David Arquette sets the record straight on gender, HIV and his late sister’s legacy
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
On September 11, 2016, the first guitar chords of the David Bowie song “Starman” could be heard in a corridor at Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. It was coming from a room where, moments before, Alexis Arquette died at the age of forty-seven, after battling a liver infection, and, finally, a heart attack. She died surrounded by her brothers and sisters, part of the Arquette acting dynasty. “Starman” was one of Alexis’ favorite songs, and on the list of songs she requested to be played when she passed.
Alexis Arquette was hailed in obituaries as a transgender pioneer. But in reality she had a long career dry spell and a more complicated and nuanced relationship to gender than many knew. She was featured in a 2007 documentary, She’s My Brother, where she underwent sex reassignment surgery. Not long after the film came out, Alexis told family and friends that she was no longer committed to living as a woman, and felt like both a man and woman.
Even the Facebook post by her eldest brother, Richmond, in announcing her death, acknowledged her gender fluidity. “Our brother Robert, who became our brother Alexis, who became our sister Alexis, who became our brother Alexis [has] passed.” The Facebook post continued, saying that, “As per his wishes, we cheered at the moment that he transitioned to another dimension.”
For sake of clarity, A&U will use the female name and pronoun, just as Alexis’s younger brother, actor, producer, and writer David Arquette, did when I spoke with him.
Days after Alexis’ passing, it was revealed that her illness and death were the result of HIV, which she had contracted nearly thirty years earlier. Alexis Arquette’s death and revelation of being a long-term HIV survivor came as a shock to Hollywood. Because, in 2017, how could someone with access to lifesaving AIDS medications actually die from the virus?
David Arquette told me that dying from HIV/AIDS shouldn’t have come as shock, not if you knew Alexis and not if you understand the nature of the virus.
“She just didn’t take her meds on a regular basis,” he said. “That’s something you can’t do. It makes the medicine ineffective. You have to be diligent. We went to doctors’ appointments [together]. But when she started feeling great, she would stop taking the meds.”
When I asked David to explain Alexis’ casual attitude about HIV treatment, he sighed and said, simply, “Alexis was a free spirit. She never wanted to be told what to do.”
When David talked about Alexis, it’s not hard to see the frustration of trying to love and protect someone who, David admits, lived on her own terms. Now more than a year after Alexis’ death, the shock has worn off but the pain is still just under the surface.
In our conversation, David would sometimes grimace, or shrug or shake his head. Then he would suddenly burst out laughing at a memory, like the time when Alexis inexplicably put up a Boy Scout tent on her balcony. Or about an incident decades ago, when he and sister Patricia and brother Richmond were roughed up while protecting Alexis from some drunken homophobic frat boys in Toronto.
I asked how one could accurately describe someone with so many contradictions. David went quiet—he does this a lot—and then came up with a word, defender. “She would look after the new kids in town. A lot of trans kids or gay kids and straight kids. She felt like she needed to protect them.”
David recalled a second-hand story about Alexis at some big Hollywood party where booze and cocaine were abundant, and Alexis stepped in to keep an eighteen-year-old L.A. newbie, Marcus, from getting hooked. “Alexis busted into the bathroom, grabbed Marcus and told the person who was supplying [the coke], ‘Don’t you ever give that to him again. He’s innocent.’”
Alexis came out as HIV-positive to the family when she was in her early twenties, right after she came out as gay and several years before she came out as trans.
“It was at a time when [HIV] was a death sentence, so it was shocking and sad,” David said. “We grew through the process. In fact our mom became a marriage and family counselor, and her thesis was on the effect of HIV on the family dynamic.”
When I asked David why Alexis didn’t speak out about having HIV, he said stigma in the entertainment industry kept her silent. He suggested that the time she got her diagnosis may have had something to do with it. Getting diagnosed with HIV in 1989, well before antiretrovirals came onto the market, was thought of as a death sentence. And, while HIV stigma and ignorance still exist, it was much, much worse then.
For someone so extremely outspoken, someone who stood up for people and what she believed, like being openly trans before a lot of people accepted that, to not be open about [HIV] says a lot about stigma
“For someone so extremely outspoken, someone who stood up for people and what she believed, like being openly trans before a lot of people accepted that, to not be open about [HIV] says a lot about stigma,” David said.
Now more than a year after Alexis’ death, David said her memory stays with him daily. Even when he talked about his upcoming gigs and producing roles, the conversation would veer back to Alexis.
“I often play ’80s music to remind me of her. That’s where she owned who she was and started performing at clubs.”
The Quieter Defender
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say David Arquette’s decision to join The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) as its newest ambassador was all about Alexis. It was, in part. But David has been, like Alexis, only quieter, a defender of those who need help. He just won’t talk about it much, and it took a bit of work to get him to open up.
He’s worked with charities like the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and Feeding America. He told me it was an honor to join ETAF, because Liz Taylor [A&U, February 2003] was “so outspoken at a time when they needed a hero and she was there. The only real value to celebrity is being able to lend your voices to causes that are important.”
Joel Goldman [A&U, June 2016], who worked with David while at both Elizabeth Glaser and Feeding America, said that David has a strong commitment to ending HIV/AIDS.
“When he was working in pediatric AIDS, he understood the issues beyond just raising money, although he does have a big network for fundraising,” ETAF’s managing director Joel Goldman told me.
