On June, 26, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and the world erupted in celebration of gay rights. Rainbow flags flew with pride, the White House lit up in rainbow colors, and millions of Facebook users commemorated the occasion by adding a rainbow to their profile pictures. In the midst of the euphoria, there was not one mention of Vito Russo that I remember. That is akin to Americans forgetting Martin Luther King, Jr. while appreciating what the Civil Rights Movement has achieved for African Americans.
Why had so many forgotten Vito Russo? After all, the record shows he is credited with writing a landmark book (Russo, 1987) that led to the making of our featured film, The Celluloid Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1996), with being a “a giant in the fields of gay and AIDS activism” (Tomlin, 2011), and the “founding father of the gay liberation movement” (Schwartz, 2011).
Russo was born in the 1940’s and grew up in New York City and New Jersey. As a child, he was surrounded by boys playing stick ball in the alleyway, but he, himself, never felt compelled to join them. It was a lonely childhood because he knew something was different about him from other boys. Film provided an escape from those confusing emotions.
Like a good Catholic, Vito went to confession many times to ask for absolution after having sex with a man.
And of course, (the priest) recognized my voice because, you know, every week he was hearing me say this, so he says finally, ‘Look, enough is enough! Next time I’m not giving you absolution’ (Ibid., p.38).
That was a turning point for Russo, who realized that being gay was not a sin. How could it be when it felt so natural to him? It was simply a part of who he was, and he could no more change that than the color of his skin.
Cabaret Nights and Firehouse Flick
Russo began to embrace his homosexual nature and proceeded to encourage others to do the same. He reached out to other gay men through his passions for theater and film in “Cabaret Nights” and “Firehouse Flick.”
Cabaret Nights was an instant success since it guaranteed entertainment from talented gay men and gave performers an outlet to express their talents, thoughts, and feelings in a safe place. Through Firehouse Flick, Russo had the opportunity to network with gay men by gathering in an old firehouse to watch movies. This allowed good camaraderie and total acceptance from their fellow man, something they did not have in mainstream society where they were openly shunned at places of employment and multi-tenant complexes.
One Firehouse Flick movie they watched was Battle of Algiers, which fired up the audience to storm up and down 6th Avenue screaming for rights. At the same time, Russo had witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr. advancing the cause of black people in the Civil Rights Movement, which inspired him to do the same for gay people. Russo felt called to dedicate himself to improving lives of gays; thus, he became the first true activist for the gay community.
Russo’s gay rights activism cut short
Sadly, in 1990, Russo’s life was cut short by the big AIDS monster. Though he did not get to pursue gay activism for as many years as he would have liked, others were more than willing to pick up the torch and carry on through the 1990’s and beyond. There is no question progress has been made in all areas.
Today, many gay people will not have to fear their lifestyles’ affecting their jobs. People who are openly gay, e.g., Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, et al., are hired in starring roles on TV and in movies. Nary an eye is blinked at a family with gay parents, or parents of gay children. Now, we’ve achieved the ultimate: gay marriage. Michael Schiavi, Vito Russo’s biographer, believes that back then, gay marriage was so far beyond Russo’s frame of reference that he would never have conceived of that victory (2011). For that reason, Schiavi does not know how Russo might have reacted. But I think it is safe to say he would be waving a rainbow flag!
So, here we are in 2016. It would be a grave disservice not to tip our hats to Vito Russo.
Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1996). The Celluloid Closet. B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). USA: Home Box Office (HBO).
Russo, V. (1987). The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (Revised ed.): Harper & Row.
Schwarz, J. (Director). (2011). Vito. B. Singer & S. Nevens (Producers). USA: HBO Documentary Films.
Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid activist: The Life and times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.
Tomlin, L. (2011). Editorial review. In M. R. Shiavi (Ed.), Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.