Before Transparent, before I Am Cait, and before Chaz Bono was on Dancing with the Stars, there were trans performers, artists, and public figures who blazed the trails for the unprecedented level of visibility trans people see in our media today. And in the past week, two of them—the Lady Chablis, a performer made famous through the 1994 nonfiction best-seller and subsequent movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Alexis Arquette, of the Arquette family of actors—have passed away. Both shaped the public's perception of trans people before trans lives were as familiar to us all as they are now, and for that, we owe each a great debt.
Arquette was perhaps destined for fame, given their family name, and as the rare figure born into the public eye as a trans person, the struggle of dealing with that visibility defined much of their life. (At the time of their death, Arquette was "gender suspicious" and ambivalent about their preferred pronoun.) But rather than hide their gender identity, Arquette embraced it in early roles, like the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, where they played an uncredited, androgynous musician, or in their first major role at 19 years old, in the 1989 film Last Exit to Brooklyn, as a trans sex worker named Georgette. Even before "transgender" became part of the popular vernacular, Arquette shaped notions of what it was to be gender-nonconforming through their entertainment career.
Eventually, Arquette decided to use their career to bring national attention to trans issues with the 2007 documentary Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother, which chronicled their physical transformation into womanhood. Through therapy sessions, hormone treatment, and self-examination preceding sex confirmation (reassignment) surgery, Arquette allowed viewers to see the most intimate portions of their transition. The documentary stopped short of sharing details of whether they did or did not receive surgery, because Arquette remained adamant that they wanted to bring attention to trans issues, but that the intimate details of their body were not up for public discussion.
"It got to the point when I wasn't willing to answer the questions about hormones, surgeries, or genitalia because it felt like backstepping," they said at a press conference for the film's premiere. "It wasn't a subject that needs any more exploitation; it needs clarification." Their willingness to bring visibility to their gender nonconformism while refusing to allow their body to be made into a spectacle was, suffice it to say, groundbreaking—especially given that it happened almost a decade ago.
The Lady Chablis, for her part, would use outrageous humor to offset public nosiness about private identity issues.
Chablis stepped into the national spotlight in 1994, following the publication of John Berendt's best-selling nonfiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which chronicles the lives of outlandish residents of Savannah, Georgia. As a character in the book, she garnered adoration from readers with quips like "if I offended anyone, two tears in a bucket, honey. Motherfuck it." The book set a record, at 216 weeks, for length of time on the New York Times bestseller list; her scene-stealing appearance certainly helped.
And her appearance brought an intimate portrayal of one trans life into the popular American imagination: In her very first scene in the book, Chablis had just left the doctor after receiving hormone injections and proceeds to relate the experience of transitioning into a woman. An unprecedented account of the physical sensation of taking estrogen, trying to "pass" in public, and dating follows, wrapped up in her trademark sassy patois.
Following the success of Midnight, Chablis parlayed her notoriety into public appearances on Oprah, Entertainment Tonight, and even cooking segments on Good Morning America (her 1996 biography Hiding My Candy featured recipes like "Titillating Taters" and "Brenda's Beefy Surprise"). She insisted to Clint Eastwood that she portray herself in the 1997 movie adaptation of Midnight, which only added to her fame. Berendt would capture her rise in the introduction to Hiding My Candy: "Chablis has become a major tourist attraction in Savannah," he wrote. "Busloads of visitors, most of whom have never set foot in a gay club before, crowd into Club One to see her... Before Midnight, she made $250 a week, plus tips. Now she has a business manager, an agent, and a bodyguard."
Although the Lady Chablis worked in the context of drag, she lived as a woman. According to her biography, Chablis began dressing as a woman before she ever left home. It wasn't until Chablis was 18 that she discovered drag; Cliff Taylor (drag name Tina Devore) introduced Chablis to the art form at the FoxTrot club in Tallahassee; the two would eventually move to Atlanta and perform in cabarets. For Chablis, drag performance provided a reliable source of income, community, and social acceptance, which allowed her to continue living as a woman, and the queens she worked with in Atlanta encouraged Chablis to pursue hormone treatment at a local hospital.
It was a support network that encouraged her to live her life in public, with pride, and knock one more chip from the straight, white monolith that Hollywood, at that point, was. As a black trans woman entertainer, she provided inspiration to the likes of Laverne Cox, who wrote that Chablis "represents a generation of trans women entertainers we must never forget" in a tribute on Instagram.
Performers like Chablis and Arquette set the stage for stars like Cox to live publicly as trans people. While our society has a ways to go in terms of achieving trans equality, and Hollywood remains far from a paragon of trans representation, without Chablis and Arquette, what progress we have seen over the past decade would be impossible. Before Caitlin Jenner and Chaz Bono, Chablis and Arquette were sharing their stories publicly, despite the vulnerability it entailed, and they should be honored for their contributions to trans visibility as such.
Follow Matt Terrell on Twitter.