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Alexandra Billings Will Enlighten You Now

In the wake of the meteoric rise of Laverne Cox just a few short years ago, many writers and critics marked the moment as the “Transgender Tipping Point” a moment where transgender folks were finally being seen in mainstream culture. And suddenly, the media went into a frenzy over telling transgender stories in ways that we’d never seen before.

However, as more transgender narratives began to dot the media landscape, from new web series shows to bathroom legislation, what was not discussed enough in these conversations were the people who paved the way for this moment to even happen. People who were daring, brave, and alone when they began fighting decades ago, not only for a movement but for their own dreams.

People like the incomparable Alexandra Billings.

While Billings’s profile seemingly rose out of nowhere in 2014 due to her role in the Emmy-award winning series Transparent she has been in the business for decades. And it is the arch of her long career, stretching back to the early 1980’s in Chicago, that is one of the reasons why we can see such a large cultural shift today.

When Billings transitioned decades ago, she saw no one like her on the stage or on the silver screen that gave her a possible model for breaking into Hollywood so she made one herself.

As Billings’s recent stage show “She, He & Me” came to a close in Los Angeles, we asked another Emmy-nominated trans actress, Jen Richards, to sit down with Billings for a frank conversation about Hollywood, identity, and the strength of being vulnerable.

JEN: Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA: Yes darling.

JEN: Hi! How are you?

ALEXANDRA: I’m just peachy. And you?

JEN: Excellent. It always brings me a little joy when I hear your voice.

ALEXANDRA: That makes me happy.

JEN: How long have you been living in California? Since Chicago?

ALEXANDRA: 10 years?

JEN: Do you ever get tired of the sun and the beauty?

ALEXANDRA: I grew up here! For me, the hard thing was being in Chicago for 30 years and getting used to the gray and cold and wind, that’s what the nightmare was.

JEN: Every day I get up and it’s like “another beautiful day!” I’m so spoiled already. So, I want to talk to you about a lot of things, but let’s start with your new show, called “She and Me” is that how you pronounce it?

ALEXANDRA: I pronounce it “She, He and Me.” In my writer’s brain, it’s about the Divine. I know it seems like it’s about Krisanne [CONFIRM] and Scott and Alex, but it’s really about the Divine in all of us. So, if you say the title, then you invoke the Divine and yourself as one entity,

JEN: You’re diving into the deep end here.

ALEXANDRA: Ha! I know. Why can’t I just write a show called “Alex is Here?”

JEN: A cabaret show that explores the profound ontological, metaphysical consequences of gender, I like it.

ALEXANDRA: (sing-song) Jen Richards puts it into words succinctly.

JEN: How did the show come about?

ALEXANDRA: One day my colleague, Joanne Warden, at CSU called me and said “Hey, in the last couple of months your Facebook posts have been really interesting and personal. Can you print them out give them to me?” I went, “Why?” And she said, “I have an idea.”

So, she took a bunch of Facebook posts and put them all together and, I swear to God this is how it happened, she and I are both musical theater whores, so she took a bunch of her favorite songs, paired them with the Facebook posts…

JEN: Oh my god.

ALEXANDRA: And put a show together. It was the damnedest thing.

JEN: So, the show pretty much reflects her original pairing of songs with Facebook posts? That is the most extraordinary origin of a piece of musical theater I’ve ever heard.

ALEXANDRA: And the great thing was, we workshopped it at CSU and it was required viewing for students. So, all these mostly heteronormative, I assume, gender-confined humans who had never seen theater before

JEN: Hold on, I have to interrupt for a second. Did you just change “gender conforming” to “gender confined?”

ALEXANDRA: I’m just saying, don’t get me started, this is the way I feel about it.

JEN: (Laughing) I love it.

