In the early 70’s he put together a presentation based on clips from movies that featured homosexual characters or themes. He toured the USA with this – often as a fund-raiser for the newly formed Gay Activists Alliance – and the presentation itself came to be known as the Celluloid Closet.
This itself was effectively the first time the issue of media portrayal of gays and lesbians had been documented in any organised way. As Russo continued to work on his presentation he also started to delve deeper into the issue – the end product being what is now a seminal work of gay history.
In some ways it’s message was relatively simple – our existence was either ignored or we were portrayed as sad, psychotic or insipid.
Russo presented examples that showed this had been going on almost since the beginning of the film industry itself. Negative stereotypes weren’t just reinforced by the media, they were often created there. Little wonder then that anyone beginning to question their sexuality would despair when presented with such dismal portraits of gays and gay life.
I understand that Russo had some difficulty in finding a publisher for the Celluloid Closet in the first instance. Many writers struggle to have their work published – but touting a book on the portrayal of ‘queers’ in the movies would have been a particular struggle in those days.
But, as we know, the book was published – in 1981. It was so well received that it was updated and re-published in 1987.
Sadly, Vito Russo died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 but his legacy lives on.
As well as his work on the Celluloid Closet, he also co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to further monitor the portrayal of homosexuals in the media. The Alliance continues to this day and presents the annual GLAAD Awards.
Russo was also active in the the creation of ACT-UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in response to government inactivity over the AIDS crisis.
And in 1996 the Celluloid Closet was made into a film by HBO. It further updates the issues raised by Russo and, happily, also points to improved portrayals of our community within the media – as well as the emergence of a strong community of LGBT filmmakers in their own right.
Vito Russo – 11th July 1946 – 7th November 1990.