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Once Again With Alexandra Billings

"The Problem Is Not the Terminology; the Problem Is Fear of Change."

June 19, 2017

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Alexandra Billings

Alexandra Billings (Credit: Amazon Prime Video)

We first spoke with Alexandra Billings in Positively Aware's issue on transgender people and HIV in 2008. We recently caught up with the co-star of the Emmy-winning Amazon TV series Transparent to talk about the show, the shifting terminology around identity, and how Co-Ed Prison Sluts may have changed the course of her life.

Jeff Berry: So much has changed in the nine years since I first interviewed you for Positively Aware -- marriage equality is now the law of the land; there's an increased awareness in the general public around issues facing transgender people; PrEP has been approved for HIV prevention; you're in a hit TV show! So what do you have to say about all of that?

Alexandra Billings: I think what's great is the transgender community's identity and how specific it's now become, because it's no longer an idea or a philosophy, it's actual, and it means something now. Ten years ago, it was true, but it wasn't practiced. And now it is. That's largely due to the political movements, the size of the revolution, awareness of the LGBTQ community at large, and it also has to do with the acceptance of our allies, our straight allies, and our parents and our grandparents and the people who come along with us. So really I feel very hopeful, even in the climate that we're in right now, with Mr. Trump at the helm, that poor, lost, sad soul. I feel great hope. I also want to say, without saying too much -- our show is dealing with the transgender community and the onslaught of the HIV virus [Season four premieres in Fall 2017]. Our community has always been hit very hard by this virus, especially among trans people of color, and we're starting to look at that, in a sort of black comedy kind of way. So the advances of medical science are catching up with the advances of our spiritual science as well, so I'm very hopeful.

Davina (Alexandra Billings) has a heart-to-heart with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor)

Davina (Alexandra Billings) has a heart-to-heart with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) (Credit: Amazon Prime Video)

JB: Back to the show in a minute, but in terms of increasing awareness around transgender and gender non-binary people, the terminology can be confusing for some, and it keeps changing so rapidly. [Gender non-binary actress] Asia Kate Dillon was on Ellen recently, and even Ellen seemed to stumble a bit. I've even found myself struggling when interviewing people for this issue. Have you ever found yourself in the same situation? Because there's almost a generational kind of difference.

AB: Well, you're exactly right. The problem is not the terminology; the problem is fear of change. Even in our own community, we have generations fighting generations. That's always been true, since the dawn of consciousness, since we've decided, "I'm going to dress this way, and you're going to dress that way, and it's going to stay the same forever!" Since that was sort of decreed, we've all been resistant to anything upsetting the apple cart, so to speak. I'll tell you what I have a real problem with, anyone -- I don't care where they sit on which side of the fence -- who flat out refuses to attempt something new, simply because they don't like it. That's where my problem lies. I understand that we are adopting new vocabulary, that we are taking terminology and turning it upside down, but language is malleable. That's always been true. Language is musical; it's the music of the universe. I mean all of us have been singing the same song for generations, we just do it in different keys. That's why there are different languages. So people who have specific problems and refuse to use certain words, simply because they feel some kind of ownership to them, are working from a place of fear and ignorance. That's very different than, "I don't understand this, it doesn't make any sense, help me through it." I'm not on the gender binary, I consider myself a transgender female, I do not consider myself female, I never have. I married a female. But that's just the way I identify. But I have friends who are on the binary, who consider themselves either gender fluid or genderqueer, and they prefer the pronouns they/them, and some of them prefer the word it. I had a conversation with a really good friend of mine who said, "Well I'm not going to call anybody 'it'." And I said, "Yes, but that's not really up to you." And they said, "Well I'm just not going to use it. They need to find a different word." And I said, "Well, okay, but until they do, why don't we just acquiesce? Why don't we just surrender, give in, allow their terminology, so they can begin to blossom? Why don't we just do that first, before we say no?"

JB: That's great advice. I think it's about us all educating each other.

AB: I started transitioning when I was 20 years old in 1980. I've been living this way for many decades, I've been around LGBT people all my life, my father was in the theater, so I've been around queer people since I was seven years old. So that's my tribe, these are my humans, and I understand them, and I love them. And there are problems in our own community, but look, if we cannot meet in the middle, if we, the LGBT tribe, cannot meet in the center of who we are, how do we expect other people outside the tribe to do that?

JB: Good point.

AB: If someone says to you, "call me 'they'," I don't understand what the problem is. If someone says, "I'm Sam, in the afternoon, and then at night when I go to work and put a wig on, I'm Jacqueline," I don't understand the problem. It's just something that doesn't make sense to me.

JB: I think for some people it's ... okay, I'll just say it, for me, sometimes I get a little nervous and get tongue-tied, and I'm like, "Oh, I'm going to get this wrong." I'm the type of person, when I have my current partner and my former partner in the same room, I'll call them by the opposite ... the wrong name. Every time. It never fails.

AB: Yeah, but that's different. That's you being nervous, or working perhaps from a place of apprehension, and needing to please, I mean, who knows. But that's very, very different than a flat out refusal to even make the attempt to allow someone to live in what is their truth. Those are very different things. If you make a mistake, someone should be kind enough to correct you. And it really depends on how I'm misgendered. If I'm misgendered and it's used as a weapon, then you'll get a very specific response. I just went to McDonald's, and I have a voice that can be mistaken for male or female sometimes depending on the time of day, and if I'm sick, or limping, and it didn't bother me. I drove up, she looked at me, and she didn't really say anything, and I didn't say anything, because there was no point. Which is very different from walking up to me when I'm at an awards show in a gown with jewels, lashes, and lipstick, and carrying a purse, and saying, "Hey, mister, can you hand me that glass of water?" That's very different. It really is about approach, and about attempt, and about willingness.

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.

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