Skip to main content
Home » Living With HIV & AIDS » Alexandra Billings on Fighting Stigma and Remembering History in the Battle Against HIV
Living With HIV & AIDS

Alexandra Billings on Fighting Stigma and Remembering History in the Battle Against HIV

Alexandra Billings

Actress, singer, and professor Alexandra Billings sheds light on the ongoing struggles of LGBTQ+ individuals against HIV discrimination, and how remembering our history can help.

Going up against so many societal stigmas, it can be easy to become combative and jaded. How have you remained so open-minded and always coming from a place of understanding when faced with people who are transphobic or otherwise hateful toward you?

Well, I’m old. I know how that sounds! I say that with great gratefulness and joy, because I was told that I wasn’t going to live very long when I was diagnosed with HIV. So, when I say I’m old, I can’t believe I’m saying it, because I shouldn’t be here. For me, the longer I’ve been on the planet, the more grateful I have become, and the more I have tried to see bullies for what they are. My very first bully was my own brother in my own house, so I grew up with someone who was very unhappy most of the time and who was told in no uncertain terms that he had to be perfect. He had to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, so I feel like a lot of these bullies are frightened kids who crave an audience. It’s hurtful and it makes me angry, but at the same time, I don’t understand the value in two people standing in the middle of the street screaming at each other. That doesn’t solve anything. For me, I feel like I need to just be patient and then address the actual problem.

Did you experience any stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS when you were first diagnosed?

Well, everybody died. I mean, I have maybe three or four friends left from that time. We’re the first older queer generation that’s still around. This particular generation has survived a plague that only we understand. There are people that were brought up as it was happening, but we were there before it, during it, and after it.

We speak with great gravity when it comes to this time. The prejudice that surrounded us when we were in our 20s was completely unexpected. Because of the gay liberation movement, we were all going, “Hey, we get to have sex with each other. Hurray, finally!” Then (because of the HIV epidemic), everybody went, “Yes, and then you’ll die.”

Not only that, but the government went “Fantastic! This is great. Now we don’t have to worry about it, they’ll all be dead. Then we’ll just carry on!” That still rings in my ear.

What was that like to endure and stand up to?

Nobody considered themselves courageous or brave in any way. We were literally just trying to survive. That’s all we were trying to do. All I wanted to do was just like, go get some pants at the GAP. As people were dying, we had to save what was left of our community, or we knew we would all expire. We knew that’s what they wanted. We marched because we had to, not because we wanted to.

What changes have you seen in how the public responds to HIV and AIDS?

I’m a professor at the University of Southern California where I teach acting, and I have an exercise called “5 Facts About Us.” I always write, “I have AIDS.” When I used to do this, the whole room shifted. I mean, you could feel that people were horrified for me.

Now I say it, and it’s like I just said, “Pass the peanut butter.” Now people are so disconnected from it, which in a way is good. But at the same time, we want to make sure that people understand that HIV is still very much alive and thriving in the queer community, especially for queer people of color. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great that it’s becoming part of the vernacular, but also, we want to make sure that we don’t lose the history.

Why is it still so important that we keep on talking about HIV and AIDS?

There are lives to be saved. I mean, it really is that simple. It’s still happening, it’s still blossoming, it’s still flourishing. Yes, there are life-saving medications, but those medications have unbelievable side effects. Some people can’t tolerate them, and a lot of queer people still don’t have insurance.

We have a lot to deal with here. It’s not always as simple as taking one pill. We need to remember that this has a history of revolution that’s attached to it. When we talk about this disease, we have to talk about the humans who gave their lives so we can survive today, and remember that our community is based on revolution.

The virus is never going to go away. It’s like the flu. The virus itself has changed because of medical science, but the world around it has also changed the virus because we, the queer community, were forced to understand compassion and empathy. Hopefully, in the future, it will become even more preventable and manageable. To get there, it’s going to require dialogue, especially in our community, because we cannot lose the history of queerness in HIV. The warriors, the champions, the villains, we cannot lose that history. If we do, we’re doomed to repeat it. We need to listen, listen, listen more, and pay attention, because it’s not going anywhere.

Next article