It shouldn’t be that hard to just exist. But in suburban Chicago in the 1960s, a 6-year-old boy who found joy in wearing sparkly dresses was not accepted. “Every time I wore a new outfit,” she wrote, “something somewhere lit up inside me.” When Billings’ mother, the person she loved most in the world, told her that what she wore wasn’t for boys, the fundamental lesson she learned was that to exist she had to lie. about who she really was.
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The following years were tumultuous, filled with self-loathing and suicidal ideation compounded by relentless bullying in full view of adults who never helped. Discovering theater in high school was his salvation. On stage, singing and acting was where she felt happiest. Having no better language to express who she was, she revealed to her mother that she was gay, even though that label seemed “incomplete, wrong”. When she was 17, as she swallowed the contents of a bottle of Tylenol in a serious but unsuccessful attempt to end her pain, an episode of “The Phil Donahue Show” caught her eye. It featured three glitteringly beautiful ‘women’ [who] weren’t women, and yet they were,” and for the first time she saw herself in someone else.
Recognition was progress, but navigating the queer community of the 1980s was still difficult. Billings spent the next decade making a name for herself in Chicago as a drag performer called Shanté. It was a time when violent hate crimes against gay people were commonplace, same-sex dating was illegal, and men could be jailed for wearing “women’s clothes without two men’s clothes”. She spent four years as a sex worker for a living (one of her clients was a US senator, she writes) and began a long dance with drug addiction to escape her pain and rage.
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The person from her childhood that she stayed in regular contact with was her best friend from high school, comedian Chrisanne, who eventually became his wife. Billings found kinship with other performers, who housed, educated and encouraged her, acting as her surrogate family. The devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic has been immense. As her friends were dying, she says, she asked her mother if she could go home if she got sick. “I don’t think so,” was her mother’s reply. They never spoke again.
It took rehab and then a slow process of understanding and acceptance to realize that she wasn’t a gay man in drag; it was a woman. She quit performing as Shanté and began a new journey as Alexandra, learning 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 on my acting” – to Hollywood and Broadway, where she recently starred as Madame Morrible in “Wicked.” ”
When “Transparent” first appeared on television, the ground was beginning to shift in Hollywood’s portrayal of the LGBTQIA community. While the popular show was hailed with awards, Tambor faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Billings weighs in on Tambor’s behavior here, detailing bouts of “harassment and rage-filled outbursts,” and she’s also brutally honest about her own failures. After witnessing unwanted verbal and physical encounters between Tambor and others on set, including herself, she needed to believe that everything was okay, so she “stayed there and did absolutely nothing. “.
Such frank veracity is the hallmark of his writing, despite the first sentence of chapter 1: “I am lying”. His sense of humor radiates from the pages. Although she was abused 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 stripes. .
Becky Meloan writes a monthly column on new and notable books.
Topple Books & Little A. 446 p. $24.95
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