“I’m hungry,” laughs Venus Xtravaganza. Leaning against a boombox, she smokes a cigarette as her hair blows in the Harlem wind. It’s the last time we hear the escort and performer speak in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and it’s a resounding reminder of the burning ambition drag queens and transgender folks like Venus felt – and feel – for something different to the hand life has dealt them.
Born Thomas Pellagatti, Venus adopted her name as a teenager after leaving home in search of a different life. She took the surname Xtravaganza in 1983 upon being accepted into the House of Xtravaganza, one of many ‘houses’ consisting of predominantly transgender and gay youth associated with the 1980’s ball culture scene. Paris is Burning reveals Harlem’s balls – drag-centric events where participants would dress up and walk for trophies. It’s an intimate portrait of a culture that provided disenfranchised young people (often black, latino, transsexual, and gay) an opportunity to be whatever they wanted for a night. Ambition was the buzzword. Here the allure of costume, high fashion, status and wealth combined to form an enveloping world of love and acceptance.
"You can become anything and do anything, right here, right now. It won't be questioned. I came. I saw. I conquered. That's a ball," says Pepper LaBeija in the film, highlighting the personal pride that ignited a community where sexuality, colour and class were erased. Balls also provided an escape from the terror of the AIDS crisis: Willi Ninja and Octavia St Laurent, two of Paris is Burning’s subjects, struggled with AIDS for several years and died in their early 40s. Their legacy lives on in the form of continued HIV awareness within the gay and transsexual community today.
Venus met a grizzly death at 23, found strangled and stuffed under a bed in a New York hotel room. She was the victim of hatred and fear of those who don’t ascribe to traditional notions of gender, a phobia that has claimed the lives of too many like Venus. Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, in memorial to these people we tell her story.