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Exclusive: World AIDS Day Interview with Alexandra Billings

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday December 1, 2018

Alexandra Billings would be the first to admit she's something of a miracle. The transgender actress, who plays Davina on the award-winning Amazon series "Transparent," was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s, as she was breaking into the Chicago theater scene. Flash-forward almost three decades and Billings is still in resoundingly good health, happily married to Chrisanne Blankenship, her high school sweetheart, and, at 56, has just made her Broadway debut in "The Nap." She's also a passionate, longtime AIDS activist unafraid to speak the truth.

As World AIDS Day commemorates its 30th anniversary on December 1, Billings shares her thoughts about everything from the disease's early days to the dangers of PrEP.

EDGE: Alex, you've been living with HIV/AIDS a very long time. What were those early days like?

Alex: When I was first diagnosed, there really wasn't much medication besides AZT. The doctor said to me, "I think what you should do is just max out all of your credit cards, because you're probably not going to be around to pay the bill."

AZT was extremely toxic and it made me very sick for about a good year. And then maybe two years into the disease I got into a clinical trial for the new cocktail they were developing. The deal was, everyone in the trial would get AZT, but 50 percent of the people got the actual cocktail and the other 50 percent were on sugar pills. I didn't find out until many years later I was one of those people who were on sugar pills. I was basically taking sugar for five years until the actual cocktail was developed, which saved my life.

EDGE: How are you doing nowadays? How's your health?

Alex: I went to New York to do a play this year, and I had to find another doctor for the time that I was there. She had me take a bunch of blood tests and when I came back about a week later she had the results in front of her. She goes - and this happens a lot when I change doctors - "These tests are freakishly normal. You know, with the exception of your T-cells, which proves you have AIDS and also the fact that your viral load is just a little past undetectable, no one would know that you have HIV. I don't understand it. What is it you're doing? What's your diet?"

And I said, "I eat a lot of McRibs and I love Frosted Flakes, and that's pretty much what I do."

I eat everything I want to eat. I don't deny myself anything. I live my life exactly the way I want to live my life. I don't do anything that doesn't bring me joy. And I make sure I stay in service of other human beings. That's how I stay healthy. And I take my meds. So, to answer your question, I feel fucking great!

EDGE: Do you think, given the success of drugs like PrEP, it's become more difficult to make people see AIDS/HIV as a still-serious issue?

Alex: Listen, I'm a professor at USC. I teach acting to the masters students and the B.A. students. And I talk about my HIV status a lot. One time, a couple years ago, I said something about having AIDS. And one of the kids said, "Wait, what? You have that 80s disease?"

That's actually good news. There's a whole new generation who are like, "What? That's still a thing?" Because at their age, I was going into my bedroom to get a big sheet to wrap my best friend up in so we could drop her off at the Cook County Hospital E.R. because she had died and no funeral home would have her. They wouldn't put us in the ground, because they thought we'd contaminated the earth.

It's a very different time now, thank God for that. But people think we're cured. I have a terminal illness that someday will take my life. That's the thing about PrEP... I'm all for any preventative medicine, as far as HIV is concerned. But everyone who contracts the disease is going to die from it. We need to make that clear. There is no cure for HIV.

EDGE: Anything else you like to say to the youngest members of the LGBTQ community about HIV/AIDS that they might not yet understand?

Alex: Your job on this planet is to give back. How are you going to do that if you're behaving recklessly? Go have fun, but don't be reckless. As queer people, most of the time our reckless behavior is attached to our shame. If you're not self-reflecting about your own queerness, whatever that means to you, you're most likely acting out. And then it's not just you you're hurting. You're spreading this disease. You're killing our tribe.

EDGE: Let's switch gears. What's up with "Transparent"? I've heard the last season is actually going to be a full-length musical feature.

Alex: (laughing) I don't know what I'm allowed to say. Yes, it's an hour-and-a-half, maybe two-hour movie, and it's a musical. I actually go into the studio and lay some tracks down on Monday. It doesn't start filming until the end of January, I think?

EDGE: You're a chanteuse! A musical should be right up your alley. Are you excited?

Alex: I'm unbelievably excited. Jill Soloway is a goddamn genius. She's changed the face of television. After all we've been through with Jeffrey Tambor and his abhorrent behavior and all of the ramifications, to come to this kind of ending, where there is this sort of jubilance, is really beautiful.

EDGE: You've achieved so much, Alex. Is there a dream you haven't fulfilled?

Alex: Oh, hundreds! Do you want me to name them? I want to work with Meryl Streep. I want to do a show at Carnegie Hall. I want to play Mame on Broadway. I want to write my own play and have that produced out of town. I want to teach all over the world — Japan, Asia, Africa, the Antarctic, Alaska. I want to finish my autobiography. I want to write an acting book. I want to get a house. I want to get more cats. I want to see more of the ocean. I want to take more walks. I want to meet more people, and I want to keep learning. I want to stay curious about the world. That's my list.

EDGE: You're known for responding to haters on social media with a humorous, kind of kill-them-with-kindness attitude. How do you manage to meet cruelty with charity?

Alex: That's a good question... my mother used to say to me when I was really little, "You look at the world through rose-colored glasses." Throughout my life people have used that analogy. My wife used to say that to me. Once I answered back, "I know. Isn't it divine?" I don't know, I just believe... you're going to hate me, but I believe Donald Trump is doing the best he can. Is he a great person? No. Is he kind? No. Is he doing the righteous thing by way of humanity? No. But I really believe he's doing the best with what he knows.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.