It shouldn’t be that hard to just exist. But in suburban Chicago in the 1960s, a 6-year-old who enjoyed wearing sparkly dresses was not accepted. “Every time he put new clothes on me,” he writes, “something somewhere would light up in me.” When Billings’ mother, the person he loved most in the world, told him that what she wore was not for boys, the fundamental lesson he learned was that in order to exist, he needed to lie about who he really was.
The years that followed were tumultuous, filled with self-loathing and suicidal thoughts compounded by relentless bullying on sight from adults who never helped. Discovering theater in high school was his salvation. On stage, singing and acting, it was the place where he felt the happiest. Having no better language to express who he was, he told his mother that he was gay, even though that label felt “incomplete, false.” When he was 17 years old, while swallowing the contents of a bottle of Tylenol in a serious but unsuccessful attempt to end his pain, an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” caught his attention. It featured three brilliant and beautiful “women [who] they weren’t women, and yet they were,” and for the first time, she saw herself in someone else.
Recognition was progress, but navigating a life in the queer community of the 1980s was still fraught. Billings spent the next decade making a name for herself in Chicago as a drag performer named Shanté. It was a time when violent hate crimes against queer people were rampant, same-sex encounters were illegal, and men could be jailed for wearing “female attire without the presence of two male garments.” She spent four years as a sex worker for a living (one of her clients was a United States senator, she writes) and she began a long dance with drug addiction to escape the pain and rage of her.
The person he kept in regular contact with from his early years was his best friend from high school, fellow actress Chrisanne, who eventually became his wife. Billings found kinship with other artists, who protected, instructed, and encouraged her, acting as her surrogate family for her. The devastation of the AIDS epidemic was immense. As her friends were dying, she told her, she asked her mother if she could go home if she got sick. “I don’t think so,” was her mother’s response. They never spoke again.
It took rehabilitation, then a slow process of understanding and acceptance of herself to realize that she was not a gay man who dressed as a woman; she was a woman she stopped acting as Shanté and began a new journey as Alexandra, learning how to become an actress in mainstream theater. Her journey took her from the Chicago theater world of the 1990s—most reviews, she writes, “focused on my ability to portray a woman rather than tackle my acting”—to Hollywood and Broadway, where she recently played Madame Morrible in “Wicked.” ”
When “Transparent” first appeared on television, the ground was beginning to change in Hollywood’s representation of the LGBTQIA community. While the popular show was lauded with awards, Tambor faced accusations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Billings weighs in on Tambor’s behavior here, detailing bouts of “harassment and angry outbursts,” and she’s also brutally honest about her own failings. After witnessing unwanted verbal and physical encounters between Tambor and other people on the set, including herself, she needed to believe that everything was okay, so she “just sat there doing nothing.”
Such blunt truthfulness is a hallmark of his writing, despite the first sentence in Chapter 1: “I lie.” His sense of humor radiates from the pages. Although she has been mistreated by society for most of her life, her memoir is a model of grace and compassion, showing the world what it means to be misunderstood and how we can do better to welcome humans. of all trends.
Becky Meloan writes a monthly column on new and featured books.
Topple Books & Little A. 446 pp. $24.95
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