Fortunately, Lysette’s character in Transparent experiences none of these things. On the contrary, she’s healthy, vibrant, and sexually active — a huge leap from days of old, and a springboard towards eradicating HIV stigma.
A long-term survivor of HIV, Billings recalls one of the most traumatic moments in her life: wrapping her best friend, who had died of AIDS- complications, in a sheet and leaving her body on the steps of a hospital because Billings hadn’t been able to find a cemetery willing to let her bury her friend due to fear the disease might “contaminate the soil.”
Even though we’ve come a long way from those dark days of ignorance and death, Billings knows we still face challenges in increasing the visibility of healthy poz people while maintaining prevention awareness. The U.S. saw 39,513 people newly diagnosed with HIV in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I want to take them by the hand and say, ‘You need to be mindful now,’” she says of those newly diagnosed. “‘Now your job is to turn your behavior around.’”
Getting on and staying on antiretroviral medications can be a part of that behavioral change. Not only will doing so improve the health of those who are HIV-positive, it can also prevent transmission of the virus once the treatment lowers a person’s viral load to undetectable levels.
Billings, who was diagnosed positive in 1994, adds: “I have had it with irresponsible queers. I’m done placating. I’m not done being kind, but I’m done being nice. Nice is a state. Kindness takes action. If you got this [virus], if you got infected in the year 2017, you now need to take responsibility. And that means you’ve got to be of service. You do not get to go back to… your old behavior. You’ve got to figure out something new to do. Be a mentor. Don’t look for mentors. Be a mentor. That’s your job now, and I think that’s true of the trans community, too.”
The truth of the matter is Hollywood producers aren’t eager to tell the stories of HIV-positive people, or trans people — much less HIV-positive trans people.
“Trace and I don’t have to join the revolution. We are the fucking revolution,” Billings proclaims. “So our job isn’t to say, ‘Hey you guys, look at what great human beings we are.’ Our job is to say, ‘What are you going to do? We’re loud. We’re big. We took up enormous space. What are you going to do? We will help you do that. Now you help us do that.’ The people we go to meet in Hollywood… they’re half my age. I just had a meeting in a room full of people that were in their 30s for fuck’s sake. I’m almost 60. You help me.”
Following the recent fallout over sexual harassment and assaults, Hollywood producers are being pressured to create more diversity behind the scenes, as well as hold perpetrators accountable. According to Lysette, Hollywood has its share of powerful men who take advantage of trans women, as well. Billings and Lysette admit these kinds of predators are more than willing to have sex with trans women, but wouldn’t admit to dating — or god forbid falling in love with — them. “There are so many powerful [people] who have an affinity or are open to trans women and have indulged with us between the sheets, who won’t come out and talk about it,” Lysette explains. “Hollywood is riddled with them. If I gave you the list, heads would roll, and headlines would be made. But I feel it is their job to step up and speak out.”
Lysette did speak out recently, alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Tambor, after another trans woman anonymously complained about the actor, reports The Advocate. The move pushed the show into legal limbo; as of press time Amazon is investigating the allegations.
Still, that stigma that persists in Hollywood and elsewhere, around dating trans women is ultimately the same unspeakable truth underscoring many trans homicides. According to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly 24 trans people had been fatally shot or killed by other violent means in 2017 as of November — the majority of them were trans women of color.
“I don’t think the world was paying attention to trans homicides prior to a few years ago,” Lysette says. “I transitioned in Brooklyn, and took the subway every day… avoiding 3:45 p.m. at all costs, because that’s when school let out, and high school kids are the first ones to try it. I think that’s the world... You know, it was engraved in me that you have to protect yourself and you have to be really, really careful. A lot of us who were murdered prior to four years ago, even, were misreported and misgendered when they found the bodies. I think that the world is finally starting to pay attention.”