Actress, singer, author, teacher, and HIV activist Alexandra Billings has long blazed trails. She became one of the first out trans actresses to play a trans role on television in the 2005 TV prequel Romy and Michele: In the Beginning. She’s appeared in numerous films and TV shows throughout her career (including How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy) and received critical acclaim for her scene-stealing role as Davina on the hit Amazon series Transparent. She also showed off her musical theater chops when she starred as Madame Morrible in the Broadway megahit Wicked.
Arguably, her work in Transparent has been some of her most influential. In addition to being the first out trans actress to do a full-frontal nude scene on TV, she convinced the show’s writers to include HIV narratives in the series.
Billings is funny, frank, and charming, with wit and wisdom that makes you want to listen for hours.
However, Billings, 60, says she wasn’t just magically born with all that wit, wisdom, and charm (OK, maybe the charm). It mostly comes from living a life so rich in experience, with amazing highs and traumatic lows and everything in between, that it makes your average telenovela seem like Leave It to Beaver. Now she’s detailed much of her fascinating story — from her past in sex work to living through the AIDS epidemic to the harassment allegations on the set of Transparent — in her new book, This Time for Me: A Memoir.
Though Billings has historically been open about many facets of her life, including being a long-term survivor of HIV, the memoir is the first time she’s put it all down in one place — a process, she admits was at times more painful and less therapeutic than she’d anticipated.
Still, she says, recalling her life experiences for the book has been eye-opening, and given her a new sense of self-awareness.
“I think what’s interesting is that now, years later, I’m giving these interviews and talking to people like you and talking about pieces of my life in a way that gives me perspective — I don’t know if maybe this is the catharsis, but for me, this is very self-reflective. I’m able to look at my behavior, good and bad, and finally take ownership of it.”
In the memoir, Billings goes deep into her life as a sex worker, which she says was important to her to help destigmatize the profession and humanize those who participate. She also hopes to illustrate that every person’s story is different when it comes to sex work. She acknowledges that many trans people are forced into sex work for survival purposes, but that is not the case for all.
“There’s literally like three chapters dedicated to that [period of my life],” Billings says with a laugh. “When I was a sex worker, I didn’t have anybody running my finances for me. I didn’t answer to anybody. It was a decision that I made.”
“It literally happened by accident,” she explains. “I wasn’t starving. And I’m only speaking for my story. I don’t mean to make light of anybody’s trauma, but for me, I made a very clear decision that, OK, yeah, I can do this. And when it stopped serving me, I stopped doing it. And the only reason I say this is because we hear a lot of people talking about sex workers, about how we were forced to do this…. In the grand scheme of things, were there other elements forcing me to do this? Yes, probably. But…if you put a microscope to each event that happened in my life, this was a decision that I made.”
In This Time for Me, Billings also recalls some of the darkest times of her life, which occurred during the ’80s and ’90s and at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“By now, my closet was crammed with more and more black dresses,” she writes. “Because, you see, all the queers were dying — much to the relief of many in our country…. At numerous press conferences, Larry Speakes, Reagan’s press secretary, was asked about the president’s plans to address the AIDS crisis. In each exchange, his derogatory tone and dismissive remarks were underscored by the snickers and laughter of the press corps, the vast majority of whom were cisgender white men.”
Ultimately, Billings says the reason she wrote the memoir is the same reason Hollywood needs to keep producing narratives around POC, LGBTQ+, HIV-positive, and other marginalized people — so we can simply understand one another better, and therefore create a better world.
“Art is a reflection of the human experience,” she says. “We’ve got to start talking to each other, even when we don’t agree with each other. It’s about an exchange of ideas, not ‘You’re wrong, I want to change you.’ You don’t deserve that…. We’ve got to talk to each other in a way that is about what your accomplishments mean, about who you are on this planet, and that what you’ve done so far means something. And now we just want to add to it.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Champions of Pride issue, which is out on newsstands May 17, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.