For the next little biography, I wanted to write about Vito Russo. Vito was an activist, a film historian, author and founder of GLAAD. As such, Vito’s legacy is far reaching and crucial, if one is to assert that visibility is crucial to equality.
Born in 1946 in New York City, Vito grew up in East Harlem. From an early age, he knew he was “different”, and he used to sneak as a young boy from Harlem to Manhattan to go to the movies.
Graduating from New York University with a master’s degree in cinema in 1971, Vito immediately started working as a film distributor for the Museum of Modern Art from 1971 to 1973. He later did the same role for Cinema 5 Limited from 1973 to 1975. Growing political in the wake of Stonewall, Russo became active in gay politics, joining New York’s Gay Activist’s Alliance in 1970.
Russo also explored writing and presenting in this period. In the mid-1970s, he wrote a column for Gaysweek with Arthur Bell. This was the first of many articles and columns written by Vito. He also wrote “Russo on Film” for The Advocate and various pieces for Rolling Stone, New York, Outweek, The Village Voice and Esquire. He also presented lectures on the treatment of gay characters in film. Named The Celluloid Closet, this was presented around the globe, becoming the basis of the book of the same name.
The 1980s were the peak of Vito Russo’s career. Vito’s novel The Celluloid Closet was published in 1981 and was later turned into a film, with praise being heaped upon Vito for exposing how LGBT+ characters had been portrayed in film. Vito continued to work in media and wrote, produced and co-hosted a series about the gay community for New York City television called Our Time. In 1985, he was the national publicity for the Academy Award-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. He also became one of the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). GLAAD is an organisation which sought to counteract the negative effects of the media for the LGBT+ community and AIDS victims. Their work continues to this very day under the name GLAAD.
Vito was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and his lover, Jeffrey Sevcik, died of the disease in 1986. Yet he was determined to continue in his work despite declining health. Vito co-founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987, fighting for increased AIDS research, new medications and an end to discrimination which AIDS victims experienced. He achieve greater prominence in 1990 by appearing in Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, an Academy Award-winning documentary which focused on Vito’s loss of Jeffrey Sevcik.
Vito died of AIDS-related complications on November 7th 1990. The Celluloid Closet documentary film was released in 1996 which brought more widespread attention to the work of Vito. The Vito Russo award has been given out by GLAAD since 1992, in honour of an LGBT+ media professional who has made a difference in promoting equality for the LGBT+ community. In 2013, GLAAD began analysing the representation of LGBT+ characters in films with a set of criteria named the “Vito Russo test”. In 2016, he was inducted into the Legacy Walk.
So, there it is: the life of the man who founded GLAAD.