Alexandra Billings is an actress and teacher, now appearing in the Golden Globe award winning Transparent on Amazon
Paul was short and stocky and had mint green eyes that flared every time he passed me in the halls of our junior high school in Schaumburg, Ill. When I walked down the hallway, my mere movement, the sheer idea of my hips swaying or my hands unclenched, caused a visceral rage in Paul that reverberated throughout the entire school. I wasn’t supposed to act like that. I wasn’t supposed to sway, and I wasn’t supposed to glide. Thirteen year boys moved in very specific ways, and because the body I inhabited told everyone I was male, I was breaking far too many rules. And it made Paul angry. It made a lot of people angry.
One afternoon, Paul told me during lunch that he was going to beat me up, and that I was to meet him after school by the front of the local football field. Having never hit anyone before in my life, and thinking he had to be kidding, I showed up. I was followed by a crowd of people, and there, in the middle of a large circle of other boys, stood Paul. His arms were puffed out as if he was ready to draw a gun from its holster, and his jacket was in the dirt next to his feet. I was absolutely terrified. I found myself standing in the center of an ever-building circle of students, all moving closer and holding on tightly to books and bags, readying themselves for a show or a spectacle. I felt a surge through me that seem to paralyze the soles of me feet. The sun beating down on the top of my head and my palms sweating, I stood frozen in both fear and intimidation. I had nowhere to go. There was no one to save me and no one to run to. And there seem to be an expectation that was historic, learned, almost generational churning in the pit of my belly.
Men fought. That’s what men did. Men didn’t run. They stayed and they fought. I would either stay and fight, or escape and be labeled a coward.
Visions of bad Kung Fu movies flashed through me, and that being my sole reference, I flung off my jacket, kicked off my shoes and jumped in front of him, making a loud “ha!” from the pit of my belly. I then put my arms up and sported a Bruce Lee shape I’d seen on a recent poster. The next thing I remember is being down on the ground, blood coming from my nose, and my head spinning so quickly that the sky looked like a Monet painting.
I remember after that fight as I lay on the ground, that through the squint of my eyes and as the sun beat down on my belly, I felt the hand of my pal, Carmen reach toward me, and hoist me to my feet. He dusted me off and held me at the small of the back, propping me up as I wavered from side to side The crowd broke up and I braced myself as we began the long, humiliating journey home, blood still trickling from the corner of my mouth.
“You okay?” he asked holding on tight.
I wept. Softly, and with great breath in the pit of his arm and we moved forward towards home.
As I sat the kitchen table, my head in my hands and my shirt torn and shoes muddied, I wept into the towel I held against my nose. I heard the keys jingle at the garage door, and my mother enter the house, laying down her purse as she always did and climbing the stairs toward me. The last time my mother saw me broken was when I was being chased down the street by a boy who screamed Faggot at the top of his lungs as I ran towards the house, shattering and tripping up the path to the front door. She flung open the screen, pushed me inside and told me to stop yelling as we had neighbors.
So I sat, lower and lower in the dining room chair and tried my best to hide the blood and remove the shame. She flew by me, her brown hair flipped off to the side and pouring a glass of water at the sink.
“How was school?” she said sweetly, turning toward me with the water in her hand.
“I dunno.” I remember sort of saying.
“What happened? What happened?!” she repeated.
“He hit me.” Was all I could manage.
And her face changed. She sat down next to me, her cool hands on my forehead and removing the bloodied napkin looking carefully, as mother’s do, at the cut and my smashed-in nose. I saw the regret in her and I felt the shift. There was concern and there was caution, but there was little care.
“Well. Well…..what did you do to provoke him?” she asked quietly and with little inflection.
And so it went. And so I learned. And so it was.
There’s a jubilation in me and a freedom that’s undeniable as I look at my life as a 53-year-old transgender person. In 1980, when I began my transition, I was arrested for not having two pairs of what the police deemed to be “male clothing” on, and spent two days in jail. I have been thrown out of apartments, laughed out of grocery stores and beaten and raped by a guy in a ski mask as I passed an alley in downtown Chicago one winter night, and through all these events, I have tried to figure out why everyone’s so angry at me. There’s a great fear in newness. There’s a terror when you feel as if you’re being dragged into the unknown by people you don’t trust. This fear masquerades as rage. And because this is true, myself, and my brothers and sisters in our tribe have been hunted, murdered, ignored and betrayed. The bully in the schoolyard comes at us from all directions, and we need safe places. When I was younger, I had none. As I got older, I had some. And now, an entire generation, who is moving and changing and making up brand new rules, needs help in creating even more.
I have been thinking about Paul, lately. He’s been with me this last week. I tried looking him up on Facebook, but his last name is fairly common, and there were too many to think of sending a letter from the transgender lesbian living with AIDS and voted “Best Actor” in junior high school who he beat to a bloody pulp one day by the public pool to each of them. But I have been dreaming of him lying back on his sofa, safe in his house, affected by the transition the country is going through. The rage we seem to be expressing and the loss of beauty and grace we seem to be living in. And then I see Carmen. I see his brown eyes and I feel his hands and I still hear his voice and I know that there are safe places and that they reside in the center of who we all are. That help is on the way and that more Angels are needed. For when I am helped to me feet, I then learn how to help myself, and I am able to stand, with or without assistance.
So I dreamed of Paul. And I dreamed that he is quietly, under his breath, dreaming of me as well, and coming to terms with what it was that compelled him to go toward me so violently. I dreamed that we are together, dreaming of what is, and not of what was. And because both of us live right here, right now, neither of us can deny who we’ve finally become. Me in my journey towards newness and Paul in his path toward acceptance. In this, I can only hope he is with himself and others and in a way that is about kindness, compassion and understanding. I picture him now the head of an LGBT Youth Center somewhere in a City that is full of circles of students crowding around him, asking for his help. That is what I hope, anyway.
And that is acceptance. And that is change. And that is the safest place any of us can ever be.
By Alexandra Billings