The thespian siblings – Rosanna, 57; Richmond, 53; Patricia, 48, and David, 45 – are the grandchildren of Cliff Arquette, one of the earliest radio and theater stars of the 20th century. Cliff’s son Lewis would become known for playing J.D. Pickett on The Waltons from 1978–81 and moved the family to a commune in Virginia at one point. It was there, Alexis once recalled, that she began questioning her gender identity.
The Arquettes’ progressive nature meant that Alexis was supported from early on. “I just have flickers of memories of living in this commune in Virginia, lining up with the girls, wanting to wear dresses, and for the most part, they allowed me to,” she recalled. “I remember Alexis getting dressed in drag at 4,” Patricia told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
That all took place with the apparent support of her parents: above, she appears in a video next to father Lewis in a skirt and tank top before the pair go to the Renaissance Faire. Off camera, someone – presumably the Arquette children’s mother, Mardi (née Brenda Denaut) – laughs good-naturedly as Lewis mugs for the camera. In a comment beneath the video, Alexis wrote she missed her father’s “humor and understanding.”
Outside the world of the commune where they lived for two years, though, things were different: Children at school bullied Alexis with gay slurs, provoking Patricia, who referred to Alexis as “my first best friend” on Twitter after her death, into fights, she told the Times. “It’s been amazing growing up with Alexis,” she said, but, “it hasn’t been all easy. It’s been quite a soul-searching journey for everybody.”
Brother David recalled the same cycle of bullying to Hollywood TV in 2010. “Alexis had her own feelings about sexuality, so a lot of people aren’t cool with that, and they gave her a lot of trouble and that’s where I saw the majority of the really dark bullying,” he explained. After she died, David called her “my hero for eternity” in a tweet.
When Alexis announced her intention to transition in the mid-’90s, a very different culture surrounded transgender individuals. “I didn’t understand it exactly,” Patricia recalled on The Meredith Vieira Show when asked about Alexis’s announcement. “I had all the questions at first,” she told the Times. “Do you love yourself? Is it something that you want to change about the way you look? I get concerned when anybody I love wants to do any change to the way they look – where’s this coming from and why?”
“I did feel a sadness. Like, there’s a loss,” she continued. “Am I going to lose my brother? … So when I was feeling a level of judgment … I really had to think about myself.”
Alexis didn’t face a neat progression, even coming from the supportive environment she did, In 2007, in Newsweek, she described her transition as “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.”
David articulated the same feeling of loss with Larry King in 2014: “I hate to say it, but there’s like this … there’s an aspect of my sister that when she’s sort of part boy, part girl. It’s kind of what I grew up with. There’s something that’s more authentic to me than when she’s a girl.”
Alexis fully acknowledged that she came from a privileged position when she decided to transition. “Coming out as transgender in America from a celebrity family is a lot easier than it can be for private individuals anywhere else in the world,” Alexis told Entertainment Tonight in 2009. “In fact, if you come out as transgender in certain parts of the world, you may be murdered in the street.”
Alexis never stopped questioning the idea of gender. “I’m not transgender anymore,” David recalled Alexis telling him earlier this year. “Sometimes I’ll be a man, sometimes I’ll be a woman. I like to refer to myself as gender suspicious.”
“I am feeling immense gratitude to have been afforded the luxury of sharing life with him/her, for learning from Alexis,” brother Richmond wrote on Facebook after Alexis passed. “For being given the gift of being able to love him/her and to be loved by him/her.”
The family echoed those sentiments in a joint statement to PEOPLE: “We learned what real bravery is through watching her journey of living as a trans woman. We came to discover the one truth – that love is everything.”