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‘Trans people are still being persecuted’: The personal story behind Patricia Arquette’s moving Emmys speech

Patricia Arquette accepts the award for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or movie for “The Act” at the Emmys. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

When Patricia Arquette accepted her best supporting actress Emmy on Sunday night for her role in “The Act,” she expressed her gratitude before she made room for her grief.

“I am grateful to be working. I am grateful to, at 50, be getting the best parts of my life, and that’s great,” the actress said. “But in my heart, I am so sad: I lost my sister Alexis, and that trans people are still being persecuted."

Arquette was referring to Alexis Arquette, a transgender actress and advocate who died in 2016 after suffering cardiac arrest. Arquette has previously referred to Alexis as “my first best friend.”

“I’m in mourning every day of my life, Alexis, and I will be for the rest of my life for you, until we change the world so that trans people are not persecuted,” a visibly emotional Arquette said as she accepted the award. “And give them jobs. They are human beings.”

As she finished speaking, Laverne Cox stood and applauded, waving her handbag emblazoned with “Oct. 8, Title VII Supreme Court” — referring to the high court case about whether the Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination. Cox, one of Hollywood’s most high-profile trans actresses, brought American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Chase Strangio to the Emmys to raise awareness of the case.

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A member of the famed show business family, Alexis Arquette was a transgender actress and an advocate for transgender rights. She chronicled her transition in the 2007 documentary “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother.” She also had roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “Bride of Chucky” and as a Boy George-inspired character in “The Wedding Singer.”

For weeks before Alexis Arquette’s death, she had suffered from an infection of the heart, and her death certificate revealed she had been diagnosed with HIV decades before.

“Her career was cut short, not by her passing, but by her decision to live her truth and her life as a transgender woman,” the Arquette family said in a statement after she died. “Despite the fact that there are few parts for trans actors, she refused to play roles that were demeaning or stereotypical. She was a vanguard in the fight for understanding and acceptance for all trans people.”

Patricia Arquette is known for making politically charged and impassioned acceptance speeches at award shows. In 2015, she called for wage and gender equality when she won an Oscar for her role in “Boyhood.” She thanked special counsel Robert S. Mueller III at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last January.

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But Sunday’s speech was much more personal. She later explained to reporters backstage why she was moved to talk about Alexis years after her death.

“I’m having a wonderful time in my career, I never saw it coming,” she said. “I’m getting the greatest roles of my life, working with great people, but also because I’ve been working so much, I haven’t completely processed my sister Alexis’s death.”

“Sometimes, as an actor or anybody, you try to act like everything’s fine,” she continued. But Arquette said she’s been talking to her family about how she is feeling a “really heavy grief. I feel like I’m just starting to process this, so to be here tonight, it would be inauthentic to not talk about my whole self and where I am, where my heart is, where my thoughts are.”

“I really miss my sister,” she said. And then she listed statistics about trans women of color living below the poverty line and the low life-expectancy for trans people in the United States.

“That’s not acceptable. And still, jokes are common and we don’t see people getting employed,” Arquette said. “We need to really change this, and I think we can change it rapidly if we cared to.”

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