“When I reached out again to David to help us [at ETAF], he said, ‘I was hoping you would ask.’”
I asked Goldman for his comments because intuitively I felt that, in talking with David, he was soft-pedaling his activist efforts. Goldman suggested I was right.
“David does a lot behind the scenes that he doesn’t publicize,” Goldman said, recalling when he worked at Feeding America almost a decade ago and David volunteered two days per week at a local food pantry.
“David was there without fail, and when he was on a film he got one of his brothers or sisters or a friend to take the shift. He really wants to make a difference and he’s very generous. There are very few people like him in the celebrity world.”
Earlier this year David and his siblings helped to set up The Alexis Arquette Family Foundation. That foundation has partnered with Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at the LAC+USC Medical Center, to develop The Alexis Project, and is an extension of VIP’s medical, mental health and support programs targeted at the LGBTQ+ population.
With its first clinic in downtown L.A., the Alexis Project is building a platform that can be replicated around the country, David said.
I know I’m going to be raising awareness. There are kids now who weren’t alive when [the AIDS crisis] began, and they don’t know how many people we lost. There’s a nonchalant attitude toward [HIV] now, especially because there are meds. But it’s still spreading. People need to know that.
“It’s supporting a community that isn’t represented as much as they should be,” he said.
As for ETAF, the role David would be playing was still TBD when we met just before Thanksgiving. He was planning to meet with Goldman just before the new year to brainstorm roles. But David told me a few ideas.
“I know I’m going to be raising awareness. There are kids now who weren’t alive when [the AIDS crisis] began, and they don’t know how many people we lost. There’s a nonchalant attitude toward it now, especially because there are meds. But it’s still spreading. People need to know that.”
“And the stigma,” he continued. “Like Alexis felt.”
Starman, from a star family
At forty-six, David Arquette is comfortably masculine and soft spoken—a gentle bro, if one had to come up with a label. While he’s best known for his acting work in the Scream series, as well as TV roles like Jason on ABC’s In Case of Emergency, David is also a director, producer, writer, and was—for a while in the early 2000s—a professional wrestler and World Championship Wrestling heavyweight champion.
In the past year David and his wife Christina McLarty produced a serious documentary, Survivors Guide to Prison, which looks at the difficulties of navigating America’s system of incarceration. Also last year he starred in the romantic satire Amanda and Jack Go Glamping, where he tries to save his marriage through a “glamorous camping” retreat. And, as a child of the seventies, why wouldn’t he want to costar in the Amazon Prime reboot of Sid & Marty Krofft’s Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?
David and his siblings grew up in Hollywood—the geographic location, as well as the industry—and befriended street kids and hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard. Some of that early friendship, and a little bit of research, helped him flesh out his character, a homeless kid struggling with his sexuality, in the 1996 film Johns.
David said he loves acting and still wants to act, but also wants to contribute to productions, in any capacity, that he’s proud of. “It’s a fickle world. You break your back on something and people don’t see it. I’ve been acting professionally for twenty-nine years, since I was seventeen.”
The decision to build a career in entertainment wasn’t agonizing for David or Alexis. Given that their family acting dynasty stretches three generations, it would be more surprising if they had gone into banking or real estate. Their grandfather, Cliff Arquette, was an early TV star famous for his yokel character “Charley Weaver.” Their father, Lewis Arquette, was a steadily working character actor most famous for his recurring role J.D. Pickett on The Waltons. Clustered in the same generation are actor/writer Richmond, Rosanna and Patricia. But for Alexis, Hollywood proved fickle and disappointing. In media reports after her death, friends of Alexis said that after her auspicious and audacious gender-bending roles in the 1990s films, including Last Exit to Brooklyn, Grief, and The Wedding Singer, the acting work dried up. David told me it was the result of typecasting and a severe lack of trans and genderqueer roles.
Even in death Alexis was dissed. Oscar winner Patricia told Vanity Fair she was disappointed that Alexis was left out of the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony’s In Memoriam tribute. “It’s really unfortunate that the Oscars decided they couldn’t show a trans person who was such an important person in this community,” she said. “Because—trans kids—it could have meant a lot to them.”
I asked David whether Alexis had expressed frustration, as some media outlets reported, that she had not achieved the fame of her siblings. He said that toward the end Alexis did have regrets, but not about career.
“She felt she wasted a lot of time and energy on the sexual element of life. And toward the end she wanted to return to things like art, being with family, laughing at old films.”
When I asked him to elaborate on what Alexis meant by wasting time on the sexual element, he said she had “some dark experiences and had been abused by lovers at points and [sex] didn’t have as much value at the end. She had sadness about trusting friends and lovers who let her down. And she regretted not spending as much time in the loving, caring relationships.
“I think that’s why she didn’t want to identify as a woman only. She felt that [gender] was tied to sexuality. She wanted to embody all of that and gender didn’t matter. Toward the end she felt she had gone through so much and suffered for so long. She was ready to move on.”
I had to ask about what, if anything, was left unsaid.
“We didn’t have anything left to resolve,” David said. “The family all came together for her at the end and got over any stupid family dynamic stuff that all families go through.”
Then he went quiet before adding: “Grief comes in waves, you know, when you lose a family member. It feels like it never ends. You always miss them. You want more time. You think about how you could have spent more time.”
Photographed with Leica S 007 courtesy of Leica LA.
Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.