Poetry in (a)Motion.
Ballroom Freedom School (10/12)

Poetry in (a)Motion.

One hot summer day a group of passionate friends and family congregate at Jersey city hall to protect a historic landmark for the House/Ball community, and America at large.

Poetry in (a)Motion.

or How Monuments Look on Venus.

KEY:


Textual Matter: Adjectives, Adverbs, and other pertinent linguistics

DigressionsII

I. …
II. …

People and Events w/Words

Summer ‘23 was monumental. That’s simply the best way to describe it.
Pause. I know what you’re thinking, and to answer your question:

  1. No. I am not hyperbolizing the word monumental in the way teens have done since the ’80’s, like when affirming “completely” when they really mean essentially, or like the British, saying “quite” when they really mean not at all. You see, words mean things.
    1. That exported use of quite always feels, to me, unnecessarily rude and dishonest yet packaged as agreeable, until I realize my southern family and friends have completely been using “Bless your heart” in literally the same way since forever.
      1. Funnily enough, the British say something akin to “bless your heart,” except reduce it down to just “bless”, which is almost admirable in its Crystal (Labeija) clarity, Willi Ninja stealth, and *Venus Xtrav-agility.
    2. The British are cutthroat.
    3. And of course, there’s saying literally when you mean similarly. I’ll come back to that in a bit. Unpause.
  1. After images, words are the currency of the film Paris Is Burning, made rain by the most graceful *troubadoursIII you’ll ever hear: Pepper and Junior Labeija, Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, and on and on. They are a category all their own of ASMR before it was such a thing, and I just know that those ephemeral, hushed tones, the ASMR of it all bombasted or cooed by these ballroom icons and legends, plays a huge role in the film being one of the most watched documentaries of all time—outside of its critically compelling content. Alliteration. That, and their obvious love of words and careful implementation of them. Oh, and their sharp wit. Pause.
  1. Though apt in describing their function as archivists and great storytellers of our time and culture, “troubadour” is actually a misnomer for everyone mentioned above, outside of Junior Labeija, who is masculine identifying and expressing. He is the exception, because the feminine form of the term troubadour is trobairitz. It stands as its own plural.
    1. ​​The trobairitz were Occitan female troubadours of the 12th and 13th centuries. Their identity is not just serving here as the Eve to the troubadours’ Adam. They were composers, writers, performers and harbourers of music history and the first to step outside the realm of the divine to write songs about the world, or perhaps the divine found here within our world.
  2. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Dorian Corey is the bardess (self-explanatory) of Paris Is Burning. Not to mix metaphors, but she exists in my mind on a more epic scale of storytelling. Her time straddling almost every modern era of trans personae: female impersonator, drag queen, transvestite, transexual, founding mother, mother, ad infinitum… Her story was the story of them all, and so, she told it with the most credence, the most love. Unpause.        
  1. *And Venus Xtravaganza? Venus was and is the fire-breathing Dragonlily of Paris
A woman with curly red hair and bold make up wearing a neon green and zebra print outfit.
Venus Xtravaganza circa 1990 (photographer unknown)

But no. When I say my summer was monumental, I mean it. On Memorial Day weekend, the flare gun gone off igniting summer’s celebratory sprint, love met with honour and converged on my heart. After more than a year of promoting my first book, And the Category Is…, and months of planning, my gay father Michael Roberson and I finally had the Blackass, American-as-hell privilege to speak at the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in our nation’s capital. The books there hit differently (a whole section was dedicated to womanism). The people there met us differently (the amount of “thank you”s we received were unprecedented). And as I took a picture in front of the monument, a marble landmark of unmitigated equity and inquiry, MLK’s words reverberated within me as if from a hall built entirely of tuning forks. The momentousness was not lost on me.

There on stage, we described what Ballroom even is because that’s never not on the menu, the policing of our own Blackness (both the only real example yet inverse of Black-on-Black crime), and the impact of found families on kids’ lives, and more specifically, from where I stood next to mine, found fathers.

My mother was also there. The two finally met. I have video of them pointing at franchise restaurant menu items and gesturing happily like grown folks do when they have you and their age in common, which they’re both looking good for. Proud young parents. My sister was there, and was happy that my best friend was too, for familiarity’s sake, which is something that makes me proud to have sparked. My nephews—who may as well be my kids—were there, proving by sheer genetic output and optics that I am, in fact, not adopted. You can only entertain that for so long. The youngest one, who we call Boogie, age 4, ran up on stage and sat on my lap as we prepped for the show. He was right though. Any stage of mine is his. Later, because I’d missed my train, my family and I drove back up to NY from DC and took them to Legoland using the only giveaway I ever received as a longtime regular “co host” (audience member) on the Wendy Williams Show: four free tickets that would have expired the day after we used them. I’m waiting on my uncle-of-the-year award, but that might have come in a picture of the two nephews cheesing in front of a Lego-made dojo with life size Lego Ninjas, karate-chopping the air. We all won.

