Competitions were once a major part of Billings’s life as well. In fact, her character’s arc in the latest season of Transparent is plucked directly from her own experiences competing in the Miss Continental beauty pageant at Los Angeles’s legendary drag club, The Queen Mary. Clips from Billings’s personal home videos grace the screen during this season’s title sequence.
Years before, however, when Billings was first transitioning, her life wasn’t as glitzy or glamorous. Back then, being a trans woman while also maintaining her relationship with a woman (she’s been with her wife for 43 years) was hardly commonplace. And while she’s the first to tell you their relationship seems like a fairy tale now, it wasn’t always a bowl of cherries.
“I caught flak from most every community, with the exception of the trans community,” she says of that time. “It was 1980… We were just 10 years out of Stonewall. We were still figuring things out.”
Billings recalls there hardly being a discussion about her trans identity with her wife. “She knew, because my wife knows everything,” she says. “She knew and she was not happy. We’re not going to pretend that it went well. It did not go well. We didn’t speak to each other for about two years. We didn’t speak and we talked to each other every single day, and have for over 40 years, and for those two years, nothing, because it was just... Who handles that transition well? I didn’t handle it well.”
Three decades later, the world has changed insurmountably. According to GLAAD, 2016 featured the highest percentage of LGBT series regulars the organization has ever found on TV, with 4.8 percent of all characters being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer-identified. With 43 LGBT characters out of 895 that number is still low, but dramatically better than in the past.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for HIV-positive characters. The few poz characters we see on mainstream television aren’t a huge leap from Michael Pierson, the character played by Aidan Qunn in 1985’s An Early Frost, the first made-for-television movie addressing AIDS; or Tom Hanks’s Andrew Beckett from 1993’s Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge not only HIV, but also homosexuality and homophobia. On screen, Beckett’s HIV progresses to the point of purple lesions (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) appearing on his face and his wasting away — the widespread image of HIV in the years before antiretroviral cocktails turned the disease into a manageable chronic condition.