“If you go to the Sears Tower and stand very close and look up, it overwhelms the sky. But if you go across town, you may only see the very top of it. Many times, we make a choice to go close to pain. Just stay there and know that at any time, all you have to do is thank the building for being there, turn and walk away.”
– Alexandra Billings
What would it be like to live through almost the entire recent history of the transgender movement, from near-complete marginalization in the 1960s to glimmers of mainstream acceptance in the present? Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina on the hit TV show Transparent, did just that. We talk to her about her new memoir This Time For Me, which tells one person’s experiences from the 60s through today.
Featuring a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” by pianist Christopher-Joel Carter, IV.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
Today, the Transgender movement has hit mainstream culture in a big way. But it wasn’t always like that.
What would it be like to live through almost the entire recent history of the transgender movement, from near-complete marginalization in the 1960s to glimmers of mainstream acceptance in the present?
Today we’re talking to Alexandra Billings, who did just that.
Billings plays the character Davina on the hit TV show Transparent, and has just published her memoir This Time For Me. It’s hot off the presses, hitting shelves just this last weekend. I highly recommend you pick up a copy because it tells one person’s experiences from the 60s through today.
We catch up with Alexandra and talk about some of her struggles, but our conversation quickly turns into much more. She is an actress, a teacher, and a person who frankly has endured some hard times in her life – prejudice, assault, drug addition, HIV, family rejection, and more. Yet she has worked through that pain and emerged as someone who can convey it in a way that perhaps can help others.
Alexandra Billings tells us about coming to terms with herself, writing about her experiences on the show Transparent, and carrying pain while still walking proud.
That’s what we’re talking about in today’s interview episode. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
According to the inside flap of Billings’ new book:
“Alexandra Billings is an actor, singer, author, teacher, and activist who has appeared on numerous television shows, including Amazon’s Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning Transparent. Billings, who has been acting since 1968, has also performed across the United States in hundreds of plays and musicals. … Every role played by Billings is thought to be a first for an out Transgender human.” (Billings and Gordon, p. 433)
And in addition, we must of course add that she is now the author of the new book This Time For Me: A Memoir.
Folks, there is a lot of history in this book. A little later, I’ll be sharing a few select quotes – not too much, but just enough to give you a taste of that history. But first, talking to Billings, I wanted to concentrate on big picture stuff, starting with a connection with our current series Sex in the Wild West.
Let’s check in with her now.
[Interview, part 1]
So, folks, there you can already see a glimpse of some of the difficulties that Billings has had to face. She addresses the question with a bit of a humble flair I guess you could say, not going into too much detail. However, she pulls no punches in her book. I’m not going to give away too much, but I would like to give you a taste of the sort of history you can find inside its pages. So, here are a few suggestive selections through the decades:
We begin in the 1960s, a time of great upheaval for many minority groups. The 60s saw the Civil Rights Movement, and the Stonewall Riots. But the time had not yet come for some, like young Alexandra:
“Being transgender requires careful planning, devious escapes, and fabulous costumes. In the 1960s, being me was illegal, both on the streets and in my living room.” (p. 13)
Then, as the decades wear on:
“Back in the early days of drag, especially in the late 70s and early 80s, when we were first coming out of the darkness and into the mainstream, female impersonators were just that – they were required to impersonate females.” (p. 92)
Meaning, in public perception at the time, it was still about entertainment, and about pretending to be someone else instead of being yourself. For the average person, the idea that a person could, deep down, be anything other than their assigned sex was still to come.
And even into the 1980s, there were laws that enforced that perception:
“The 80s were the time of the woman. Those shoulder pads took up most of the space we weren’t allowed into. … It was still illegal to be Transsexual, and walking across the street dressed in what the law deemed ‘female attire without the presence of two articles of male clothing’ was punishable by a short stay in jail.” (p. 113)
And later Billings would in fact get arrested on this very charge. This sounds like one of those laws that might still be on the books from some dark age long past but no longer actually enforced, but no – it was still actively enforced. When the police officer asks to see her two articles of male clothing, Billings shoots backs, “What, you mean like tube socks?” And shortly finds herself in jail.
That was what the 80s could be like for someone like her. Not exactly the Breakfast Club.
The 80s was also of course the time when people started getting sick:
“It was a plague, you see, and no one knew how you got it. … There were no vaccines and no information. And no one survived it.” (p. 154)
What we know today as AIDS started out being called GRID, which stood for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, a name that not only unfairly characterized the disease as a problem exclusively for non-heterosexuals, but also ignored Trans folks in the process. Yet Billings buried her friends just the same.
