“She just wanted to live her life as normally as possible,” Mike Pellagatti says of his aunt. To him, she was a loved one who babysat him when he was a child and gave him a clown doll that played lullabies. But to everyone else, she was an iconic LGBTQ figure whose life was tragically cut short nearly 30 years ago.
Made famous from the iconic 1990 movie Paris Is Burning, which documented the ball culture of the late-80s in New York City, Venus Xtravaganza was murdered at the age of 23. To this day, her death remains unsolved, but her kind demeanor and genuine desire for a normal, happy life made her one of the most beloved and revered subjects from the Jennie Livingston-directed film.
As we celebrate pride month by reflecting upon all of the LGBTQ heroes of the past and present, Venus’ nephew spoke with Billboard about his memories of his father’s sibling – and coincidentally, his mother’s childhood classmate – and what he hopes that people remember most about her.
“I don’t think Venus, in her wildest of dreams, according to my family members, would have ever envisioned herself becoming a transgender martyr,” he says. “I think she just wanted to live her life and just be who she was without dealing with any social pressures or persecution.”
Do you know what Venus Xtravaganza was like growing up?
According to my mother, my mother said that when Venus was growing up, Venus liked to dress in a lot of fancy designer clothes and always hung out with the so-called cool kids, but had a bit of a, I don’t want to say a bad attitude, but kind of a chip on her shoulder, almost. Venus was growing up with four other brothers and two of those brothers – my father and my Uncle Joe – were kind of like alpha males, so [they were] always trying to strive for number one first place in sports, number one first place with women. They’re alpha males. So there’s naturally this sense of competition in the family, so Venus always felt like she had to stand out on her own, not be overshadowed by her older brothers.
In Paris Is Burning, Venus said that she tried to hide being transgender from her family, but they found out when she was 13 or 14 years old, and she moved away from home so she wouldn’t embarrass them. Do you know how your family reacted when that happened?
It’s weird in a way because my family, it was like the thing that we acknowledged but don’t talk about…but now it’s in the mainstream and we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of her death. December 21st will be 30 years to the day [that she died].
Is your family doing anything to commemorate the anniversary?
Because they found her near Christmastime, it was a really sour point and is still kind of that way. I think there’s a lot of guilt involved. My Uncle Frankie and Venus were probably closer than anybody else, cause my Uncle Frankie wasn’t really into that machismo thing, so my Uncle Frankie understood Venus better than anyone else but my father and the other brothers were [tolerant], but you’ve got to understand it was a different time back then, so they were as understanding as they could be, but without being fully an emotional pillar of support.
Did anyone in your family ever go to see Venus walk in a ball?
No, although my grandmother did keep a lot of her trophies and her dresses and pictures.
So your grandmother was proud of her?
My grandmother was, yes.
What memories do you personally have of Venus?
I was 15 months [when she died]. The only thing that I remember of Venus is cause my father told me she gave me this clown that made a sweet little lullaby sound.
You also mentioned once that she would skip walking in balls to babysit you?
Whenever my father and mother had to go to work, they would always look for a babysitter and Venus would volunteer, but because things were a little different back then, my father kind of made it that Venus couldn’t be all dolled up. She had to be dressed down in sweatpants. And she did that to babysit me.
That bed [she’s sitting on during her interview in Paris Is Burning], that was in our cousin Frankie’s room, so that’s not necessarily her house. That was actually my great-grandmother’s house, so it’s not like she was kicked out of the family. My family tolerated her, it was just kind of, I don’t want to say a shortcoming, but it was just kind of like quietly we know who you are, but don’t go out and flaunt it type of thing.
Do you think that Paris Is Burning captures an accurate portrayal of the Venus your family knew?
I don’t think Venus, in her wildest of dreams, according to my family members, would have ever envisioned herself becoming a transgender martyr. I think she just wanted to live her life and just be who she was without dealing with any social pressures or persecution. But the reason why we’re quiet about Venus is because there’s a lot of fighting over her legacy. For example, they made a dinner theater about her a few years ago. That was something that both Venus’ trans family and my family can agree on, that there are these opportunists who come around and try to capitalize off of Venus.
How long did that show run for?
If I remember, a few months. It’s not that people got it shut down, it was more like it just kind of…I don’t want to say it ran out of steam, but it was up for a few months, and then my father, my Uncle Joe and my Uncle Louie actually addressed the audience. My dad was pretty much saying the same thing that I told you, that Venus never had any major goals of becoming famous or anything like that. It’s just what happened. But there was a lot of apprehension from both the House of Xtravaganza and my family, so my family’s not on speaking terms with the House of Xtravaganza. During the Celebrate Brooklyn 25th anniversary of Paris is Burning, I kind of joined up with them briefly. I’m not really involved with that scene, but it was a sore point, though, that both the House of Xtravaganza and my family were initially very upset about people making dinner theaters about Venus without even knowing anything about Venus.
