“The Danger is Larger Because the Voice is Bigger.” Alexandra Billings on the Surge in Anti-Trans Legislation
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Award-winning actor and LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activist Alexandra Billings joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the spate of recent anti-Trans bills and American misogyny. Billings reads from her new memoir, This Time for Me, and talks about her life as a Trans woman, her career as a teacher, and her experiences on the show Transparent.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: It’s kind of hard to count these up. We spent some time trying to figure this out: 150 anti-Trans bills have been proposed in 35 states across the country. Some of these bills have been stopped. Others have been signed into law, like the bill signed by Arizona governor Doug Ducey prohibiting Transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. Others are pending. Of course, American politicians have felt that anti-Trans sentiment is a good political move before. So does this new state of legislation represent a dangerous acceleration of anti-Trans sentiment? Or does it just represent the status quo in America?
Alexandra Billings: Yes to both. This has been true for generations. I’m 60 years old. I began my transition in 1980, and I’ve been having the same conversations with the same groups of people for decades, ever since that time. In fact, I was on a show a million years ago called The Phil Donahue Show, if any of you remember that.
WT: We’re the same generation, Alex—right there with you for Phil Donahue.
AB: I feel so much better now. So on that show, when I was with some other performers from the Baton in Chicago, a woman in the back stood up and asked us all which bathroom we used. They’re the same people, the same political affiliations—they’ve gotten more extreme as time has gone by because they have more permission. We have more people in the government now that give them permission; we also have the advent of social media, which now gives those kinds of people an international, global platform.
The danger is larger because the voice is bigger. There has always been, ever since I can remember—and the generation before me used to tell me the same thing—anti-Trans sentiment. What we’re talking about here is misogyny. We’re talking about a country steeped in patriarchal ideology, because when they talk about Trans people, notice all of those Trans bills are all about Trans women and not about Trans men. They’re about Trans women.
WT: That’s very interesting.
AB: It’s because we are terrified of the feminization of the American male, and we are considered men. Men with surgery, men in dresses, men with a disease, men with a disorder. You can be a woman and wear pants, that’s great. But you cannot be a man and wear a dress, that’s against the law. And they actually now are making those laws. I have been arrested before, in the 1980s, for walking across the street. There were laws on the book, they were called indecency laws, and they don’t seem so archaic anymore. But I was arrested simply because I wasn’t wearing two articles of what they deemed male clothing underneath my fabulous Norma Kamali, I have to say.
And when I was arrested, I said, “Why are you arresting me?” At the time I was a sex worker, so I told him, “I’m walking, I’m not working. I’m just walking, I’m going to the 7-Eleven.” And he said, “No, no, you have to have two articles of male clothing on at all times.” And I thought, I don’t know what you mean, like tube socks? What are you talking about? It’s insane. I want to be really clear about what we’re talking about. We’re talking about very typical, common American misogyny. That’s what Transphobia is founded in.
WT: That is a remarkable passage from the book, and we’re going to read from it later on in the show. I also was amazed—I connect this ideology with authoritarianism, and I noticed that Putin decided to talk about his anti-Trans stance and worrying about being canceled for talking about Trans issues in a state speech. It’s so strange to me that there’s a connection between the American misogyny that you’re talking about and what we’re seeing in other countries that are moving rightward, and using that as well.
AB: Yeah, I agree with you. The only reason I don’t say global misogyny—I believe that that’s true—is because I don’t live in those countries. I only speak about America because I live here, but I agree with you. Yes, it’s misogyny, period, absolutely. No question. remember, back in the 1980s and 90s, when the AIDS plague—you know, this is my second viral plague, and the first viral plague that happened wiped out most every single one of my friends. That administration, which was Ronald Reagan’s administration, took them four years to even say the word AIDS or HIV for years. So we lost hundreds of thousands of people who were dying at that time, because the disease began in the gay male community. And again, when you’re a gay male, that’s against the law. So at the time, it was killing all the right people.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I really appreciate your precision with language here, and I have another question about it, thinking about these new laws that have been passed in recent years. Idaho passed the first law related to Transgender sports participation in 2020. So much of the discourse I see around this is also, as you note, misogynistic, though that law was blocked in court. West Virginia passed a similar law and nine other states followed.
And then most recently, Whitney mentioned Doug Ducey, who has just proposed a similar ban, and I’m quoting him here. He says, “Every young Arizona athlete should have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities that give them a sense of belonging and allow them to grow and thrive.” I’m curious to hear you talk about the language here because to me, it seems designed to dehumanize and put Trans athletes outside any human category. They’re not included. When he says “every young Arizona athlete,” he’s not including Trans athletes.
AB: I’ve been playing girls sports for 45 years. I’ve been using women’s public restrooms for 30 years. These people have been playing sports with us, and going to the bathroom with us, and having their teeth cleaned by us. We’re lawyers, we’re doctors, we’re their neighbors, we’re their babysitters. I’m also a teacher. I’ve been teaching their children for four decades, so this isn’t new. What’s new is we are louder. We’re taking up more space. Trans people didn’t appear in the 1980s because everyone was doing too much cocaine. There’s an entire generation that feels like we just popped up, that’s all this trend stuff. We have found an identity because we found a container to put ourselves before we weren’t called anything. And if you go back in history, we’re in Greek mythology, we’re in all the history books.
The reason I tell you all of this is because what they’re trying to do is eradicate us. They believe we are an idea. If you listen to people like Marjorie Greene, she speaks as if we are an idea, literally a philosophy, that has got to be stopped. And again, remember, we’re mostly talking about Trans women. Mostly, we’ve got to be stopped, and if we just stopped it, if we just stopped behaving that way, because it’s all behavior, then everything would go back to what they claim feels normal. Here’s the thing we have to remember if, in fact, every single Trans woman—again, we’re talking about Trans women—we’re bigger, faster, stronger, and more agile than every single cis woman on the planet Earth. That’s a pretty large statement to make without backing it up by statistics; we don’t have those. We have zero statistics about hormone level, chromosomal level, testosterone blockers; we have zero statistics about any of that.
I can tell you something from my own marriage: I met this human being in 1976, we’ve been together now for 46 years, she is stronger than I am, she can lift things faster than I can. I can outrun her, thank goodness, but that’s the only thing. And she is a cisgender—meaning female-born—female, identifies mostly as a female, and I am Trans. We are literally a couple that breaks every single one of their rules. So in short, what’s happening is they’re trying to say to the world, these Trans women are just an idea. And if we stop them from participating in anything that involves public, visual, aural, or emotional truth, we will stop them altogether. That’s what they believe. And that’s what they’re succeeding in doing. That’s the scary part.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Todd Loughran, Sarah Conner, Yara Salamed, and Anne Kniggendorf.