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Landmarking the Legacy of NJ Transgender Icon, Venus Pellagatii Xtravaganza

July 20th, 2023 by

“It is necessary to invoice Venus’s story, not only through black history, but through Latinx history and queer history. It is too important to excavate this kind of history, so what happened to Venus won’t happen again because it continues to happen.” expressed Michael Roberson, Professor, New School and Union Theological Seminary at the 2023 Planning and Redevelopment Conference hosted by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association and New Jersey Future. Landmarking cultural and historical sites allows for stories to persist and for cultural awareness to spread. Venus Pellagatti was a Latinx, transgender icon and her narrative established an important foothold for increased acceptance of her community and serves as a lesson in the value of preserving underrepresented experiences. Recently, Venus Pellagatti’s childhood home has been designated as a historic landmark in Jersey City.

The virtual session Landmarking the Legacy of Venus Pellagatii Xtravaganza at the 2023 NJ Planning & Redevelopment Conference. Top row from left to right: Tanya Marione, Planning Director, City of Jersey City; Maggie O’Neill, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist; Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza, Mother, House of Xtravaganza. Bottom row from left to right: Sara Quinlan, Historic Preservation Specialist; Michael Roberson, Professor, New School and Union Theological Seminary.

The captivating session recounted the life of Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza and the process of immortalizing her legacy that continues to inspire many by landmarking her home. Moderated by Tanya Marione, Planning Director, City of Jersey City, the panelists include: Sara Quinlan, Historic Preservation Specialist; Gisele Alicea Xtravaganza, Mother, House of Xtravaganza; Maggie O’Neill, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist; Michael Stafford, pro bono civil rights attorney and producer; Michael Roberson, Professor, New School and Union Theological Seminary.

A still image of Venus Xtravaganza, interviewed in her home, taken from the documentary film Paris is Burning directed by Jennie Livingston.

Venus Pellagatti, born in 1965, moved into her grandmother’s house in 1977 in Hamilton Park on 343 1⁄2 Eighth Street. Her grandmother was one of the only family members that accepted her identity at the time, Sara Quinlan explained. Venus attended numerous LGBTQ+ clubs in Jersey City and New York City with her grandmother where she was introduced to Ball Culture, drag-centric competitive performance consisting of dramatic dancing and posing. In 1985, Venus was approached by director Jennie Livingston, who would record interviews of Venus taken in her bedroom for the groundbreaking and massively influential Paris is Burning film released in 1990. The breakthrough film went on to win numerous awards and accolades, while establishing Venus’s legacy of inspiration for modern works, such as the TV series Pose and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and become a literary reference for feminist scholar Judith Butler. Being excluded from work opportunities due to her identity, Venus began sex work in her early 20s. Venus was tragically murdered in 1988 at the age 23 by a client in an unsolved case, before the release of Paris is Burning, but her legacy continues through her story and influence. 

Ballroom culture emerged from the kinship of black queer people and the escape from societal homophobia and racism. Especially during the divisive time of the 1982 HIV/AIDS crisis, the House of Xtravaganza — the first real Latinx house — opened up the space for the queer community, explained Roberson. He emphasized the humanity in Venus’ impact, “Venus is a local trans woman who’s history has a global impact…not only impacting Latinx trans women, but African American trans women, [and] European trans women.” Venus’ interviews were raw and relatable which connected with trans women and her murder displayed the dangers that they encounter even today. Gisele Aliciea Xtravaganza stressed the importance of this discussion in providing support to the trans community. Gisele remarks “Venus grew up in an era where she had it rough, but it is still rough living this lifestyle so it’s just as important today..this is a message of hope, of love, and support for our community, for Venus, the house, and transgender women, nobody is more human than the next.”

Landmarking Venus’ legacy was a difficult process. The landmarking team studied the Stonewall National Monument and a thematic study on LGBTQ sites conducted by the National Park Service to assist their efforts. Maggie O’Neill explained “This site is the only extant, tangible, historical connection to Venus’s life and her role in Ball Culture”. Venus’s home, where the Paris is Burning interviews were filmed, was established as a cultural landmark under the National Historic Preservation Act through association with a significant person. Unfortunately, because of the existing framework, they could only designate her childhood home to landmark her legacy even though she has a much wider net of her impact. 

“We need to look at different ways to both require that information and also work around the existing frameworks to make sure we’re representing everyone and not just the people who it’s easiest to represent.” –Maggie O’Neill, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist

O’Neill expanded on the impact of this landmarking process. Criterion B, the framework through which Venus’ house was recognized, is the hardest to designate because of the rigid standard of documentation and many cultural histories and underrepresented groups don’t have a site or scholarly research to use. “We need to look at different ways to both require that information and also work around the existing frameworks to make sure we’re representing everyone and not just the people who it’s easiest to represent,” O’Neill emphasized. Venus’s landmark was the first strictly cultural landmark in Jersey City and the first Ballroom-related landmark in the country. It was crucial that the landmarking team fleshed out the designation to represent all of Venus’s legacy and not just the house. “Most of these cultural landmarks are things that are often evolving”. Cultural guidelines need to take this into consideration,” O’Neill observed. 

Venus was a symbol to her community and continues to be. Michael Stafford explained the landmarking process came to fruition after her story started to “take a life of its own” by people online, albeit well-intentioned. Jersey City was important to her because it gave her the ability to live her true life near the people that supported her, including the continued support of the Pellagati family, who encouraged the designation process. This landmark represents the convergence of two families, the Pelattis and the Xtravaganza. “Often these two things are separated and usually the ballrooms become the family because the birth family is not accepting. But in this instance, it’s an intersection of two families and so it becomes a contemporary issue.” Robeson pointed out. 

In a callback to the way Venus died, Micheal Robeson illuminated several tragic but important cases of black and/or LGBTQ+ people being brutalized for their existence and their bravery to go on to be an example for history for others to learn from. These stories repeatedly re-emerge in conversation and become immortalized in history as a cautionary tale. Venus, and those with experiences similar to hers that start with non-acceptance and end with violence, reveal the significance of a legacy, and the importance of knowledge. What can unfold because of Venus’s landmark can be monumental and that lasting impact is what this landmarking project does for the black, brown, and LGBTQIA community. “If we lose these stories, we lose the very thing that makes our city so special.” Tanya Marione concluded.

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