A mild-mannered movie buff, Vito Russo emerged in the 1980s to become one of the most visible and vocal advocates of gay rights, his biographer Michael Schiavi said in delivering the inaugural William R. Johnson Guestship Lecture on October 12.
Russo marched in the streets and screamed that it was wrong to depict homosexuals as wretched people and deny them the basic freedoms enjoyed by others, said Schiavi, author of the recently published biography, Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo.
In his lecture at the Frick Center, “Vito Russo, a Gay American Hero,” Schiavi described Russo as “a rabid film queen” who became so incensed at the way homosexuals were treated in the media and by society that he became a relentless advocate for basic rights. At the time, gays could be fired or evicted because of their sexual identity or be arrested for holding hands in public.
Schiavi, a professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology, said Russo inspired gays to “come out of the closet, tell people who you are and don’t be ashamed.”
“We have the rights we have today because of Vito Russo,” he added.
Schiavi’s lecture capped a two-day program that named Elmhurst College’s LGBT Guestship in honor of Johnson ’68, the first openly gay person to be ordained to a mainstream Christian ministry. Johnson is vice president of the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries of the United Church of Christ (UCC).
The celebration came as the College has drawn national attention for being the first academic institution to ask an optional question on sexual identity on its application. The question reflects the College’s commitment to diversity and is meant to let LGBT students know that they will find the resources and welcoming environment at Elmhurst that will enable them to succeed.
On October 11, Johnson participated in an inaugural conversation on Christian theology and the LGBT person, along with Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray, Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and Dr. Riess Potterveld, president of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, where Johnson attended seminary after graduating from Elmhurst. Johnson was a close friend of Russo and a source for Celluloid Activist.
A rebirth of gay activism
The biography’s title is a play on the title of Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, a groundbreaking critique of the portrayal of homosexuals in films as comical or hapless people who were a threat to society.
Schiavi said Celluloid Closet exposed how “those miserable portrayals of gays that always ended badly had enormous impact on society. No wonder they make laws against us, and no wonder they feel free to bash us on the streets.” In an interview before the lecture, Schiavi noted that the treatment of gay characters never was done in a thoughtful way. “If all you ever saw of gays in films were clowns, killers or a suicide, that affected how you (as gay) viewed yourself. You never really saw gays as people,” he said.
Though Russo’s book had a significant impact in the gay community during the 1980s, it did little to improve how gays were depicted in movies, largely because the outbreak of AIDS cast homosexuals in a new, and even more negative light.
AIDS sparked what Schiavi called “a resurgence, a rebirth of gay activism,” and Russo was at the forefront. In 1985, he co-founded Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a watchdog group that monitors LGBT treatment in the mainstream media. Two years later Russo co-founded the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a political-action organization that campaigned for a national policy on treating AIDS, which by then was claiming thousands of lives annually.
Schiavi showed a video clip of Russo speaking at an AIDS rally in Washington that condemned inaction and indifference by the Reagan administration (President Ronald Reagan didn’t mention AIDS publicly for six years) that illustrated Russo’s fiery style.
Russo, who had been diagnosed with AIDS, at one point tells the crowd, “If I’m dying of anything, it’s from homophobia.” Russo died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 44.
Though he never met Russo, Schiavi credits him with opening his eyes to the concept of gay rights. As a “closeted and scared” college freshman who “never said I was gay out loud,” Schiavi stumbled across Celluloid Closet, which covered Schiavi’s two main interests, film and gay rights. At the time, “I didn’t even know there were gay rights,” he said.
After years of being afraid to come out, Schiavi said Russo’s book helped him overcome that fear and enjoy the freedom of being who he was. He moved to New York City and marched in the 1992 Gay Pride Parade, where he walked the length of Fifth Avenue hand-in-hand with his boyfriend.
“It was amazing to do that in public,” Schiavi told Elmhurst students in an informal discussion before his speech. “People were cheering us.”