In today's episode we'll be discussing the one and only Venus Xtravaganza. Venus is best survived by Jennie Livingston's 1990 must-see documentary 'Paris is Burning,' which chronicles the 1980's culture of queer balls, or underground competitions with categories like female 'realness' (believability) and voguing, a form of dance based in elaborate poses. The film takes place in New York City (Harlem in particular) and shines a light on the many communities involved (African-Americans, gay, transgender, etc). It's subjects also define a great deal of the ball vernacular that has been re-appropriated into the mainstream (reading, shade, etc).
One of the film's most memorable people featured (in my opinion) is miss Venus, daughter of the House of Xtravaganza named after the goddess of love. Houses are sort of like foster families within the gay and drag communities for those who aren't necessarily accepted by their biological families. Venus was a transgendered woman saving up money for sex reassignment surgery by performing in balls with her House and doing sex work, and we don't talk about her enough!! She was also an aspiring model, even though there aren't many pictures of her available online save for shots from the documentary.
Her light, delicate fierceness made for some memorable and wise quotes:
- You wanna talk about reading? Let's talk about reading!
- Some of them say that we're sick, or crazy, and some of them think that we're the most gorgeous special things on earth.
- I don't feel like there's anything mannish about me, except maybe what I might have between me down there, which is my personal thing.
- A woman, in the suburbs, a regular woman, if you want your husband to buy a washer and dryer set, I'm sure she'd have to go to bed with him, to give him something he wants, to get what she wants. So, in the long run, it all ends up the same way.
- 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!
You may have heard "touch this skin," before if you're familiar with drag queen Aja's verse in the single 'C.L.A.T.' Aja does a really good job of honoring the ball scene (see: All Stars 3 Snatch Game), even in this one song. She references opulence ("I'm opulent bitch, that means I own everything!"), which is mentioned in the doc, as well as legendary children of the House of LaBeija Candy and Pepper ("I'm sweet like candy but I'm hot like a pepper").
In the film, Venus describes her relationships with men, claiming that 99, no, 95% of them don't expect sexual favors, but detailing an encounter in which a man discovered that she was not a biological woman and began to threaten her violently, causing her to escape via window.
By the end of the documentary, Venus' drag mother reveals that she was strangled to death at the age of 23, shoved under a hotel room bed, and discovered four days later on December 25. Police had such a difficult time identifying the body, they were going to cremate her. Instead, and maybe for the worse, she's buried alongside the family she ran away from under the wrong name.
The most heartbreaking part of the film is hearing about all of the things that Venus wants: a car, a white wedding and a husband who loves her, a house far away from the city, etc. and knowing that she never had those things and never will.
Venus was one of the few white people featured in the documentary, and undoubtedly one of the most feminine. She talks about how her tiny features and light hair and skin make her desirable. The characters of the film are all chasing a standard rooted in white ideals and wealth. Pepper LaBeija tells the camera that sex reassignment surgery can't solve many of the girls' problems or improve their treatment because 'real' women aren't treated that well by society either. Venus is closer than most in terms of appearance and demeanor, but she still wasn't able to find success, which is the perfect metaphor that however close queer or non-white people may get to the mainstream, they will never be accepted as fully as others.
She leaves behind such an important legacy about the treatment and survival of trans people, and I hope that we continue to tell her story and speak up for trans victims of violence.
'Paris is Burning' is available on Netflix, and u better watch it!! Until next time 👼