ALEXANDRA: So there are these humans who have never seen theater before, much less a trans person half-naked because I take off a lot of my clothes, and I talk about my body and silicone and a lot of things. The piece started out as an educational portal, and it really has a foundation in the universe because it started on Facebook. It’s a reflection of the times we’re living in. It’s a bridge being built between people that have no idea who we are and our community.

JEN: To be fair, what really started it off was your personal stories, your willingness to be vulnerable about your own past and your own story. Which isn’t something I would assume all trans people enter into a public space with. Have you ever not been so free and open about your story?

ALEXANDRA: Oh yeah, when I was younger, in my 20s, I lied a lot, as we do. I was steeped in my own shame. I never tried to assimilate in a way that denied that I was trans. I think my transness is visible physically, and you can hear it in my voice, but also, I kinda liked it. I transitioned in 1980, back when we didn’t even really have words for it. The shame and the guilt came from years and years of, you know, people telling me, “Don’t dress like that,” or “Don’t run like a girl,” you know basic bullying which never went away.

JEN: I don’t think any of us escape the trauma of being trans. If you’re a kid and you have some sense that your gender is different than it is supposed to be, you internalize that. There’s no way to escape that. Even if you had the most supportive parents and friends or transition when you’re five you still internalize that sense of otherness.

ALEXANDRA: It’s so funny that you say that because there’s a trans child that goes to my wife’s church. He’s like 10 or something, a child. And he was telling me about a friend of his, a trans girl, and she’s cloaked in secrecy. None of the teachers or other students know. So, even at a young age, even if you have parents who bless this journey, you still know.

Cis people can’t know this, how there is sometimes trauma simply opening the door and walking across the street. But what I believe is that time will change, and the dominance of straight white cis men will fade, is already fading, and “the other” will rise. And all these qualities, which were detrimental before, will become gifts. I think these kids who are transitioning at five or six will grow up feeling much more empowered than we ever thought possible

ALEXANDRA: …You remind me of the woman I married.

JEN: Okay, that’s something I’ve wanted to ask you about because you seem like such a classic former gay boy. How is it that you married a woman?

ALEXANDRA: Isn’t that funny?

JEN: You transitioned young, you’re HIV positive, and you did musical theater; these are all markers of a gay boy.

ALEXANDRA: It’s true, isn’t it? I have always been, sexually, romantically, and spiritually, with both genders my whole life. I never thought about it, but other people always bring it up to me. Krisanne and I met in 1976, so we’ve been in each other’s lives for over 40 years. It’s a profound love affair that we believe goes back centuries.

It’s very unique and very deep. We’ve tried to stay away from each other, like we’ve really tried. We finally succumbedshe’s kissing me on the head right nowwe succumbed to this love that felt inevitable and blinding. So, for both of us, it was less about gender and much more about what’s happening between us. And that’s always been true for me. I find all different kinds of bodies and shapes and humans attractive for very different reasons.

JEN: I’m with you. I’ve been bisexual my entire life and have a similar story.

ALEXANDRA: The fact that I married a woman, it doesn’t get much of a reaction now, but 20 years ago, and I’ll tell you where most of the reaction was, it was in our community. Other trans people were very judgmental of me and my marriage, for the longest time.

JEN: Why do you think that was?

ALEXANDRA: I have never understood it. Some of it was cattiness and bravado, but some of it, given how certain I was, may have been envy and jealousy.

JEN: Don’t you think there’s this sense that trans women are just really extraordinarily gay men?

ALEXANDRA: Right, yes, that we have to run away from anything that we believe is associated with masculinity. That me being with a woman somehow makes me more masculine.

JEN: Did you ever have that fear? Because that’s one I still carry with me. It’s part of what informs Her Story.

ALEXANDRA: I loved that by the way, can I tell you that? It was genius and profoundly moving. Your work is glorious Jen, and really important and beautiful.

JEN: Thank you.

ALEXANDRA: But yeah, I had that fear, when I was young. And it was part of my shame. How do I eschew any behavior that even remotely puts me in that category? But then I got into my 40s, and especially my 50s, and I just have zero fucks.