As the 80s became the 90s, public perception continued to mischaracterize the Trans community:
“I grew up and was living in a time when gender was specific, and what I grew into was defined as a Man Who Became a Woman.” (p. 180)
“I was hired at a time before the word ‘Transgender’ existed, I was still labeled a pre-op Transsexual (who was in fact lying about being pre-op).” (p. 193)
But later in the 90s, terms began to change. “Transsexual” came to refer specifically to those who desired gender confirmation surgery. When Billings’ friend told her the new umbrella term was “transgender”, she exclaimed:
“‘Sounds like a detergent.’” (p. 211)
Then came the turn of the millennium. By then, the public had become aware that AIDS was a problem for everyone. And with that, AIDs charities became all the rage:
“I knew it when I sat down to watch the Oscars. It was in the early 2000s, and two very famous women walked out onstage flaunting their fancy red ribbons. The pins sparkled and had tiny gold tips. I remember thinking, ‘Boy, those ribbons look really good with those outfits.’” (p. 316)
I think I detect more than a hint of sarcasm in those words. As Billings suffered the symptoms of the disease first-hand, in mainstream culture, AIDS charity had become fashionable, even trivialized.
In the 2010s, things finally began to shift for the Trans community. Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine, and Trans awareness was finally becoming widespread.
Yet challenges remained. For example, in 2015, when applying for a full-time faculty position at a university, Billings was told:
“Transgender is not a legitimate category for a minority hire.” (p. 375)
And despite all the forward strides made in the 2010s, Billings nevertheless puts her frustration into words:
“Trans women are under attack. It’s 2016 and we’re still being murdered and hunted and eradicated from most every conversation. We are here and we are Americans and yet, even now, even as far as we’ve come, we’re still a fetish and we’re still a choice.” (p. 402)
At the same time, the 2010s brought us a television experience that brought to life the struggles of people just like Billings – the TV show Transparent. Suddenly, mainstream audiences could relate. Billings herself played no small part in that, starring as Davina, friend and mentor of sorts for the main character Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor.
However, the show ultimately ran aground of controversy. After four full seasons, accusations of sexual harassment were brought forward against Tambor by multiple Transgender women on the show, and the fifth and final season was one feature-length episode without Tambor.
Now, Billings was not one of those who brought forward allegations, but she was there, she saw the sort of things that went on, and she doesn’t doubt the allegations. She tells about this in her book. I won’t give details, but I did ask her about the experience of writing that difficult chapter about her time on the set.
[Interview, Part 2]
Folks, you can tell that Billings is a teacher, the way she encapsulates her points in visual metaphors. No doubt there are many of you out there who can relate to the experience of carrying pain. I know it hits home for me.
But ultimately, let me tell you, what it felt to me talking to Billings, and I think you could hear that for yourself here… it doesn’t seem like she feels the weight of the world on her shoulders. Perhaps she did, but not anymore.
And I think, maybe there’s something there that all of us can learn from.
Well, that’s all we’ve got for you today, folks. I hope you learned something today. I certainly did. Thank you so much to Alexandra Billings for talking with us today. Everyone, be sure to go out and grab a copy of her memoir This Time For Me, available now.
Oh, and happy birthday to her too. Sixty beautiful years. For all the pain and struggle, she wears it well.
Next month, hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll start telling the other side of the Wild West, the perspective of its native inhabitants, for whom the experience was of course very different. We’ll be focusing specifically on the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes. What was sex and gender like in their culture, and how did that change over time as their land was taken, and they struggled to make their way in a new, very different world? And what was it like for those of tribal third genders, now summed up as Two-Spirit traditions? Perhaps among them there were some who could find common ground with Alexandra Billings. But they were also very different from any modern Western gender category, not reduceable to any single LGBTQ+ analogy, and varied greatly from tribe to tribe. We’ll be getting into all of that in the coming months as we explore the other side of the Wild West.
Folks, if you like what we’re doing here on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright, folks, I’ll see you next time. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
Billings, Alexandra, and Gordon, Joanne. This Time For Me: A Memoir. New York: Topple, 2022.
“Over the Rainbow” arranged and performed by Christopher-Joel Carter, IV
Billings portrait from AlexandraBillings.com