My sister stayed on after Legoland, and my oldest friend, Ariel, who I’ve known since we were 10 years old, came up from Asheville with her little boy, Luka. Each morning, the four of us fetched and ate bagels, and one afternoon, took the nearby ferry to DUMBO where we rode carousel horses by the water. The next day, I did a reading for TLDEF’s Pride and Joy: Stories for Trans Youth, an annual summer event during pride month that grants young trans folks (everyone, really) access to stories that reflect their experience. I brought Ariel and Luka with me, along with my little sister. I also brought a ZZ Plant for my co-presenter Cecilia Gentili, the activist and Pose actress who’d spotted on camera my thriving mother ZZ during our Zoom dress rehearsal a few weeks back. I told her I’d bring her a clipping, and so I did. Cecilia, several other queer friends, and I are all now connected through a network of sibling plants. I’d needed that type of gesture in my life. To project outward, instead of in. And a week later, I saw Beyoncé perform in Barcelona. That’s right, Beyonthé en Barthelona—en Estadio Olímpico Lluís Companys. Monumental. Epic even. She told us it was the best show she’d done, thus far.

  1. Spoiler Alert: Generally, I held my own. Didn’t cry a ton, barely at all. I paused when Bey said, pause, and that was before it was really a thing. I’m good for pausing—see above and below.I I screamed a respectable amount when, like a shotgun, Ballroom MC and legend Kevin Prodigy announced the festivities. But I kept my composure, until the end of the show when a photo of Ms. Tina (I refuse to introduce her to you) and Uncle Jonny, Beyoncé and Solange’s cousin/”uncle” who once designed their winning garments, later died of AIDS-related complications, and is the late man for whom Renaissance is dedicated.
    1. I lost it.
      1. To be fair, I lost it because prior to Spain in North Carolina, I lost my aunt and two family friends from the same epidemic. I was 13 years old.
    2. Overlapping grief is one of the reasons Ballroom is my family.
      1. A Venn Diagram that is often a circle.
        1. The difference is my words. I express them professionally and at Ballroom’s disposal. Though, words we very much have in common.

I was only there in Spain for 48 hours—in and out. While my friends stayed behind, sleeping the way you do when you’re on vacation in Spain, and gave Bey your all, which means you screamed all night, and have nowhere to be the next day, I hailed a taxi to the airport. My nice cabbie lady and I chatted for a bit, and as we were released from the rotary that led to the museu that led to Estadio Olimpico, I sent the following WhatsApp to my resting girls, the group entitled “Beyonthé”:

…Love y’all. I had a blast 💥can’t wait till August.
PS. My cab driver changed the radio from talk to Kiss fm.
They were playing “Halo”(by Beyonthé) right when we were
hitting the giant rotary by the museum. I told her I saw Beyoncé
last night and she said, “Me too!” We’d both been sitting there
getting misty-eyed about it. She said she had an “emotional hangover”. 💔
🌃💃🏽

But I had to get back to NYC for another momentous occasion—the LAMBDA Literary Awards, a.k.a the Lammys. The book was nominated for Gay Nonfiction. I flew back, and arrived at the Lammys the same day, where the person I love most was waiting. He was visiting from South Africa. It had been a few years, and he was there on a surprise work trip, and as my date. The night was magical, and though I didn’t win an award, as I told my girls back in Barthelona, I still won. Somehow, without having had a single hand in the matter, I found myself sitting amongst a circle of my most cherished friends, along with his, which formed a venn diagram, all to listen to my father, Michael Roberson, speak at the Greenspace in Manhattan. The South Africans, New Yorkers, my love and I meditated on Michael’s words, many I’d heard before but with a newfound profundity spurned by love’s gathering. A Monumental yet regular ritual in my life. This is the House of the lord. This is Ballroom. This church. Some of father’s words from that night, as he stood in front of a monitor that would by the end of his lecture read, solemnly yet fixed—House Lives Matter:

When all of the social forms that we use for human development—church, school, family, community repeat that same message [of queer abomination] and then we’re asked to engage and protect bodies we are told is no good to god—for me the message had to shift.

These are the scriptures I’ve committed to memory. Revelations of an entirely other sort.

