About three-fourths of the way through activist, actress and educator Alexandra Billings' This Time For Me: A Memoir (out via TOPPLE on April 1), written with Joanne Gordon, readers encounter these words: "I met Larry Kramer for the first time in 1996, and it split me apart forever."
With this one line, Billings offers a window into her thinking about her life's trajectory.
"Larry was not only my guardian and an angel of light that lighted up my way, he was that for an entire queer generation," Billings told Windy City Times. "He was a beacon, revolutionary, poet, friend and he understoodI think better than anybody I knew, anywaythe plight of the queer person. He lived our struggle. He did not just talk about it or pontificate about it. He did not just lecture. He did all those things and he lived it in his bones. I really think that is why, when he left this planet, he left an indelible mark in queer history. He was not just a trailblazer, he changed the queer vernacular."
Billings candidly and, at times, humorously chronicles her life growing up in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg; coming out as trans; her drug addiction and subsequent sobriety; being a sex worker in Chicago in the 1980s, when she was in her 20s, which she said "was actually kind of funny" and then became "an insidious nightmare;" being arrested and spending nights in jail; and experiencing homelessness and getting diagnosed with HIV in 1985.
She also writes about many professional endeavors, such as performing as Shante at Chicago clubs such as The Baton; her wide-ranging acting career that took her from small Chicago theater spaces to her most recent role as Madam Morrible in Broadway's Wicked; Hollywood behind-the-scenes stories; a teaching career (she received her MFA in acting at California State University-Long Beach in 2014); and a decades-long romantic relationship with high school sweetheart Chrisanne Blankenship, whom she marriedfor the first timein 1996.
The wedding chapter goes back and forth between Billings and Blankenship's first ceremony, which culminated at local nightspot Sidetrack; and their legal union in California in 2008, in the final hours before the anti-marriage equality Prop 8 became law.
"We made it just under the wire," said Billings.
A number of Chicago notables make cameos throughout the book, including Honey West, Mimi Marks and Chili Pepper.
When asked why she was so open throughout the book, especially in the chapters devoted to her 20s, Billings said that her "intention was to tell the truth. That is difficult for me to do. If people understood or found themselves somewhere in my story that is a plus. I just wanted to be as honest as I possibly could, so anything else that happened, I feel, is a gift."
Billings said the through lines in her book are "perseverance, luck and gratefulness."
This Time For Me is published by Amazon imprint TOPPLE, under the direction of Joey Soloway. Billings and Soloway met on the set of the TV show Transparent, where Billings played Davina and Soloway served as a co-creator, writer and director.
"Joey is the greatest," said Billings. "I have known Joey since the 1990s. Joey was doing Co-ed Prison Sluts and I was doing Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack and we were in a battle for Chicago late-night theater. God, those were the days."
Billings credited cowriter Joanne Gordon with convincing her to take her many Facebook posts on aspects of her life and turn them into a memoir. Billings would rewrite and expand those essays and then give them to Gordon to edit. She said the book was originally about 200 pages longer.
"It was like the Les Miz of autobiographies," said Billings. "The editors at TOPPLE and Amazon said I needed to cut this down. … I would write it and then Joanne would take all of those essays, hundreds of them, and put them into some kind of cohesive orderI do not know how. Sometimes she would take one essay, and put it with another one, and marry it. She is the one who organized all of that stuff into a book. It would not have been done without Joanne. … Everyone really worked together."
Addressing her years on Transparent, and working with former co-star Jeffrey Tambor, who played Maura, Billings was contrite about maintaining her silence when allegations of abuse by Tambor arose.
"I have to live with that for the rest of my life," said Billings, "I had already been through two other abusive relationships. I knew what they felt like, sounded like and looked like. Just because, and I am still unpacking all this stuff, Jeffrey was Maura, meaning in my head Jeffrey was a trans woman. Just because I talked myself into believing that was true, I let him get away with murder. And that is my own damn fault. I wanted to take responsibility. I am not trying to portray myself as some sort of warrior or whistleblower. I was just as guilty standing around and doing nothing as Jeffrey was standing around and doing everything."
Speaking about the events of the past few years, Billings said, like the early days of the AIDS pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic is "searing" memories into the younger generations' brains "that will never leave you, ever" because "years of isolation does not go away."
Because she is a teacher, Billings said, her students stay the same age while she gets older. Each generation of students has been less and less shocked when she tells them she has a long-term HIV-positive diagnosis, which has made her happy. She added that her generation never would have imagined this when they first faced the HIV/AIDS pandemicthat people would instead ask about it in a curious and caring manner.
This semester, when Billings told her students about her HIV diagnosis and "what it was like to walk down Halsted Street in 1989, when the smell of death just permeated the air," one of her students responded, 'I lost my mother to COVID a year ago and that is what happened to me when I walked down the street of my hometown. I literally just smelled death.' It really struck me because I think we have stumbled on a generation that I do not have to explain myself to."
Billings did not plan to end the book with a letter to her students. But as she wrote, she realized that instead of "leaving a legacy, a queer map of a 60-year-old trans woman" she wanted readers to "laugh occasionally" and "have faith in humanity." She wanted to encourage readers not to give in to despair, especially with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad anti-LGBTQ laws being passed in GOP-controlled states in recent years.
The LGBTQ+ community has been marginalized in the past, Billings acknowledged, but "our gift is survival. The book is about survival however you survive, however you end up, however chaotic or broken or how many piece there are of you that just allows more light to shine through. The takeaway for all of usnot just in the book but the human experience in generalis that all this stuff that is happening to us is happening so that we fly higher."