After coming out and becoming secure in my identity as a gay man, I naturally gravitated toward films with LGBT themes. This was the early '90s, and movies like My Own Private Idaho, The Living End, Poison and Swoon were formative. These films were outré, edgy and empowering for a young queer. Even though I was a newbie, there was one book that everyone knew was the Bible of gay film. It was called The Celluloid Closet, by somebody named Vito Russo. That book was incredibly empowering for me personally, because it fused my passion for film with my burgeoning gay identity. Vito introduced me to a whole world of images I had no idea existed, and helped me see films in a new way. He opened my eyes to the ways Hollywood had depicted LGBT characters on film -- as either frivolous clowns, twisted and psychotic villains, or pathetic victims. As an activist, Vito knew that the key to acceptance was visibility and championed sympathetic and realistic portrayals of our lives.
Around that time, I read an interview in The Advocate with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman about their upcoming documentary adaptation of The Celluloid Closet for HBO Documentary Films. I jumped at the chance to be part of it and moved to San Francisco to become an apprentice editor on the film. Working with Rob and Jeffrey on The Celluloid Closet film adaptation gave me a chance to help bring Vito's vision to the screen. It also allowed me to get to know Vito Russo, only three years after his death from AIDS. It was his desire during his lifetime that a film be made from his book, and his spirit was very much guiding the making of that film.
During the making of The Celluloid Closet, I had access to a treasure trove of Vito's original research -- interviews, articles, videotapes, lectures -- and best of all, Rob and Jeffrey's extended conversations with Vito himself. Beyond his work as a film scholar, I learned about Vito's life as an activist within the early gay liberation movement, how he integrated his love of movies with his critique of how they represented LGBT people, and of course the personal story of the years he spent battling AIDS. As he watched the world he loved crumble beneath his feet during the AIDS epidemic, he found a way to channel his rage and grief into effective and history-making activism via ACT UP, which he co-founded. Although he didn't live long enough to see much of the progress he had been hoping for, his work forever changed the landscape for those living with the disease.
When Rob and Jeffrey were making The Celluloid Closet, they had at one time considered making Vito Russo part of the story. In the end they decided, wisely, I think, to focus on just the films themselves, so Vito's full story has never been properly told. Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement -- from the dark days of pre-Stonewall invisibility, to the Stonewall rebellion and its aftermath, to the emergence of LGBT critical studies and independent filmmaking, the formation of GLAAD, and of course the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. His story is the story of the LGBT community, and I felt that making a documentary about him could make these struggles personal and relatable. A film could contextualize how he and his gay liberation brothers and sisters were able to begin to overcome homophobia and oppression, and emerge from invisibility to liberation. Now, thanks to HBO Documentary Films and the visionary Sheila Nevins, Vito Russo will be rightfully acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of the LGBT civil rights movement to the widest possible audience.
As time marches on, a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about pioneers like Vito Russo and how he made it possible for us to live proudly and openly in the world. Although 2011 has been a watershed year for the advancement of LGBT civil rights, Vito would probably ask more of our community. Vito was a citizen activist who took it upon himself to agitate for change. My guess is he wouldn't want us to rely on lobbying organizations to do the work for us. He would want us out there in the streets confronting homophobia and injustice of all kinds, and not just in our safe zones of Chelsea, the Castro and West Hollywood.
As an activist, Vito knew that one of the keys to full equality and acceptance was visibility in the mainstream media. He understood the power of movies and television to convey who we are as a people. His life's work was to critique, encourage and champion fair and accurate portrayals of LGBT people. His work has been out of favor in recent years in academia, in that there's a misperception that he was simply looking at images as purely "positive" or "negative" portrayals. Vito just wanted balance, and for LGBT sexuality to be a non-issue. He would have no problem with a gay villain, for example, as long as the character's homosexuality wasn't what made him so detestable. All in all, we've made enormous progress in LGBT visibility in the media. Of course he would never be satisfied. For every Weekend, Modern Family or The Kids Are All Right, there are still plenty of stereotypes and fag jokes.
Vito's message of standing up, speaking out and living passionately and bravely in the face of adversity is something we can all aspire to, regardless of sexual orientation. More than 20 years after Vito's death, members of the LGBT community around the world still face prejudice and persecution, and HIV/AIDS is still a crisis. Vito knew the goal of equality and justice would not be achieved in his lifetime, but that it would come to pass. It's my hope that this film will allow his work to once again move and inspire us all as we continue the battles that he once fought.
Vito's story is our story. We are all living the end result Vito's work, and our freedom and visibility is his gift to us.