Childhood Jersey City home of Trans icon to become historic landmark

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza home in Jersey City
Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza home in Jersey City

In a unanimous 6-0 vote, the Jersey City Council voted to preserve the childhood home of iconic trans activist Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza on July 12. The home, located on Eighth Street of the Hamilton Park neighborhood, is the famous filming location of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, a story that lit the way for LGBTQ representation.

Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza was a trailblazing figure on the ballroom scene, a pioneer and transgender activist and civil empowerment for the LGBTQ+ community,” Chris Perez, an openly gay community member said at the council meeting. “Venus was colorful, bold, passionate, and determined. She followed her heart and is still surrounded by a circle of love.”

The world met 20-year-old Venus through the filming of the now-legendary film Paris Is Burning. On-screen — which was a rarity for its time — audiences had the opportunity to learn what it was like for a young, transgender woman to discover her identity. The film’s portrayal of Venus’ authentic self is known for being a source of inspiration and empowerment within the LGBTQ community.

“Not only for my family, but for the transgender community, the LGBTQ community, that’s historic,” Venus’ older brother John Pellagatti Jr., a current Hudson County resident, said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling. We spent so many years there as a family.”

The Pellagatti family lived in close corridors to one another in their neighborhood. Throughout the 1980s, Venus’ Italian side of the family lived on one side of the street, and the Puerto Rican side lived on another. The home being preserved, 343 ½ Eighth Street, is where Venus resided with her grandmother, as well as where the interviews for the film were taped.

Paris Is Burning introduced (and continues to introduce) outsider communities to ballroom culture, an underground LGBTQ subculture predominantly composed of Black and Latino LGBTQ folk. The community, formed in the late 20th century, rose to oppose racial discrimination within the mainstream drag pageant circuit.

In traditional ballroom culture, members belonged to a “house,” which served as both a family-like structure of community and a group with which to compete in competitions. Members would traditionally take their “house’s” name in its honor. That is how Venus gained her name — from her house, The House of Xtravaganza.

The current “house mother” of The House of Xtravaganza, Gisele Alicea, was one of several community members who helped curate the process of getting Venus’ house preserved as a historic landmark. In her passionate testimony to the Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission, she recalled the moment she first watched Paris Is Burning as a teenager.

“I definitely was inspired by Venus and inspired by the whole scene,” Alicea said. “To me they were magnificent. They were beautiful. I couldn’t believe that they were so proud to be themselves, and they owned themselves.”

Jersey City celebrated the soon-to-be designation of the landmark with an event on Trans Day of Visibility. Together, Mayor Steven Fulop, the Pellagatti family, the House of Xtravaganza, Hudson Pride, and Garden State Equality commemorated the life of Venus.

Dominique Jackson, star of the television show Pose, joined the celebration, stating, “Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza’s story is our story.”

While Venus was revered in the local ballroom community, she never rose to fame during her lifetime. At the age of 23, Venus was murdered, a crime that has never seen justice.

There are talks of a documentary film being made in honor of Venus, though details from those involved are being held back.

Until then, the local LGBTQ community looks forward to the positive impact that will come from preserving the iconic home of the inspiring Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza.

“(Venus’ story) is one that so many in the LGBTQ+ community can relate to,” Elizabeth Schedl, executive director of the Hudson Pride Center, said. “This landmarking will increase awareness and education, as well as become a known iconic space dedicated not only to her, but to all our gender-diverse community members. Thank you Jersey City for continuing to be a supportive safe place that celebrates and honors its diversity.”