I’m done. I’m done with what you think, done with what they think, and done with what my wife thinks. I like these sides of me. I’m starting to like the way I look and sound. I like taking up a lot of space now, and I don’t attribute my aggression, my power, or my intelligence to be “manly.” It’s stupid, it doesn’t make sense to me.

JEN: I know! When we see these qualities in cis women, we applaud them, but they’re suspect in a trans woman….

ALEXANDRA: Isn’t that interesting.

JEN: It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. And it has a lot to do with “passing.” I see a real, I won’t say division, but definitely a difference, between the trans woman who are read as cis and those read as trans. We occupy two different worlds. And I don’t think that’s a distinction as obvious to those outside of our community. How has that impacted your own experience?

ALEXANDRA: What do you mean?

JEN: Well, okay, bathrooms are a good example. I’ve never had a problem in a bathroom. I don’t get stopped or interrogated. I know it’s an important issue and I still fight for access, but it doesn’t actually impact me directly.

However, disclosure is.

I have been on dates with men who didn’t know I was trans, so I feel more susceptible to that particular form of danger. And for other trans women, it’ll be the exact opposite. They may not have issues with disclosure, or even date men, but they might encounter a more consistent and heightened harassment in public spaces because they’re visibly trans. I’m curious because when we started this conversation, you described yourself as, based on the way you look and sound, you think you broadcast yourself as trans, but I don’t see you that way at all.

To me, you look and sound like a theater chick [laughter], I don’t read it as trans. And I just watched your reel, the premise of every one of your scenes and what drives the drama, is other people assuming you’re trans and you turning out to be trans.

ALEXANDRA: Yeah [long sigh]. You know, I don’t have this conversation with people I’m not close to. And my friends and my wife, they say the same thing that you’re saying. But I know from being in this body for 55 years and for moving around the planet in a variety of different places, and now I can add academia to that as well, that there is a real shift that happens when I walk into a space.

It could be because I take up a lot of space, but I also know what it feels like to be ostracized. I understand the difference between “Oh my god, here comes Elaine Stritch,” as opposed to “Oh my god, here comes a trans person.”

JEN: But you’re also a very out, very visible trans person.

ALEXANDRA: Yes, but this also happens at 7/11 or Target, when I’m not recognized. I assume everyone knows I’m trans. That could be a protective thing. This is the first time in my life I’m ever saying this, but it could be a defense. Like “No no no, you can’t clock me because I’ve already clocked myself.”

JEN: Totally, I do that too. But I also feel like for the most part if people see tits and hair they don’t think any further. Going back, I want to talk about your speech at the GLAAD Awards this year. Did you all make a decision ahead of time that you and Trace would be the ones speaking on stage?

ALEXANDRA: Yes, the whole cast, the producers, and the folks at Amazon specifically asked, if we should win, for Trace and I to accept the award.

JEN: I loved it, and it meant a lot to me. We see so often at these events, straight white people taking up most of the space. And even Transparent, I mean I have positive feelings, complicated feelings about Jill, but watching her speak on behalf of trans people can be really frustrating. So it was powerful to see the whole team up there, but having you and Trace speaking.

ALEXANDRA: You know, when Transparent came out there was a lot of celebratory noise, all kinds of responses, but it’s been four years and a lot has changed in that time. And what they’ve realized is that we can’t keep dragging Trace and me onstage and then shoving us to the back. You just can’t do it. It doesn’t make any sense. And I really believe that they wanted to hear from us. They wanted actual trans voices speaking at an LGBTQ event. This season, Trace got a lot more screen time. This coming season, I get a lot more, Davina is much more fleshed out. They are listening to us.

Listen, I have to go darling.

JEN: I could talk to you all day!

ALEXANDRA: Me too!

JEN: Thanks for chatting with me, and let’s do this sometime when it’s not being recorded.

ALEXANDRA: I’d love that.