I was waiting anxiously outside a hotel conference room to talk with Transparent stars Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette, who had already sat for hours of interviews with other outlets answering the typical questions stars of a hit TV show are asked. The feeling that this day was special, was palpable. As I walked in to find the two women taking photos and laughing like old girlfriends, I knew they felt it too. After all, as Billings tells me, “20 years ago we wouldn’t have been let in this room.”
No one needs to remind these ladies that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. In many ways, Billings herself is one of those giants. Before Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox were household names, Billings was already a trailblazer, having been 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. (The first out trans actress in such a role was Jessica Crockett, who played a trans lesbian in a 2001 Dark Angel episode). In her decades in Hollywood, Billings has appeared in numerous films and TV shows (including How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy), but few roles were as groundbreaking and captivating as Billings’s scene-stealing role of Davina on the hit Amazon series, Transparent.
As a mixed-race trans woman like the actress who plays her, Davina’s friendship with Maura — the affluent, Jewish lead character — is a way for the series to talk about its own privilege, to underscore the ways in which women of color are far more vulnerable to violence, and to truly address intersectionality in a real-life way that doesn’t require a textbook to understand.
Now in its fourth season, Transparent hit another milestone when Billings became the first out trans actress to have a full-frontal nude scene on a TV show (she’s likely the first out HIV-positive person to do so as well).
Billings’s costar Trace Lysette is also blazing trails as Shea, a young transgender, HIV-positive yoga instructor who teaches the lead character Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) how to say phrases like “Yas queen!” while having a brief fling with Maura’s son Josh — becoming one of only a handful of trans actresses to be portrayed having intimate relations with a cisgender man on screen (following Candis Cayne’s groundbreaking role in Dirty Sexy Money).
Although she’s HIV-negative in real life, Lysette takes the responsibility of playing a character who is both trans and poz very seriously: “The responsibility is always on my mind, and I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Billings, who is HIV-positive in real life and in the show, knows the power of art and how it shapes culture. A staunch advocate for HIV health initiatives, she’s been in the trenches since the early days of ACT UP. And like the legendary playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer who founded that organization, Billings acknowledges she’s dealt with a lot of anger.
“I have a lot of rage,” she recalls telling Kramer when she starred (alongside Greg Louganis) in a Chicago production of Kramer’s play Just Say No. “But I’d like it to be directed, because when it’s not, it gets way out of control… and nothing gets served.”
Kramer, Billings says, replied, “‘I disagree completely. I think any anger is righteous anger.’” The activist’s response explains a lot about Kramer’s confrontational style — and how it differs from Billings’s own efforts to make the world a better place.
Being of service is a mantra for Billings, who admits to not believing in “good and evil” but rather a conscious choice to be “in service” to the world. Growing up with a musical director father, Billings has been around artists since the age of 7. One might say she was born in service to the art that’s shaped her life.
Billings, whose life was documented in the 2009 Emmy Award-nominated PBS doc Schoolboy to Showgirl: The Alexandra Billings Story, told her story there and in the famed touring off-Broadway autobiographical show, Before I Disappear.
“I was raised around queers,” she says. “My whole life has been just gay, it couldn’t be gayer. For the longest time, it was hard for me to be around [hetero-normative people]. I didn’t really understand them. The bullying that I endured when I was young was very confusing to me because I would visit my father every summer and be around the LGBT clan and I was like, ‘I don’t understand. This [queer] world is much kinder and these are supposed to be the ostracized? This doesn’t make any sense.’”
Lysette also found her home in the queer community: first in the drag bars of Dayton, Ohio, and later in the ball scene of New York City. “I was a performer [in Dayton] as a teen and had a fake ID,” she remembers. “My chosen family kind of validated me throughout the years and let me know that I was special, and particularly in the New York-hosted ballroom subculture, the voguing subculture. I found a chosen family there where I was being celebrated for being feminine, and everything I had always been put down for… that validation really carried me through.”