  1. I’m a writer and a writing teacher, and very sensitive to words, and so, careful in my use of them. Not so much in texts, and especially not in conversation. I mean, my metaphors remain flowery, but I’m dead set on the fact that the whole point of writing is that it’s a premeditated practice in economy. Not word-exorbitant or obnoxious with overly flowery metaphors. It’s a game of kill your darlings, not pump up the word count. So give your surprisingly shy, succinct, basic-speaking writer friend a break. Stop correcting and questioning their word choices with a side eye. They’re a human who’s not on the clock, and ironically, you sound annoying if not kinda dumb to them. Literally.
    1. And so, finally I don’t mean monumental in the way that news crawls exaggerate dogs befriending baby ducks, or a water main break on 6th and 13th, to be “breaking news” or in the instance of dog-duck merger, even news at all. No.
    2. I think the media’s aforementioned scale dysmorphia paired with its function as a significant collaborator in our collective realities (both conscious and unconscious) is literally a sign of end times.
      1. The term “literal sense” seems oxymoronic.
        1. But what do I know. “Same difference” used to toss my mind into a spacetime, oxymoronic k-hole as a child. I know its meaning through context, but making it make sense to me, really getting a grasp on what it means eludes me. It only gets worse as I age.
      2. We are in the Upside Down.
    3. No. The summer was literally monumental until it wasn’t.

Then it was radio silence.

Everyone had left the city, and there were a couple of weeks where I wanted to be alone—I’d been so public for weeks and everyone and my momma had been in my apartment. But suddenly alone wasn’t a choice. The summer days beyond my front door had gone all mean and heat-cracked, and my memory of being loved was becoming only a hazy drug cloud, hearsay, my mind left an unjolted frazzle. I started calling bi-hourly trips to dig for spoonfuls of Americone Dream “meals”, walks to the bodega “exercise”, texting “I’m alright” to friends “talking”, and all of these things part of my “staycation”. They are not. Then Michael called.

It seemed Venus (Pellagatti) Xtravaganza’s biological family had joined forces with her House (Xtravaganza) family, and some members of my gay family to have her childhood home made a landmark. And father asked me to come with. We were going to Jersey City Hall! The next day, I put on my best summer polo and shorts and headed to the path train in Greenwich Village.

  1. If you don’t know:
    Venus Xtravaganza is the fire-breathing Dragon Lily of Paris… Her legacy doesn’t just rest in her trans visibility, or rather, merely what we so tritely run into the ground as representation, it is the quality of what we see on the screen. And even more profoundly beyond that, it is her surgery-level, scalpel-precise precision with words. She is a heroine of trans-latin identity and a precocious prodigy of a trobairitz. Her most famous words and likely the most quoted scene in the film Paris Is Burning

VENUS XTRAVAGANZA
Now you wanna talk about reading? Let’s talk about reading. What is wrong with you, Pedro? Are you going through it? You’re going through some kind of psychological change in your life? Oh, you went back to being a man. 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.

Granted. Gorgeous and lethally executed. But after seeing the film so many times, the one-sided fencing match of it all becomes less impressive. Although, poor Pedro likely never even stood a chance. En guarde, yet no touché. What does it for me, in terms of Venus’ superior words, are the quiet moments in her home, in her bedroom, where she’s pondering what I feel was never the merits of whiteness, as one might project—looking at you Judith Butler—but instead the ability to imagine oneself floating up out of America’s racist, classist, impossibly heavy caste system, and transcending it all. It’s just a different vocabulary. Venus was above it all, and somehow still a lady.

But those creative coos with wood-panelled backdrops, and Puerto Rican kitchen pot inflections are, in fact, the nascence of Ball Culture and the crux of theology. The sparks that make us in God’s image, which was never chastity, whiteness, maleness, colonialism, et al. It’s just making stuff. Including your own reality. And knowing you can. One of the best examples of these monologues ended up on the cutting room floor, never making it to the 1990 release of Paris Is Burning… until recently when the film became—rightfully—distributed by Criterion Collection:

VENUS
(when Director Jennie Livingston asks what beauty means to her): Beauty can be a lot. It’s good skin… soft lips… silky, beautiful, gorgeous hair. Taking care of yourself. And if you don’t take care of that beauty, it all fades. And what are you going to do when it fades, except live on what you can? And then, that’s when you have to use your mind. Your intelligence. And put it to work, and make use of it. Beauty can be in everything.

