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How Trans Performer Alexis Arquette Kept Hollywood on Its Toes

Alexis's life—from their outfits to their acting—defied convention in all forms and practiced a maverick brand of trans activism we could all learn from today.

by Doran George
14 September 2016, 4:00am

Alexis Arquette at the Sundance Film Festival party for 'Wigstock: The Movie.' Photo courtesy Mark Tusk

On Sunday, it was reported that Alexis Arquette—sibling to Patricia, David, Rosanna, and Richmond Arquette, who was made famous through celebrated performances in films like Pulp Fiction and The Wedding Singer—died at 47, allegedly from an AIDS-related illness.

Writing about Alexis following the news is difficult, not because words could never sum up all that Alexis had to offer the world, nor because, in my deep fondness for Alexis, I find it hard to find the language to capture their life so soon after its end. Rather, the problem lies in the limits of English itself. They were limits which Alexis highlighted and exploited in their work, and limits which they rejected, along with the certainty of fixed gender identity and other kinds of black-and-white thinking.

Alexis came out as transgender in 2006. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of trans issues knows to use pronouns matching a person's elected gender as sign of respect. For years, I trained my partner to refer to Alexis using "she" and "her." But he recently retorted with gleeful indignation that "Alexis is now referring to himself as male," and indeed, this February, David Arquette is quoted as saying that Alexis had become "gender suspicious," rather than identifying as one gender or another. Such contrarian thought was delightfully typical of Alexis, who carried a whimsical and belligerent disregard for the rules of language or identity. As my sign of respect, I'll thus use singular "they" here as Alexis's pronoun.

In their acting work, Alexis refused to take on demeaning or stereotypical transgender characters in film roles—but, beyond the performances they chose, Alexis never let the world forget exactly what gender non-conformity can mean. On myriad red carpets, they dazzled in outfits that combined Grey Gardens–quirkiness with Warholian pop-culture-meets-visual-art sophistication, outfits that taught the world exactly how to laugh at the boxes that society tries to cram us all into.

Alexis's unique kind of commentary was not limited to fashion. For example, when Michael Musto, in an interview for OUT, asked them to talk about how trans people are represented in the media, Alexis insisted that things aren't black-and-white, saying that they "don't have the answers." Rather than resort to a press-ready spin about equality, Alexis turned the conversation to how the media had mishandled a recent controversy: The response to a quip they'd made in an interview with Frontiers Magazine—that they'd slept with Jared Leto before identifying as a woman and that the actor was, to put it lightly, well-endowed. The claim lit a fire in the press, but rather than let it burn down, Alexis threw gas upon the flames by telling Musto that Leto had also slept with a trans woman they knew.

At the time the interview was published, activists and commentators were hotly debating whether casting Leto as a transgender woman, Rayon, in Dallas Buyers Club, was appropriate, rather than hiring a trans performer. And to those who could read between the lines, Alexis's controversial remarks to Musto felt like an oblique comment on that debate. By redirecting the focus away from trans representations in media to Jared's genitalia and sexuality, Alexis opened the actor's body to the kind of scrutiny that celebrities like Laverne Cox, Caitlin Jenner, Anhoni, and Alexis all routinely experience—speculation that turns the bodies of trans people into a site of spectacle.

Alexis arguably helped to teach the world what it means to be visibly transgender in the entertainment industry, while simultaneously achieving delicious retaliation for that Hollywood double standard in which straight men can win the industry's highest accolade for playing transgender characters while actual trans performers struggle just to get work. Playing court Jester to Los Angeles's celebrity elite, Alexis kept Hollywood on its toes, even as Hollywood failed to fully seize the opportunities that Alexis offered its writers, casting directors, and producers with their talent.

Don't get me wrong; a filmography of 70 enviable roles is nothing to sniff at. But the achievements I want to highlight don't easily comport with typical obituary fare. Despite the red carpets, Alexis was never destined to have a portrait taken with Hillary Clinton or be on the cover of Time. No disrespect to Laverne Cox—we have good reason to love her—but I feel Alexis engaged in a maverick breed of trans activism.

Alexis made flouting entertainment-industry norms into a fine art of words, outfits, and postures. By turning LA's club scene into their creative laboratory, Alexis cultivated a flair for red-carpet gender-fashion bombing and interview repartee. Through intoxicating Punk-Glam outfits, and as a cabaret circuit favorite, Alexis was able to distill the style they brought to underground film projects. Flaunted as an on-screen narrator in Wigstock: The Movie, and paraded on TV talk shows, Alexis was a Leigh Bowery of celebrity culture and learned to deal with notoriety in a way that blazed a trail for transgender celebrities and actors who came after.

And in their genre-bending documentary, Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother, Alexis refused to let their body become a site of spectacle. The film depicts Alexis fighting on camera for medical treatment on their own terms, in which they claim a female identity but refuse to reveal to the audience whether they have or would ever surgically transition. If audiences left theaters a little bewildered, they took with them the gift that Alexis offered to LA and the larger world: With Alexis, you learned to expect to get what you needed, instead of what you thought you wanted.

Doran George is a social historian and performance artist who writes on sexual culture and avant-garde dance. Their artwork and scholarship is represented in art books, Oxford University Press anthologies, and journals, including a piece about how trans artists, including Alexis, navigate visibility for Transgender Studies Quarterly.Doran currently lectures in Disability Studies and LGBTQ Studies at UCLA.

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Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother