be dead without that place. I would be dead. It changed my life. And I never stopped going back. And it was because of Chrisanne.
JB: That's so beautiful. So wonderful. You know, TPAN saved my life too. There's another commonality. I know our paths had to have crossed many times in the course of the last 30, 40 years. But it's nice to finally come back and join together again for this. So, thank you for taking the time.
JB: I want to talk just a little bit about the scholarship program.
The scholarship is called the Alexandra Billings scholarship. It's funded through the USC [University of Southern California] School of Dramatic Arts here in California. We designed it specifically for LGBTQIA artists, young artists that want to come and study acting at USC, so we could give them money because tuition is insane. But I specifically wanted it for queer people, non-binary people, trans people, so that we could get those voices heard. And it has done really well in the sense that it has attracted people. Even the people just come into the program now—we still need many, many more—but we have a much higher percentage of queer people that are coming into the program, not necessarily through the scholarship, but coming anyway because of the scholarship, because they feel that they are welcome. It's the only scholarship that I know of, I may be wrong, that is named after a mixed race trans woman who's living with AIDS. I don't know of another scholarship like that in our country. It sends a big message not just for the LGBTQIA artists, it sends a message to the cis humans, to the patriarchy, to the white humans, to the people who are not marginalized. Not only are we here, but we stand for each other. We are creating safe places for each other because as I said, many places for trans people are cis created. That's not what this is. I created this for us, to us and by us, so—give money!
JB: That's what we hope to be able to help promote as well. And you know, I wanted to ask you about Schmengie, but I can just direct people to Schmengie, Inc. So that's just a word that you use for everything.
It's a word I made up when I was about five or six years old when I couldn't think of the word, and so when Chrisanne and I wanted to do a production company, I said, well let's think of something that means everything, and I thought of Schmengie, because Schmengie can mean anything. So Schmengie, Inc. is about all things are possible.
JB: One last thing, just a favor.
Oh, yes. Remember, that you are made of stardust. And because that is true, anything is possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THIS TIME FOR ME: A Memoir by Alexandra Billings with Joanne Gordon is now available at Amazon.com or wherever you like to buy your books. Go to https://www.schmengieinc.com/ for more information about Alexandra Billings and the scholarship program.
92Y Talks/In Person Event: This Time for Me: Transparent’s Alexandra Billings and Joey Soloway in Conversation with Charles Busch
Thursday, April 14, 2022 @ 7:30pm
Buttenweiser Hall, 92nd Street Y (between 91st & 92nd street) | 1395 Lexington Avenue New York, NY 10128
Live Talks Los Angeles/In Person Event: Alexandra Billings in conversation with Joey Soloway
Wednesday, April 20, 2022 @ 8pm
Audrey Irmas Pavilion at Wilshire Boulevard Temple | 3643 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90010