Alexis Arquette on the Politics of Gender Change

Seventeen-year-old Alexis Arquette landed her first acting role in 1986 playing a transgender in "Last Exit To Brooklyn." Eighteen years later, she went through a real transition from man to woman. Arquette, an actress, musician and cabaret drag performer, comes from a family of actors that includes siblings Patricia, David, Richmond and Rosanna Arquette, father Lewis Arquette and grandfather Cliff Arquette. She's done almost 70 films—mostly indie, some adult—but one of her most memorable roles was as the Boy George character in 1998's "The Wedding Singer." "I did play transgender characters that were comedy roles and I feel bad about that now," says Arquette, 37. "That Boy George character, it's offensive to me now." She's now starring in a forthcoming A&E documentary about her transition, "Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother," which just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

NEWSWEEK: Why do a documentary on something so personal?
ALEXIS ARQUETTE: I decided to document my transition partly because I wanted clarification for myself, but primarily because I wanted to challenge some of things that transgender people have to go through if they want to transition with a doctor in America. A lot of it came out of my conflicts with the standards of care and the idea that we need counseling before an elective surgery. It's questioning that the sanity of people like myself, that we can't make these decisions for ourselves, and doctors or specialists can say no if they don't feel confident with who we are.

It's almost a political issue then, too?
There's no sound-bite compact enough to cover this subject. I wish it could be boxed up and passed out in pretty packages, but it can't be. It's not just that it's a multilayered subject, but it's also different for every person like me. It's hard because I'm using my fame, and exploiting it, but in a positive way to do something beneficial as opposed to catastrophic—which is what we're constantly doing to ourselves as a group. I'll say it a million times—my documentary is a vain pursuit, and I can see why a lot of people could say gays are narcissistic, but it is just as important. Until all of us can feel we can walk down the street without ridicule, none of us really will ever be safe from Hitler's Gestapo.

Even before you came out as gay or transgender, you were playing a transsexual in "Last Exit To Brooklyn,"
I was 17, in art school and in the closet. I came out after that film as a gay male. I went from people seeing the performance and saying, "Wow, this is a young Al Pacino!" to having a lot of roles dry up because I came out as gay. But luckily because I was really fervent about showing up at auditions and working, I've been in, like 70 movies. I defied them. I kept working—some gay roles, some not. I got to play a commanding officer in a movie about Navy Seals. I was the character who slept with all the women and got them pregnant.

Were you worried that your transition would kill your career?
I had no concerns. I knew immediately it would not be a burial of my career, but opportunities would be few and far between. But I'm also at a different point in my career. As a young actor, you go out, audition, struggle, that's what you do. But I've worked enough, if they want to work with me they can make an offer and call. If they want to get me in the room, jerk my chain, I'm not into that. People would say that's snooty as an actor, I don't care. Is it because I'm gay or transgendered I have to come in and do sideshow freak thing for you? Well I won't.

How did your family react to you coming out as transgender?
This is the kind of thing that was kept under the rug, even in my progressive family. It's the kind of thing you don't want to acknowledge, that people might think is ugly or it may bring ridicule. But they weren't ashamed of me, it was more like they were trying to protect me from myself, and that becomes a weird thing. They were fiercely defensive of me.

You've presented yourself in so many ways—gay man, drag queen, woman, Navy Seal— so it's literally impossible for people to label you.
I grew up at a time with androgyny in the 1980s, it was easy to pass under the radar as a gay may. Yes, I am transgendered but I also am a cross-dresser—I dress as a woman. It's not that I just want to be seen as a female in our society, I'm also a drag queen and a performer—there are many levels there. I started grappling with all the boxes one has to fit into and all the flags I was willing to wave, and I started to realize it's hard to fit into one realm and be a productive member of society. I realized I'm not the kind of person who wants to go with the flow and fit in. I'm an agitator, I'm opinionated, I'm a libertine and leader. I wasn't willing to fall in line.

Do you still identify with drag?
Yes. All cultures have drag. The forefathers of our national wore wigs and makeup while their wives sat at home in drab colors with cropped hair. Look at animals—birds. The females are brown and sitting in the nest, while the males are colorful and flouncing around. Women do not have a monopoly on femininity and men do not have a monopoly on masculinity. It's a dance some people take seriously and some don't, and it's OK both ways. I take it pretty seriously but I also see the humor in it.

How do you think Hollywood views gays and transgenders in their ranks? You think it would be more open-minded than most professions.
When I came out as gay, people would immediately say, "Oh, so you weren't really acting when you did that role?" They seemed more comfortable with heterosexuals playing transgendered and gay. They don't really want to see the real thing. I know there was a time in the '40s and '50s when white actors played blacks and Asians, but we've got to a point with the civil-rights movement when that became a minstrel show that people were offended by. It never became that way for heteros playing gays.

Why is it so important to challenge traditional gender roles?
I feel annoyed that I'm affected by the trappings of male and female in this world. I feel I'm limited. It's heavy stuff. I don't want to think my happiness depends on something that covers our flesh. The vagina and a penis are very different, but humans at our core are all very similar. Pull all the facial hair out and we're not that different.

What about self-identity?
If all of your life is riding on wearing that cowboy hat and no one ever sees your pink frillies, than how strong is your self-identity? Are you really a man just because you dress like one? What are real men and real women? How about real people. Do men have to kill and women have to heal? I think everyone knows we're all capable of the same.

Your life is, and always has been, very public. What was it like struggling with your gender in the limelight?
Do I wish I lived in a world where I could just take a deep breath and exist like others and pass under the radar? Yes, but I was as a gay male doing that. People on the street just saw me as male, and it was a safe place to be, the closet. But I came to a point where I'd rather be harangued daily, all day long, and allowed to be myself. Or feel free to be this one day and that the other, and not worry about it. This is a fight, it's a struggle. But it's somebody else's fight. The people who have a problem with it—it's their fight.

When your documentary is released in theaters, that's yet another big public moment, and it deals very directly with you sexuality.
I'm a transgendered female who started as a male, I'm now female, you know all those things, so why do we need to go further than that? They don't need to know about my genitalia because it becomes sexual then—it's not about gender. Unless I'm getting ready to sleep with someone—we're falling in love, we're dating—we can talk. But you see me as female if I still have one part that's male, or I've gone through the complete surgery. Sure I may be limiting the kind of heterosexual men that I'm dating, but it's a personal, private thing. There are a lot of people who are attracted to people like myself because they like boobs and a penis, and let's just be honest about that. They like she-males.

When someone says the word transgender, most people think: man trapped in a woman's body, or vice versa. Do you agree?
I'm not correcting a mistake. I don't feel I was born female. I was born transgender for a reason, so I can transition. You can talk about butterflies, human evolution, any species trying to spread it's wings and find new ways to survive. Who knows, are transgender people an indication that we as a race are starting to realize that there's something wrong on the earth and they we need to find other options? Men have to realize they have nipples because they started out as the prototype—female. I'm just returning to the fold.