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Transparent's Alexandra Billings on Trans Face, Choice, & Why Art Is Queer

Transparent's Alexandra Billings on Trans Face, Choice, & Why Art Is Queer


The veteran transgender actress discusses how to responsibly represent trans women, and men too.

"We don't all have your family. We don't all have your money. I'm a 53-year-old ex-prostitute HIV-positive woman with a dick. And I know what I want, and I know what I need."

This line from the second season of Amazon's acclaimed comedy Transparent encapsulates what the series does best -- deliver hauntingly hilarious truths to both its characters and the audience. The speech, delivered by Alexandra Billings, who plays Davina (who describes herself best above) is a reminder that transgender people often must cling to integrity, humor, and their own instincts in the face of desperation.

But Billings is anything but desperate.

"Here's how I know immediately if I'm even going to look at the script or not: If the trans person that I'm playing is in peril of any kind, if the trans person I'm playing is sick in any way, or if the trans person is merely there to make sure the cis people are OK. If one of those things are true, I don't even look at the script," the actress tells The Advocate.

With a career filled with authentic portrayals of transgender women on ER, Karen Sisco, How to Get Away With Murder, and Grey's Anatomy, Billings's commitment to embodying honorable trans characters speaks to the shortcomings in the roles Hollywood presents.

"I'm never in a hospital. I'm never in jail. I'm never someone's spiritual assistant," she says. "I like characters who are flesh and blood."

Davina's fight for existence is anything but ethereal, while Billings's journey has also been similarly hard-won. After years of playing feeble trans women on television, the working actress turned to her manager and said, "I'm not wearing any more hospital gowns."

Billings's decision to pursue dignity over a paycheck had a hefty price. She didn't work for two years, but then broke out with an acclaimed one-woman show. She's returned to the small screen since, reaching more people than ever.

But for Billings, responsible representation is not just about the roles she plays, but about the ones yet to be offered.

"Until we have a balanced scale between trans men and trans women, we're still way below the eyeline and eyesight of Hollywood. We still don't have a place for trans men because we cannot abide what we believe to be the feminization of the American male.

It's why Donald Trump is so popular. He can say and do anything, and the people who love him will continue to love him, and most of them are heteronormative white males over a certain age. Because they're terrified of losing their power."

But Billings's astute statements become more complicated when you acknowledge that Transparent is led by Jeffrey Tambor, who is all of those things, and winning Emmys for a role she seems more fit to play. Thinking back to the development landscape of the series, which premiered in 2014 and was cast long before that, she laughs at the idea of her in the lead.

"You couldn't get the story made. They didn't know who I was then and didn't care. So you couldn't say Alexandra Billings is starring in a pilot, They would've said, 'What? Who? Why? Pass the potato chips.' But when you have someone like Jeffrey Tambor, who's got an amazing resume, suits are more up to throw money at it."

However, Billings realizes it is no longer 2014.

"I feel very differently now than I did five or six years ago, as far as trans representation is concerned. I don't believe any representation is good representation, but I do believe all representation is good."

After speaking out against trans face in GLAAD promotional campaigns, Billings still supports Tambor, who many accuse of being a top offender (along with Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne.) After acknowledging the amazing trans representation within Transparent's crew and how showrunner Jill Soloway increasingly identifies as genderqueer, Billings presents her most compelling defense: "If we're going to say we're going to play nontrans roles, we need to be prepared -- not OK with, because I need to be very careful with this -- for the opposite to happen."

This perspective is in alignment with the newest turn in Billings's career. She's returning to Soloway's acclaimed creation with more screen time and as a recurring character on the Billy Bob Thornton series Goliath. But most notably, she stars as a cisgender ranch woman in Valley of Bones, a thriller that takes place in the paleontology-rich fields of North Dakota.

It's no surprise to the actress that queer and trans representation is relatively blooming in independent film.

"Art is queer. Art itself is ours. We own it. We allow it to blossom. We grew life into it and continue to. When the AIDS plague happened and murdered 80 percent of our people, art died for almost a decade," she asserts. But as "transgender" falls easier off the tip of American's tongue, many cisgender folks are left with more questions than answers about the experience.

Billings's welcomes all curiosities, from supporters and critics alike.

"It would be nice to be asked about why. I wish more people would ask about our history, where we come from. I transitioned in 1980, a time where it was not only unheard of, it was illegal. I've seen revolutions. Many. And I've seen change in the LGBT community, from inside and outside. And I've noticed the thread that runs through a lot of the riotous behavior, from inside and outside, is the debate if what we are is chosen."

For that, she has a ready response.

"If this is a choice, if this is something I decided to do or a gay person decided to do or a bisexual person decided to do or a genderqueer, gender-fluid person decided to do -- if that was an actual choice, don't you think we would've chosen something far less debatable? And much more honored by others? Why would we pick something that and behave in a way that constantly marginalizes and ostracizes us?"

Valley of Bones is in theaters Friday.

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