In Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, author Michael Schiavi explores the life of one of GLAAD’s founders and a visionary advocate for LGBT equality. Join the author at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC this Tuesday, January 10, where he will speak and show archival footage. Check out the Center’s website for more information on the event.
Russo was an outspoken advocate and author of The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, and as the publisher states, “Russo was much more than a pioneering journalist and author. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. His life as a cultural Zelig intersects a crucial period of social change, and in some ways his story becomes the story of a developing gay revolution in America.”
To celebrate the continuation of Russo’s groundbreaking work, each year the GLAAD Media Awards honors an individual with the Vito Russo Award. The award is presented to an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBT community. Previous honorees include Ricky Martin, Rosie O'Donnell, Alan Cumming, Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, Elton John, Liz Smith, k.d. lang, David LaChapelle, Brian Graden, and Tom Ford. Check out this video of Ricky Martin accepting the 2010 Vito Russo Award.
In speaking with author Michael Schiavi, it becomes clear early on why it is more important now than ever to tell Vito Russo’s story. Truthfully, as Schiavi points out, “Much has changed in gay politics and culture since Vito died in 1990.” He illustrates the challenges facing the LGBT community today including bullying, employment discrimination and the struggle for marriage equality and says, “Vito’s message of gay pride matters now more than ever. He devoted his life to tracking fair LGBT representation in popular culture. That’s still the most important step toward our integration as full members of society.”
When asked about the impact of Russo’s story for today’s equality advocates, Schiavi says,“[M]ore than anything, I hope my book shows how his work absolutely laid the groundwork for what we enjoy today. If Hollywood belatedly began to take us seriously as a community, it did so because thirty years ago, Vito Russo was screaming his head off about how grotesque it was that our every popular image was that of a victim, villain…or clown.”
Certainly when we think about Russo’s legacy in terms of LGBT people and issues in the media, his efforts remain valid today. “The need to come out of the closet never goes away. The need to stand up for our rights never goes away,” Schiavi says, “The need to monitor our popular media representation has yet to go away; homophobia still oozes from practically every mainstream ‘buddy’ film… Vito showed us how to respond to homophobia with fire and guts--and why doing so saves our lives.”
And in speaking about Russo’s impact on his own life, Schiavi shares, “I see myself as a rabid fan of the next gay generation. I've been fascinated by Vito since I was a closeted, terrified college freshman. I discovered THE CELLULOID CLOSET when I was 17. To this day it's one of my life's great regrets that I never got to meet Vito. His defiant naming of pop-culture homophobia had everything to do with my coming out when I did, realizing that being gay was not only who I was but that it also linked me with an activist history that I found overwhelmingly inspiring. It goes without saying that I had to discover that history on my own; certainly it was never mentioned in my high-school or college classes. All these years later, to end up Vito's biographer--well, I think in a parallel universe, my queer 17-year-old self can't stop grinning.”
For those of you in New York on January 10, check out his talk at the Center. To learn more about Russo’s story, look for more information on Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo through the University of Wisconsin Press or find it online here.