Many people have more memories of Alexis Arquette than I do, but few seem to know better than I which gender pronoun to use to remember her. Or him. This was not helped by the statement released about her (or his) death on Monday by his (or her) brother Richmond, who wrote on his Facebook page: “Our brother Robert, who became our sister Alexis, who became our brother Alexis, passed this morning . . .” The always deferential Huffington Post was thrown for a loop, and noted at the end of its article on Arquette’s death that it had “reached out to a representative for Alexis for further clarification on how the actor identified at the time of death.”
I briefly met Alexis Arquette—who I thought was excellent in Pulp Fiction and probably even better in The Wedding Singer—in January or February of 2002, while working the door at a party hosted by a friend of a friend. My job was to cross off names on the VIP guest list when, and if, the VIPs arrived (as VIPs so rarely do), and take money from the everyone else, in exchange for which I was promised a percentage of the host’s profits, which on the three or four times I performed this function never exceeded zero. The party was targeted primarily to homosexual men, and I, as a heterosexual man, was regarded as something of a novelty. On the night Alexis Arquette appeared on the guest list, I expected her to show up looking like her character from The Wedding Singer, a Karma Chameleon-era Boy George imitator. Instead, he (to use the pronoun most suited to the outfit) was makeup-free in sneakers and jeans and a baseball cap. The get-up left me perplexed: It was early 2002, as I mentioned, and though we—the collective cis white masculine we— knew about transvestites and drag queens and knew what a sex change was (something that usually happened in Thailand), our understanding of what it meant to be transgender was still inchoate. I was also wearing a baseball cap that night—a bootleg Gucci baseball hat I’d purchased at the famous Melrose Avenue vintage- and recycled-fashion mecca Wasteland—and after I crossed his name off the list, Alexis Arquette looked at it for a moment appreciatively before saying, “Gucci down.” I didn’t know exactly what it meant but it was clearly an affirmation; I thanked him and that was that.
A little more than five years later, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner made local and national news when he published a column announcing he’d be taking a short vacation from the newspaper and returning not as Mike Penner but Christine Daniels. In “Old Mike, New Christine,” Penner characterized his “transsexualism,” as he denominated it, as a “widely misunderstood medical condition.” He claimed that “extensive therapy and testing [had] confirmed” that his “brain was wired female,” and quoted a “transgender friend” who told him: “We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.”
I remember bristling at Penner’s column. I’d studied with the great French feminist Monique Wittig, whose contention that “one is not born a woman” was not a reiteration but a radical intensification of Beauvoir’s axiom. In an essay titled for that axiom, Wittig writes: “Thus it is our [feminists’] historical task . . . to define what we call oppression in materialist terms, to make it evident that women are a class, which is to say that the category ‘woman’ as well as the category ‘man’ are political and economic categories, not eternal ones.” For Wittig, to propagate for any reason the notion that we are born gendered was ultimately to reproduce the history of oppression sustained by such an absurd myth. As a committed Wittigian who’s caught a whiff of Lacan along the way, I remain quite certain that gender is not a natural, biological, or for that matter medical condition, but rather a coordinate in the symbolic order. And while I believe, unequivocally, that no force that restricts our (ultimately doomed) efforts to identify ourselves with whatever place in the symbolic order corresponds most perfectly to our (inexistent) authentic self should ever be tolerated, I also believe that when transgender activism, and the commitment to raising transgender awareness, becomes an affirmation of gender essentialism—the notion that one is born into the world a woman or a man, male or female in a non-anatomical sense—the best we can hope for is Caitlyn Jenner. And as far as trailblazers for purportedly progressive causes go, I find Caitlyn Jenner kind of a bummer.
Which brings me back to where I began. Yesterday, a friend who claimed to know what she was talking about informed me that Arquette had been recently identifying as “liquid gendered.” It may or may not be true, but it strikes me as a healthy way to think of gender in general, and a quite lovely way to remember someone to whom death presented itself, according to Arquette’s brother Richmond, as merely the next transition.