Who was Vito Russo? (1946 - 1985)

Liz Highleyman | October 22, 2003

Vito Russo is best known for shining the spotlight on queers in the movies with his groundbreaking book, The Celluloid Closet. But he also devoted himself to gay liberation and AIDS activism, until the disease took his own life.

Born in July 1946, Russo grew up in East Harlem. He loved the movies from an early age and always aspired to be a journalist. He studied cinema at New York University, working in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art to pay his bills. During these years, Russo also became involved with the early gay liberation movement. On June 27, 1969, after attending Judy Garland's funeral, Russo happened upon the infamous riot at the Stonewall Inn, observing the activity from a tree across the street. He soon joined the new Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and began writing for the nascent gay press. He staged the first-ever gay film festival, screening camp classics at GAA's community center, located in an old firehouse.

Russo's love of film inspired him to embark upon his life's work, a survey of how LGBT people had been portrayed in Hollywood movies. Working as a waiter to support his travels, he spent much of the 1970s combing through film archives around the world and poring over rare clips at the Library of Congress. Finally published in 1981, The Celluloid Closet analyzed queer portrayals in some 300 films. His exhaustive research found that, before the 1930s, homosexuals were often presented as objects of ridicule. In 1934, the Hays Code mandated that "sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden on the screen." In the 1960s and '70s, although the code was loosened, queers still were usually portrayed as depraved or dangerous - victims or villains. Homophobic stereotypes in the movies, Russo argued, not only reflected the oppression of LGBT people, but also helped perpetuate it.

"In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen," he wrote. "When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at - or something to pity - or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people...and gay people what to think about themselves."

Beyond films, Russo was interested in the way queers were represented in popular culture in general, and was among the first to point out how media portrayals influenced public perceptions and treatment of LGBT people. Never content to confine himself to scholarly research, Russo took his message to the streets, protesting the 1981 film Cruising (in which an ostensibly straight cop, played by Al Pacino, goes undercover as a leatherman to investigate a series of murders in New York's SM bars), and, later, the New York Post's fear-mongering early coverage of AIDS. In 1985, Russo helped start the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which remains the LGBT community's premier media watchdog.

Russo was also a dedicated AIDS activist. In 1987, he co-founded ACT UP, which became known for its savvy use of the media. He was among those portrayed in the award-winning 1989 documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, in which he talked about his bicoastal relationship with his late partner, Jeffrey Sevcik. "Jeffrey and I dealt with our disease differently," he said. "I got angry; Jeffrey withdrew."

"[I]f I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from homophobia...I'm dying from racism...I'm dying from indifference and red tape," Russo declared in a speech at a 1988 ACT UP protest in Washington, D.C. "I'm dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a shit."

Russo lived long enough to see the unprecedented outpouring of independent queer cinema in the 1980s, as well as more diverse LGBT portrayals in commercial movies. But he was not satisfied. "Mainstream commercial films and made-for-television movies that have as their subject the allegedly controversial issue of my existence may be necessary evils but they're not for me," he wrote in the 1987 revised edition of his book. "They're for mothers in New Jersey, aunts in Kansas City, and frightened 15-year-old gay kids in Mississippi who buy Christopher Street magazine from a blind newsdealer. I'm tired of trying to figure out whether the latest well-meaning soap opera has succeeded in convincing America that I don't have horns and a tail."

Five years after his death in November 1990, a documentary version of The Celluloid Closet (directed by his friends Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) debuted, fulfilling Russo's long-time dream of having his own work appear on the silver screen. His legacy lives on in the work of GLAAD, which honors his memory with an award given annually to an openly queer entertainer who has furthered the visibility and understanding of the LGBT community (winners have included Elton John, k.d. lang, Nathan Lane, and RuPaul). And, according to Epstein, some of Russo's ashes rest inside the walls of the historic Castro Theater in the heart of the West Coast's queer mecca. -QSyndicate

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Russo, Vito. 1981, 1987. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (Harper & Row).
  • Waters, Christina. 1996. "In Vito Veritas." Metro Santa Cruz. April 11-17.
  • Wentzy, James. 2002. Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 Years of ACT UP (Frameline).

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