  1. Though it may not be obvious, this line reminds me in feel, rhythm, and by the end content, of a famous ’90’s Charlie Rose interview (may his credibility R.I.P) with Toni Morrison (May her everything rest in peace, as she gave us more than her all. She gave us everything).
    1. Where she says:
      “If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. Part of it is, ‘yes, the victim. How terrible it’s been for black people.’ I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one… if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
      1. Both quotes live rent-free in my mind. I’ve taught them in my classes.
    2. Ms. Toni and Venus’ quotes have this air to them that suggest it’s time we get to work. Lovingly Instructive, almost suggestive, yet seriously foreboding, and pointing to how our merit and divinity may soon be in question, lest we get to getting started right away.
      1. And as our angels on the other side, these two would know. Unpause.

One last quote from Venus Xtravaganza:

I believe in God. I love God, and I speak to God every night.

My father Michael, brother Nolan Maison Margiela, our friend Cecilia and I got on the PATH train and headed to the Oz that is Jersey. I grabbed some water from what I assume Jersey City also calls a bodega—because June is my season of perpetual sweat—and then we took Black Power Jesse Owens pics to encapsulate what we were sure was going to be an historic afternoon. As soon as we walked into City Council a lightning bolt thrown down by nerd Zeus himself shot through me—I was going to learn so much about civics that day! I leaned over to Michael as we walked up to chambers and said, “Oh my god, I just realized I’m going to learn so much about civics today!” Before the lesson began, we’d be greeted by Venus’ two brothers, John and Joseph, and her niece Jillian—friendly, fiery, and all so smart. A camera crew followed the proceedings, as our friend Mike was filming a documentary about the life and death of Venus, along with our fam, producer Jonovia Chase. When the Xtravs showed up, jaws dropped. Stunning glamazons. There was also another ballroom writer there who I greeted with the excitement of a thinker ready to exchange ideas and words. Because I know that’s our privilege and responsibility. There room for everyone and enough work to do. It was so exciting.

Two black people pose on a marble staircase with gold ornamentation.
Nolan Mason Margiela and Michael Roberson, Jersey City Hall, June 28 2023. Photo: Ricky Tucker

Let. Me. Tell. You. It was fascinating, and the things that happened in council that day could fill up two more essays. Here’s the nuts and bolts:

  1. There was only one, maybe two other motions that day, the last being the one to make Venus’ home a landmark. The other was to prevent a construction company, the villains of the day, from tearing down an old landmark of a building in the city’s square to erect “yet another” park.
    1. The people were a regular cast of characters who seemingly show up to every council meeting. And they weren’t having it.
    2. We, the newcomers, quickly chose the side of the citizens. Leave that landmark/lady’s old family building alone. Those white men can build a park elsewhere.
    3. It’s not okay to shout “booooo” at anybody at city hall, even if they seem villainous to you.
      1. Especially if you’re newcomers.
        1. The Speaker of Council said this to Nolan and me.
          1. What?!—we were so engaged!
    4. You ever seen the show Parks and Recreation during the city council meetings? How Patton Oswald was fighting for things like a Wolverine statue in Pawnee town square? This was sometimes close to that, and therefore fascinating and funny…
    5. One man was present at every meeting and you could just tell by the bemused faces of the council member:
      1. He complained that no one read and responded to his complaints.
      2. A council member (a Black woman) got him right together, saying she had receipts of her email replies and please don’t make her present them. Don’t do her like that.
    6. Anyone can testify for or against a motion, and that is made clear. So much that they are timed. In this way it was a lot like Showtime at The Apollo, which is why I think Nolan and I felt free to boo people. It definitely has nothing to do with how we were raised…
    7. I grabbed a copy of the agenda from the front of the room. I looked at Michael. “That’s a historical document,” he whisper shouted. I responded, “I know!”
      1. I grabbed a copy of the agenda.
      2. The form of the essay that I am writing and you are reading at this very moment is similar to that historical agenda I grabbed.
    8. At the end of the proceedings, it was clear Venus’ childhood home would in fact become a landmark, definitely by the following and final council meeting several weeks later. And it did.
  2. I’m going to get out of the way now, and let those whose words came together on behalf of Venus to make her childhood home today a Jersey City, NJ (Trans) landmark.
  3. But before I go. Know:
    1. Words can move mountains.
    2. Erect monuments.
    3. And deem landmarks and saints of those prior to deemed unredeemable.
  4. Words are miracles.
A row of empty chairs in front of a large American flag and two stained glass windows.
City Hall, before testimonies in favour of Venus Xtravaganza’s childhood home becoming a Jersey City, NJ landmark, June 28 2023. Photo: Ricky Tucker

Venus’ Niece, Jillian Pellagatti:

“If you watch Paris is Burning, like many other people, you fall in love with Venus, and due to her murder, I also had to fall in love with her on screen. Because I did not get the opportunity to get to know her personally. But this opportunity for her chosen family and her biological family to get to know each other has been remarkable. I feel like I’m closer to Venus than I have ever been before… I want my kids to grow up in a world where they don’t have to see a flag in a window to feel safe when walking into a space…”

Venus’ Brother, John Pellagatti:

“I lost my sister more than 30 years ago…She did change a lot of lives, not just here in Jersey City, but in the world. Trust me what I’m telling ya…. Please. Consider what everyone is saying. I trust you’ll do the right thing. I know some of Yas personally. And I greatly appreciate your time. Thank you.”

