Justice for Venus Xtravaganza
Janet Mock, producer, writer, and director of FX’s Pose, envisions a new ending for the murdered transgender performer three decades after her tragic death.
“‘Realness,’” explains Blanca Evangelista, Pose’s central character, is “being able to fit into the straight, white world to embody the American dream. But we don’t have access to that dream — and it’s not because of ability, trust me.” Venus Xtravaganza wanted that dream and she, too, had the ability, establishing her reputation within the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1980s. Born on May 22nd of 1965 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Venus, who took the name of the Roman goddess of love and beauty as a teenager, left home at the age of thirteen or fourteen to avoid bringing embarrassment to her family and be the person she truly was. In 1983, she was invited to join the upstart House of Xtravaganza. Venus helped the Xtravaganzas rise to prominence within the ballroom, and they came to be known as “The House of Impossible Beauties.”
The house system was created in the mid-1970s by Crystal and Lottie LaBeija as a response to the racism of the white-dominated drag establishment. Houses were intended to mirror the iconic fashion houses, such as Chanel, Dior, and St. Laurent, that queens aspired to emulate in both style and attitude. Queens formed other all-black houses, like the House of LaBeija, and Hector Valle and Angie Xtravaganza established the first Latinx house, the House of Xtravaganza, which exists to this day.
Houses functioned not only as a way for queens of color to organize their own balls, but as an alternative family structure. House “mothers” and “fathers” led their “children” in competitions and provided homes and mentorship to those who did not have any, who were cast out and unloved, just like Venus. Balls were an act of resistance in a world that told poor gender nonconforming people of color they were worth little, even by their own families. Performing “realness” exposed the reality that their exclusion from the “American dream” was not due to lack of drive and talent, but systemic oppression. As Blanca tells her protégé, Damon:
“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else; a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.”
Venus’ story forms one of the central arcs of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning, named after an annual ball of the same name hosted by Paris DuPree, mother of the House of DuPree. Venus identifies as a woman and wants to have “sex reassignment” surgery. She is open about her history of sex work, or, “hustling,” as she calls it, and explains many trans women and queens must engage in sex work in order to survive. Livingston’s storytelling, however, is exploitative. After viewers come to love Venus — her charm, her beauty, her ambition, her ability to savagely read other queens at the drop of a hat — they discover she was murdered, strangled to death and left for four days under the bed of a seedy New York hotel. Angie Xtravaganza explains the police called her to identify Venus’ body. But her murder is underexplored and glossed over, both in life and in the film.
Venus’ story, as constructed by Livingston, implies she died at the hands of a John who discovered she was transgender, though we do not know for sure. Venus herself explains that past Johns became angry upon learning she was trans. “Some people think we’re sick and crazy,” she says, “some people think we’re the most gorgeous, special things on Earth.”
Perhaps Livingston simply assumed if a trans woman was murdered, it must be because she was engaged in sex work and got “found out.” Livingston, after all, is the one who constructs Venus’ story, placing her murder directly following footage of her discussion of sex work. Venus’ death, and the lack of response it receives, hangs like a haunting, a ghost, beneath the sequin-lit veneer of the ballroom. And her tragic ending is not singular or unique. Three decades later, trans women, particularly those of color, often live in poverty and continue to be brutalized and murdered at an alarming frequency.
Venus’ story has been retold by others. Joseph Cassara, a Puerto Rican cisgender gay man, presents a fictionalized version of her life in his novel The House of Impossible Beauties, published in February of 2018. Cassara, however, squanders the opportunity to introduce the House of Xtravaganza to a new generation in a complex and sensitive manner. Instead, his novel reads as a litany of transgender trauma porn: an exploitative sharing for the purpose of jarring, and thereby entertaining, an audience. Venus descends into cocaine addiction only to meet the same ending as the Venus of Livingston’s film.
The House of Impossible Beauties is all tragedy and no triumph. It focuses on the Xtravaganzas daily struggles to the exclusion of their performances in the ballroom, thus undercutting the way balls functioned as a form of resistance to white heteronormative culture. Cassara does not give justice to the marginalized and forgotten, but presents more of the same: a story arc dominated by the trauma and pain we typically associate with the lives of trans and gender nonconforming people of color.
Writer and activist Janet Mock, however, has given Venus justice in the FX television series Pose. Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, Pose is set in the Harlem ballroom scene of the mid-1980s and revolves around characters from the fictional houses of Abundance and Evangelista (though the latter takes its name from supermodel and AIDS activist Linda Evangelista, whose career began in 1984). Blanca, played by Mj Rodriguez, is a member of the House of Abundance and daughter to house mother, Elektra. In the show’s first episode, she leaves to found her own house and create a chosen family.
In the show’s fourth episode “The Fever,” written by Mock, Elektra, a veteran performer much like the queens featured in Paris is Burning, meets her match, walking against Aphrodite Xtravaganza, played by real-life member of the House of Xtravaganza, Alexia Garcia Xtravaganza, in the category “Femme Queen Realness.” Aphrodite has “sex reassignment” surgery, as it was called at the time, and exemplifies the concept of “realness.” She bests Elektra in the ballroom and later helps convince her that “sex reassignment” is an important part of her personal understanding of womanhood, despite the protestations of her long-time lover.
Aphrodite, the goddess Venus’ Greek counterpart, is undoubtedly Venus Xtravaganza in the world of Pose. In an interview with TV Guide, Mock spoke about the way Venus’ story impacted her:
“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.”
For those who have read Redefining Realness, it comes as no surprise that Mock would envision an alternate ending for Venus based on the murdered performer’s own aspirations. In her memoir, Mock discusses the difficulties she faced in taking pride in her identity and story because in popular culture trans women are routinely dehumanized. She cites Venus Xtravaganza’s “unsolved and underexplored murder” as a prime example. “According to the media,” Mock writes, “trans women [are] subject to pain and punchlines.” Venus’ death clearly impacted Mock’s own internalized battle with cultural stereotypes of trans womanhood.
Mock’s body of work has largely shifted our collective understanding of trans women, and the story she writes for her Venus is defined neither by pain nor humor. Venus is allowed to live out her potential, to be victorious, and to achieve her personal interpretation of womanhood. Mock, and Pose, however, are careful not to define womanhood in terms of anatomy, appearance, or “passing,” giving depth and nuance to each character’s journey. As she observes in Redefining Realness:
“If a trans woman who knows herself and operates in the world as a woman is seen, perceived, treated, and viewed as a woman, isn’t she just being herself? She isn’t passing; she is merely being.”
“Realness,” as redefined by Mock, is not connected to anatomy or one’s sex assigned at birth, but to an individual’s sense of self and the expression of that self to the world. If one identifies and lives as a woman (or any other gender, for that matter), then they are unquestionably authentic and should be treated as such.
I have taught Paris is Burning countless times and have never been able to get over Venus’ death. I often wondered if anyone truly cared, or if her death was merely a moment used to create tension within a film. Mock cares, and her retelling gives me a semblance of peace.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I would like to think Venus is with her mother, Angie, elated to see the character created in her likeness achieve all that eluded her in her too-brief life. Mock, and Pose, ultimately show queer gender nonconforming people of color have lives worth representing and stories worth telling.
Thanks to Janet Mock, Venus Xtravaganza lives.