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.
It seems strange that our understanding of human diversity is still so shallow in 2016, especially regarding our gender differences. Shouldn’t this particular human difference be one that we all know a lot about by now? It’s often the case however that we cover our ignorance or discomfort with certain topics by laughing about them.
Comedy as Bullying
Sometime last year, as I thought about the portrayal of comedy in motion pictures, I pondered the notion that comedy is used as a vehicle for poking fun at (i.e., bullying) and thereby possibly further marginalizing underserved groups in the U.S. such as gays.
The popular films of the Golden Age could only hint at homosexuality and often portrayed gays as simpering characters, objects of scorn or merriment, or insidious villains (Top doc, 2016).
As it turns out, other researchers have had those same thoughts, and have both studied and written about them, e.g., Lugowski, 1999.
As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, … queer men tended to appear as one of two types. The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy” sometimes befuddled, incompetent, and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn).
Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier type sporting lipstick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere (Lugowski, 1999).
Can We Learn about Human Diversity through Comedy?
Recognizing the extraordinary influence of movies in shaping our culture, I then wondered about how, in contrast, comedy might gently introduce us to people and situations that may be uncomfortable or unknown to us, and therein provide education that possibly leads to new knowledge.
At the same time, and especially given the social taboos historically associated with particular topics and types of people, I thought it might be difficult, but not impossible, to track how we have portrayed genderqueers in film over time. Yet again, but no longer surprising, I find that this very topic has been investigated already.
However, what is surprising, is to learn who provided the investigation. Vito Russo, writer, and director of this month’s film—and author of the book on which it is based—provides evidence of the presence of gay and bisexual actors and stories in Hollywood since the beginning of motion pictures. “It proved to be revelatory, in part because of Russo’s embrace of bricolage, a concept borrowed from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss” (Kennedy, 2011). Shiavi (2009) states that Russo’s work is “indispensable to our reading of gender and sexuality on screen.”
Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies is approaching its thirtieth anniversary. Prior to its 1981 publication (and 1987 revision), there had been only two major critical works on the portrayal of homosexuals in film: Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1971) and Richard Dyer’s Gays in Film (1977), neither of which has enjoyed the popularity or influence of Closet.
Even though dismissed as inadequate in queer film theory, Vito Russo’s activist works are important and visible in today’s texts on the topic because they record his particular contribution to film history and to film criticism related to gay rights and human diversity. In Celluloid Activist, Schiavi (2011) realigns Russo’s legacy, positioning both his politics and his film scholarship on twin pedestals.
Film History and Public Policy
Now, let’s turn to public policy and see how film history might correspond to regulation, which is also a measure of public values and public sentiment. At the outset, motion pictures profoundly affected communication and society, and as now, created fear in the minds of many as to the potential changes they might bring.
By speaking to mass audiences directly, movies all too easily bypassed traditional agencies of socialization—the church, the school, the family. For many they came to symbolize the important changes taking place in the structure of power and influence in the early twentieth century United States, and those groups who feared that their own influence in society was diminishing viewed them as a threat. Fierce debates over the content and control of this new medium arose in the early days of silent film and intensified with the advent of sound technology (Vaughan, 1990, p.39).
The new film industry created an uproar across the nation regarding the acceptability of content being produced for public viewing, typically regarding sex-related content. Last month, we discussed censorship and the structure of the MPAA in the U.S. The Hays Code became the “official” self-regulating guidelines for what was released for viewing by the six major studios during the Golden Age. However, and prior to that, the government had been involved in such regulation, which had begun in the legislatures of various states. In fact, interestingly we have just past the 100 year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), in which, by a 9-0 vote, the Court ruled that the free speech protection of the Ohio Constitution—which was substantially similar to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—did not extend to motion pictures. Not until 1952 were movies granted protection under the First Amendment.
At that point, the Hays Code was eliminated and replaced with a rating system similar to what we have today, which is becoming more and more relaxed. To relate the rating system to its effects, now two-thirds of Hollywood movies made each year are R-rated; most young people have seen these movies long before they are the required 16 years old (Greenberg et al., 1993).
A person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to males/men and females/women. This attraction does not have to be equally split between genders, and there may be a preference for one gender over others.
A construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.
Closeted (In the Closet)
Refers to a homosexual, bisexual, queer, trans* person, or intersex person who does not or cannot disclose their identity or identities to others.
1) The process by which one accepts one’s own sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status (to come out to oneself); 2)The process by which one shares one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status with others (to come out to friends, etc.). This can be a continual, life-long process for homosexual, bisexual, trans*, and intersex people.
1) Term used to refer to homosexual- / same-gender-loving communities as a whole, or as an individual identity label for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual; 2) Term used in some cultural settings to specifically represent male-identified people who are attracted to other male-identified people in a romantic, erotic, and/or emotional sense.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity is outside of, not included within, or beyond the binary of female and male; 2) Gender non-conformity through expression, behavior, social roles, and/or identity.
Lifestyle norm that insists that people fall into distinct genders (male and female), and naturalizes heterosexual coupling as the norm.
Brown, J. D. (2002). Mass media influences on sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 42-45.
Dyer, R. (1983). Review essay: Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the movies. Studies in Visual Communication (Spring), 52-55.
Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). B. Grey, S. Nevens, H. Rosenman, & L. Tomlin (Producers). (1996). The Celluloid Closet [Motion Picture]. USA: Home Box Office (HBO).
Greenberg, B. S., Siemicki, M., Dorfman, S., Heeter, G., Lin, G., Stanley, G. (1993). Sex content in R-rated films viewed by adolescents. In B. S. Greenberg, J. D. Brown, & N. Buerkel-Rothfuss (Eds.), Media, sex and the adolescent (pp. 45-58). Gresskill. NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
Jowett, G. S. (1989). A Capacity for evil: The 1915 Supreme Court mutual decision. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 9(1), 59-78.