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New documentary 'I’m Your Venus' tells the story of a trans icon’s two families—biological and ballroom—as they seek answers to her murder
Venus Xtravaganza, from the 1990 documentary 'Paris Is Burning.' (Photo courtesy of Jennie Livingston)

Being trans in America means that you could be murdered.  

If you’re going to make a documentary about the golden age of the ballroom scene of New York, it’s impossible not to reference the iconic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and one of its stars, the trendsetter and a pioneer of the community, Venus Xtravaganza, an Italian-Puerto Rican trans woman.  

But 36 years ago, Venus Xtravaganza was murdered. And her case, although investigated, had gone cold—as is the stay of play for so many other trans people. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual report for 2023, “2022 saw the highest number of anti-LGB and anti-trans and gender non-conforming hate crimes reported by the FBI to date, with the number of hate crimes based on gender identity increasing by over 32% from 2021 to 2022.”

And thus Kimberly Reed, the director of I’m Your Venus, had this wondrous jumping-off point to look at Venus Xtravaganza’s life, but also at her death. And the film takes us on this mesmeric journey where Xtravaganza’s biological family—brothers John, Joe, and Louie Pellagatti, plus her niece Jillian—enlist a legal team as they compel the New York City Police Department to reopen this case, which has haunted them for decades. 

For Reed this is personal, and you sense that throughout the film: her sensitivity, her slowing down our eyes, her focus on the importance of this, not just for the families but for society as a whole. Equality, which is what most queer people would say they want, is only equal if it applies to everyone. “When the film Paris Is Burning came out, I was in the midst of my own transition and was very much looking for examples to see myself reflected in the media,” Reed tells me. “You know, even if people get killed, you’re still looking to see examples like that. And, Venus very directly affected me in my life with my transition by providing an example.”

And after the groundbreaking Paris Is Burning, Venus Xtravaganza influenced a whole culture and a generation. That film also gave us a luscious bird’s eye view of the ball scene: fabulous competitions in which contestants parade like models on a runway as representatives from their “houses” (Venus was from the “House of Xtravaganza,” and we also meet some of these members in Reed’s film). “Houses,” run by a “House Mother,” are for runaway queer kids, or queer kids who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere and now managed to find family in this adopted way, and they would compete with their houses at these balls, but also sometimes lived together. 

Venus Xtravaganza (Credit: Helen Lamboy)

Withal what Venus Xtravaganza really revealed to us is her true humanity and her deep desires. In I’m Your Venus (presented by Participant and produced by Stick Figure Productions) we see a clip from the Paris Is Burning film where Venus Xtravaganza says: “I want a car. I want to be with the man I love . . . I want a nice home away from New York. … I want to get married in church in white … I want to be a professional model behind cameras … I want this. This is what I want, and Im going to go for it.”

And this is our reminder of the importance of visibility for trans people—showcasing their yearning for what so many people would think of as simple things, to get married and have a nice home. But for trans folk these things are often out of reach, whether institutionally or culturally. 

One of the most exigent scenes to watch in the documentary is when the lawyers take the Pegattis through the arduous process of hearing graphic and devastating details about the murder. And you watch how this heinous act affected them all. 

“I think that what you see over the course of the film is the definition of what it means to love their sister shift a little bit,” adds Reed. “And then to enact that love in the real world in substantial ways.” 

And speaking of finding home, this is what the Pellagattis aim to do throughout the documentary in the spirit of representation and visibility: not only find out who murdered their sister but also, as a form of justice, change Venus Xtravaganza’s official name to Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza on all her legal documentation, and then landmark Venus Xtravaganza’s house in Jersey City, N.J. Because as they say throughout the film, she deserves that home. And this is how they amend the record, their own and the official one. 

It’s a complex story, with three brothers finally being able to grapple with their grief, each in their own way. And we watch them exhibit their own emotional transition, or evolution. “I think, for people who maybe haven’t met a trans person, what I want this film to do is to be this example for them to be able to go through those emotions so that, hopefully, they can come to accept trans folks,” adds Reed. “And so to spread love, instead of what’s happening right now, which is a lot of hate directed at trans folks.” And in fact, in the U.S, right now there are 43 states that have laws either passed or in the works to take away the rights for trans people. 

According to Trans Legislation Tracker, in 2024 so far, 42 anti-trans bills have already passed. 

“The film makes palpable the perilous risks the LGBTQ+ population took then—and still continue to take to find community, peace, and sanctuary on their path to live their truth,” shares Steven Cantor, one of the film’s producers. And that’s the importance of films like this—to showcase the plight of one person, in this case Venus Xtravaganza, but she is only a microcosm of what is actually happening in America, and the world. 

“I hope that what the film can do is encourage people to reach out and to foster those friendships, to reach out to the person in your family, stick up for the person on the subway or the bus who’s getting harassed by somebody else,” says Reed. “Stick up for the trans folks and the non-binary and the gender nonconforming folks that we all see more and more today than we did in 1991, and need a lot more of our protection.” 

But the question that the film poses for me—even though my heart breaks to think of this ghastly murder of this sweet, gorgeous woman who had a whole life ahead of her—is why does it matter so much to people who you are, or who you go to bed with? Reed suggests, “When one has a very binary-ossified view of gender and somebody walks down the street who defies these very simplistic notions of gender, well, some people don’t know how to handle that, and so they lash out.”

Unfortunately that lashing out may be what killed Venus Xtravaganza—and so many others.