Wednesday 22 February 2017

Venus Extravaganza : On being a Transsexual in NYC in the 1980s

Transsexual Life in NYC 1980s

In 1990 I was 21 and at the point in my life where I had begun the long road of self discovery of what it means to be trans. It was also the year that Jennie Livingston released her cult documentary movie 'Paris is Burning.' I remember it being aired on BBC2 as part of their Arena documentary series. The Arena team made an introduction to the film stating that Madonna's hit single Vogue had taken it's roots from the culture existing within the underground gay night clubs of New York City.

The film chronicled the 'Ball Circuit', and the African-America, transgender, Latino and gay communities involved in it.  An underworld where you could live out the fantasy of being what you were denied in real life due to poverty, race or your sexuality. Organised into gangs called 'Houses', taking their names and influence from the major fashion companies, and battling it out on the catwalk for prestige and the ultimate realness of their fantasy. For one night each member of a House could walk the walk and compete for trophies, being what ever you wanted for the night.  This in itself formed part of the love and acceptance the contestants dreamed of.

This film had quite an impact upon me and I often thought about the many transgender characters involved within the film and where they are now. Sadly most of those who appeared have now passed on. One trans girl who I really took a shine to and would love to have met in real life was Venus Xtravaganza, from the House of Xtravaganza.

Venus stated in the movie, "I want to be a spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs. They get what they want".

Born 22nd May 1965, as Thomas Pellagatti to an Italian-American and Pureto Rican family, Thomas adopted the name venus in her teens. Venus said that as she did not want to be an embarrassment to her family she decided to find another life and joined the House of Xtravaganza in 1983, when she also adopted the surname of her House.

Venus was trapped in poverty having moved away from home at such a young age and I would imagine the Ball Circuit provided her a way of escaping her trappings. She worked as an escort but was warned by her friends that she took too many risks and was far too trusting of people. As you follow her within the movie you're shocked to learn that before the filming had finished the young Venus met a very grizzly death. She was found strangled under a hotel bed in a New York hotel room. Her killer was never found. She was only 23 years old.

RIP Venus, I would have loved to have known you.

Having recently revisited the film I wonder how, if at all, things have changed for trans people since the 1980s. I would like to think things have changed for the better.  However today, there does seem to be a new dark uprising on the horizon pushing transphobia through the media.  We must do all we can to ensure that Transphobia is not used to push or be part of any political agenda.

The video below shows many of the sequences of Paris is Burning which feature Venus.  The full film is easily available and is even on Netflix. Enjoy.

From Wikipedia :
'The film depicts people with different gender identities or communities and their different forms of expression.[5] It also explores how its subjects dealt with the adversity of racismhomophobiaAIDS and poverty. For example, some, like Venus Xtravaganza became sex workers, some shoplift clothing, and some were thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents. One participant was saving money for sex reassignment surgery. According to Livingston, the documentary is a multi-leveled exploration of a subculture in African American and Latino cultures that proves to be a microcosm of society, which was an underappreciated and arguably underground world that many Americans were unfamiliar with.[6] Through candid one-on-one interviews the film offers insight into the lives and struggles of its subjects and the strength, pride, and humor they maintain to survive in a "rich, white world."  ' Read More 

Here is the trailer for the full Paris is Burning documentary.

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