Guest Post By Jeff Adams
When I signed up to blog the Center’s January Second Tuesday Lecture Series featuring author Michael Schiavi disusing Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, I knew two things about Russo. First, the Center’s library was co-named after him. Second, he wrote the book The Celluloid Closet, which I had read portions of and had seen the film.
What I did not know was that he also co-founded Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) as well as ACT-UP. He was a constant, and key, fighter for the gay community from shortly after Stonewall until is death in 1990. The Celluloid Closet was a sizeable part of his activism as he documented the effect of the horrible way Hollywood portrayed gays was having on the gay community.
Schiavi’s biography looks at Russo’s life from his days growing up in East Harlem through his years researching and giving Celluloid Closet lectures and into the era of AIDS and his death.
Schiavi said that Russo was very out of place in East Harlem since he was “very intelligent, very articulate, often effeminate and shy. He suffered a lot at the hands of bullies.” It’s no surprise with that going on that he escaped into movies.
“There is no bigger film queen in history than Vito Russo,” said Schiavi.
Russo spent high school and college in New Jersey, but he escaped back to NYC as soon as he could after his graduation in 1968. The following year he witnessed the Stonewall Riots from a spot above the confrontation, in a tree. Schiavi said that violence scared Russo, but he wanted to see what was happening since gay people fighting back was unheard of at the time.
It was another incident, the raid on The Snake Pit, a West Village gay bar, on March 8, 1970, that brought Russo fully into activism. He joined up with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) after talking with a GAA member at a vigil for a young man who was impaled on a fence trying to escape from a police station.
According to Schiavi, Russo loved the GAA because it was loud and theatrical, staging “zaps,” demonstrations that targeted homophobes. While at GAA, Russo created both a Cabaret Night, where singers could sing love songs to their own gender, and Film Night.
Film night showed mainstream movies, as well as gay cinema. Russo thought he could make movie night into a lecture tour discussing how Hollywood treated gay characters. The Celluloid Closet was born as a twenty-minute lecture he gave to college groups. He knew he needed more material than that though. The twenty minutes grew to more than three hours by the time of his death in 1990.
“Vito would see a film and know why his life on the street was hell because of how the gay characters were portrayed,” said Schiavi.
From the lectures, the first edition of the book was published in 1981. Between 1973 and 1981 he was all over the world giving the lecture. There was such a demand that the book went to a second printing. However, the book quickly became dated as the first news story about AIDS broke the same week The Celluloid Closet was released.
In the wake of AIDS, Russo watched gay portrayal at the moves deteriorate further, especially in teen movies which became increasingly homophobic. He pointed to an almost mandatory use of the word “faggot” that taught teens that it was okay to use that language and to hate.
In the wake of how society was reacting to AIDS, as well as his own diagnosis, Russo took on three projects. He co-founded GLAAD to battle how gays were represented in the media. He revised The Celluloid Closet to discuss how movies portrayed AIDS (that edition was released in 1987). Also in ’87 he joined with Larry Kramer and others in the formation of ACT UP.
For Russo, GLAAD was a way for all instances of homophobia in the media to be met with a loud response. Meanwhile, ACT UP was a way to get laws changed. According to Schiavi, Russo gave one of the most, if not the most, famous of the ACT UP speeches in October 1988 at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC.
Words from that speech still resound today: “Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes — when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth — gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.”
Schiavi showed a clip of Russo giving the FDA speech. It was emotional for some audience members as there were some of Russo’s friends, people who had worked with him at various organizations, and some who had heard him speak. It shows the impact Russo’s words and actions carry more than 20 years later.