Current Owner of Venus’ Childhood Home:

“…We bought the house in 1994, and in the pre-Google days, we did as much research as we could trying to ascertain if anyone notable or significant had ever lived in the house, and came up short…except in recent months… We did a restoration. The floors that Venus walked on are still there, the walls that sheltered her are still there, and the windows she looked out of and into a future of a future that never came are still there. I encourage landmarking the house so that time isn’t forgotten again, and that people can look out of the windows and dream of the future. Thank you.”

Venus Documentarian, Mike Stafford:

My wife and I started researching the case in July of 2019, reached out to the Pellagattis in the spring of 2020 and started shooting on our own in October of 2020. Jonovia Chase (incomparable & legendary) has been on the project almost since the beginning and introduced us to the Xtravaganzas in the spring of 2021.  Jonovia is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. Venus’s childhood home is a tangible historical asset that anchors the trans and ballroom communities. It is one of the few, if there are any, remaining from Venus’ time period (1960s-1980s).” 

Jonovia Chase:

“…I’m here today to represent the part of my community who are hopeless, that don’t have anyone to confide in… to ultimately make sure that they can peer back over their shoulder and know that their lives and legacies are sustained in some kind of special way. Meeting the Pellagatti family has been very significant. This project would be the first landmark for the House-Ball Community. I’m here to ensure and showcase that in our community and as chosen family, we are here showing up for each other. I hope that you understand the life of Venus and the dualities of her experience, how great it is for this milestone to exist, and how important it is for LBTQ individuals to have a place here in Jersey City. Thank you.”

Giselle Xtravaganza (Mother of the Haus of Xtravaganza):

“I just want to say how important this day is for us, for my community, for my people, for my world, for our survival, for our existence. We desperately need this to show the world that we have people that support us and care about us, and that we mean something… That’s all I can say. And we would love your support. Thank you.”

A black person wearing a baseball cap sits on a wooden bench in a high ceilinged room with gold ornamentation.
Michael Roberson, preparing to make history with his words, Jersey City Hall, June 28 2023. Photo: Ricky Tucker

Michael Roberson:

“Hello, My name is Michael Roberson, and I’m here today speaking on the behalf of Venus Xtravaganza. I am an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary and The New School university in NYC… Over the month and some change that we’ve observed the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I’m newly aware that most of us paid more attention to it because we were in a global pandemic and a global pause we aspire to greater. In Missouri a Black trans woman named Nina Pop was murdered. Six days after that, in the same town as George Floyd, a Black trans woman was brutally beaten by 30 people. And even in this global pause, the echoes of these trans women were never heard. But the legacy of Venus Xtravaganza said very differently. We know that in 1988, Venus was brutally murdered.“

“Venus comes from the community that emerges from the Harlem Renaissance in contestation with the Black Church trying to get rid of Black queers in Harlem that had migrated across the country and creates a house Ball structure in the ’60s. The Haus of Xtravaganza is the first Black house that is formed by Angie and Hector. Venus emerges from that space. And only from the ancestors of such powerful women could she bring her biological family and house/ball families together. And I’m here to tell you, that in our community that is unheard of. I’m the founder of the House of Maison Margiela, and we have joined forces at this moment. And so Venus’ legacy as a Latin Trans woman is for Latin Trans Women, yes, but it’s also for African American Trans Women, but it’s also for LGBTQ people around the world, but it’s also for you. Because her legacy speaks to the old adage that says, ‘None of us can be free until we’re all free.’ I want to thank you for hearing the echoes of so many people whose echoes go unheard. I promise you that you’ll be rewarded by the universe and you’re on the right side of history. I thank you.”

“Thank you,” said the council. And they meant it. Literally. 

Three black people standing on the steps in front of a city hall building. Two have raised fists, and the third is giving the peace sign.
Family Making History: Writer, Ricky Tucker; Father, Michael Roberson, and Son, Nolan Maison Margiela. Photo: Nolan Maison Margiela

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