While many corners of the country protested and marched to advocate for trans rights for Trans Day of Visibility, Jersey City, N.J. recently declared an old house a historic landmark—one formerly lived in by ballroom legend Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza.
The recognition is long overdue.
From the legendary House of Xtravaganza in New York City, Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza stepped into her international spotlight in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston. In the film, Livingston documented the underground yet dazzling scene of Black and Latinx LGBTQ people in the 80s. Establishing ballroom houses was a way many members of the community built chosen families.
Today, our mainstream culture is deeply informed by the innovative ways ballroom established a special community by and for themselves. Terms like “shade” or “reading,” the art of voguing, and much of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s references come from the ballroom scene, though they have become so deeply ingrained into mainstream pop culture that its history has become underground, too. In the documentary, it was clear how Xtravaganza, a Puerto-Rican and Italian trans woman, embodied the glamorous and enticing spirit of ballroom—her femininity soft, her tongue razor-sharp.
“I don’t feel like there’s anything mannish about me,” Xtravaganza said. “Touch this skin, darling. Touch this skin, honey, touch all of this skin! Okay? You just can’t take it! You’re just an overgrown orangutan!” By the time the documentary was released in 1990, Xtravaganza was already dead. The 23-year-old, who also worked as a sex worker had been found strangled and left under a bed in the New York Duchess Hotel on Christmas Day in 1988. According to a report by the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign, 38 trans people were murdered just last year. The harrowing violence against trans women of color still echoes today, and Xtravaganza was only one of many unresolved cases.
From legend to landmark
The landmark committee of Jersey City, N.J., consisting of organizers Jonovia Chase, Daniella Carter, Michael Roberson Maison-Margiela and Giselle Xtravaganza spearheaded the effort to honor Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza. Two LGBTQ organizations—Hudson Pride, an LGBTQ Community Center in Hudson County, N.J., and Garden State Equality, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the state—secured the governor’s recognition to honor Xtravaganza and her home.
On Mar. 31, also known as Trans Day of Visibility, the landmark committee and LGBTQ organizations came together along with Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop, city government officials and even Xtravaganza’s biological family—the Pellagattis.
“Venus got love from all of us,” said Louis Pellagatti, Xtravaganza’s family member to News 12. “But most of her love came right from this house—from our grandmother.”
Dominique Jackson, an actor who starred as Elektra on POSE, an award-winning television series about the New York City ballroom scene, attended as a special guest. During the ceremony, Jackson, who is a Black trans woman, alluded to the vulnerability of trans women of color given the history of fatal violence—Xtravaganza included. In her speech, she said: “Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza’s story is our story.”
Xtravaganza’s biological niece, Jillian Pellagatti, who, as a family member of Xtravaganza that isn’t ballroom-family, said she was honored to be included in the ceremony. Pellagatti—currently residing in Brooklyn and working as an analyst while finishing a master’s in media studies at The New School—tells Reckon that her late aunt would be “really happy” about the historical landmark, especially to see her separate communities coming together “given everything else that is going on in our country today.”
“My great grandmother’s home was full of so much love and support and now it gets to serve as a beacon of light and visibility. I think [Venus] would be extremely proud of the women who made it happen by going to that board meeting, shared their experiences as trans femmes and officially getting this landmark dedication over the line,” she said.
More than just Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza
For Chase, one of the landmark committee members who is a producer and organizer in New York City, declaring Xtravaganza’s former home in Jersey City a landmark came from the looming narrative that ties to many trans women of color like herself.
“Venus’ experience—although 30 years ago—is something that trans women still face today,” she said. According to Chase, who is also in the ballroom scene, many Femme Queens (trans women who walk the ballroom) experience tragic deaths with no justice. “This may be the very first house ballroom landmark. This is one of the most significant actions that has been done to commemorate the life a trans woman within the community.”
Xtravaganza was murdered over 30 years ago. Although her niece Jillian Pellagatti, now 29, never had the opportunity to meet her aunt, she sees a silver lining.
“Not everyone gets to watch a documentary about their late aunt, so I consider myself lucky to be able to see her life captured in this way, and not have her story be reduced to still photographs and second-hand accounts,” she said. “I know her story has moved many people; I know it continues to inspire me. There’s so much more to Venus—her chosen house family and her biological family—and I think it’s really beautiful to see how the love for Venus has made her families come together after all these years.”