Today is the 56th birthday of the performer Venus Xtravaganza. She has arguably some of the best and most-quoted reads in Paris is Burning. Her murder at 23 years old put a spotlight on the murders of trans women, at least it did for me. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Venus Xtravaganza
DATE OF BIRTH: May 22, 1965
PLACE OF BIRTH: Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH: December 21, 1988 (aged 23)
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City, New York, U.S.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Strangulation (murder)
REMAINS: Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington, New Jersey
BEST KNOWN FOR: Venus Xtravaganza was an American transgender performer. She came to national attention after her appearance in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning, in which her life as a trans woman forms one of the film’s several story arcs.
Xtravaganza was born on May 22, 1965, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her parents were of Italian-American and Puerto Rican descent. She had four brothers. Xtravaganza took the name Venus in her early teens.
Xtravaganza states in Paris Is Burning that she began cross-dressing and performing at age 13 or 14, placing her earliest performances around 1978 or 1979. Eventually, her family caught on to her lifestyle, and because she didn’t “want to embarrass them, … [she] moved away.” She relocated to New York City in order to be able to perform freely. Her ball career began in 1983, when House of Xtravaganza founder Hector Valle invited her to join the house. She stated that he “was the first gay man I ever met.”
On her 15th birthday, Valle took her to Greenwich Village, threw her a party, and bought her a cake. After Valle died from AIDS-related complications in 1985, Angie Xtravaganza assumed the role of house mother, and she took on Venus Xtravaganza as her mentee and drag daughter. At the time of filming Paris Is Burning, Xtravaganza was an aspiring model. She said, “I [want] my sex change to make myself feel complete.”
On Christmas Day in 1988, Xtravaganza was found strangled under a bed at the Duchess Hotel in New York. It was estimated that her body had been there for four days upon discovery. Shooting for Paris Is Burning was ongoing, and the film’s final minutes include Angie Xtravaganza reacting to her death. Angie Xtravaganza said she felt that Venus was one to take too many chances, that she “was too wild with people in the streets,” and that she feared “something [was] going to happen to [her].” Angie Xtravaganza was the first person detectives approached with the news of Xtravaganza’s death, and it was she who broke the news to the Venus’ biological parents.
In Paris Is Burning, Xtravaganza describes a time she narrowly escaped an attack by a man who discovered she was transgender during an intimate encounter, and it is possible her murder occurred during a similar situation. Her killer was never found. She is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey.
The House of Xtravaganza remains active in the ball circuit, nightlife, and LGBTQ activism. It is one of the oldest active houses in New York City.