Do you keep in touch with Jennie Livingston? Has that friendship helped keep Venus alive for you at all?
Yes. It gives me an additional perspective into who my aunt was and Jennie is a very nice woman…I think she’s very upset, deep down, that things happened the way that they happened while she was making the documentary. Earlier this year, she did a showing of Paris is Burning at the Museum of Modern Art and she gave a little shout-out to me. She was like, “Hey, we’ve got Venus’ nephew in the crowd!”
Do you think that Venus’ murder was taken as seriously as it should have been, and if it happened today, it would have been handled differently?
It would be handled much differently today because forensic science is a lot better now and we would have more of a chance to know who did what, what was done and when it was done. I don’t think it was taken as seriously as it should have been. I don’t want to say it’s not my position to deliberate that matter because I am family, but I’m not technically next of kin, but my family is hesitant about pursuing it because they believed, for the longest of time, that Venus’ killer committed suicide in jail.
Why did they think that?
Well, that’s what my grandmother told them. I think she came up with a white lie and told them that there’s nothing to worry about because Venus’ killer committed suicide, and I think she did that to protect my father and my uncles. They were in their twenties, and you know how 20-year-olds are. They’re looking for revenge. I think my grandmother did that to protect my family.
Janet Mock, who is a writer/producer on the television show Pose – which focuses on the very same ball culture documented in Paris Is Burning – recently spoke about Venus in an interview with TV Guide. She said: “I don’t think there was more of an image that had more of an impact on me than seeing Venus Xtravaganza sitting on that pier smoking a cigarette. You can’t write and make up characters like that. They’re all so real about the little humble goals that they wanted and I think that is what the lasting impact of that film is.” Are you happy with that being how people remember Venus?
That’s exactly how I want people to remember her as. She wasn’t some liberation activist. A lot of people want to twist it that way, like with the Celebrate Brooklyn episode from a few years ago, a lot of the activist community was threatening shutting down Paris is Burning because TQPOC [Trans/Queer People of Color] weren’t involved in hosting it, so it was a very crazy Facebook thread where I kind of threw down my little activist card and I told everybody I was involved with Occupy Wall Street, and then I said Venus is also my aunt and if Venus were alive, she probably would want the film to be shown without any interruption.
But you do have a point that the surviving members of the House of Xtravaganza need to be hosting this thing. So that’s how I got in contact with Jennie Livingston. I told her if you can try to get the House of Xtravaganza involved with this, and so they were and the Celebrate Brooklyn episode went on without a hitch. But going back to your original point, Venus wasn’t somebody who was like, “Burn it down!” She wasn’t one of those types of people. She just wanted to live her life as normally as possible.
What do you most want people to know about Venus?
I want people to know that my family wasn’t oppressive towards her. There’s this perception that my family kicked her out, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Venus got along very well with her brothers. There are pictures of my uncle and her standing together in my uncle’s living room. So it’s not like she was unloved and unwanted. She was very dedicated, like I said, she even put on sweatpants to babysit me. She didn’t want her family to get wrapped up with who she was deep down. She didn’t want them getting involved with the ball scene or anything like that. Like she said in the movie, she didn’t want to bring any embarrassment to her family, and that’s not the words of somebody who got kicked out of a household.
Like you said, Venus never sought out to be an activist of any kind, but would you say that her experiences influenced your involvement with Occupy Wall Street?
Absolutely. When I first started with Occupy, I was kind of more involved with the anti-war scene, but as the weeks went on, I met more and more people from all different sorts of backgrounds and I wound up at a meeting where somebody mentioned Venus by name and I’m like, you know what? I’m where I have to be right now. So in hindsight, I looked at it as I’m trying – me and my friends – were trying to create a more equitable society for everyone because of the fact that it was a toxic society which basically allowed for Venus to die and my whole philosophy is we need to leave the world better than how we found it. So yeah, Venus had a lot to do with my progression as an activist fighting for those who are marginalized, and I basically want to see to it that there’s no more people who suffer the same fate as Venus Xtravaganza in the future.
Mike Pellagatti, who was involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement’s media team, currently works the tour bus circuit and leads Occupy Wall Street tours by appointment. He is also a member of the Guides Association of New York City.