Though LGBT Pride month and the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots have come and gone for this year, there is still plenty of history left to celebrate. Today marks the 65th Birthday of a true pioneer in the movement towards LGBT equality, Vito Russo.
Born in 1946 and raised in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, Russo became active with gay advocacy organizations in New York just as they began gathering momentum in the late 1960s. He joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and worked mostly as a free-lance writer, submitting essays and interviews to The Village Voice, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate. Combining his commitment to equality with a lifelong love of cinema, Russo developed a series of film and lecture presentations discussing portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters in film. Entitled “The Celluloid Closet,” these ever-changing presentations were given by Russo at universities, museums and film festivals around the world, and later inspired a book and a documentary film of the same name.
Russo was a founding member of two important advocacy organizations that remain influential in the LGBT community today: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). At ACT UP, Russo put his fiery outspokenness to use as an impassioned orator at rallies and demonstrations, raising awareness of the crises affecting him and those he loved. Through his work at GLAAD, Russo took the convictions he expressed in “The Celluloid Closet” and applied them practically, to ensure that media representations of LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS were fair and accurate. Like many advocates of his time, Russo’s life was ended far too soon by complications related to AIDS. He died on November 1, 1990, at 41 years old.
The legacy of Vito Russo is ever present in our minds at GLAAD. At the annual GLAAD Media Awards, we honor his memory by presenting an award in his name to an openly LGBT media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBT community. GLAAD encourages our readers to learn more about the life and work of Vito Russo through the various resources available. The biography Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, written by Michael Schiavo, draws on archival materials from Russo’s life, as well as conversations with his family and friends. The forthcoming documentary Activist: The Times of Vito Russo by Jeffrey Schwarz includes interviews with Russo himself and with those close to him. Though it has been nearly 30 years since its original publication, The Celluloid Closet and the documentary film it subsequently inspired are still groundbreaking in their exploration of LGBT representation in the media. Russo’s personal records, including journals, correspondence, and other materials are held by the New York Public Library. As GLAAD commemorates its 25th year as an advocacy organization, we continue to honor Vito Russo and are extremely grateful for the influence that his incredible commitment to LGBT equality continues to have for the movement.