Vito Russo was a film historian who did pioneering work about the portrayal of LGBT people in film, television, and other media.
Vito was the author of the landmark 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies, which was adapted, after his death, into a documentary directed and written by me, Rob Epstein, and my co-director/co-writer Jeffrey Freedman, along with co-writers Armistead Maupin and Sharon Wood.
The narrator of the film is Lily Tomlin, who helped us raise money for the project by headlining a fundraising show at the Castro Theater, along with Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein and drag performer Lypsinka. After years of trying to get the project off the ground, Lily, who was a good friend of Vito’s, pushed HBO to get behind the film, and when they finally did, we had a movie.
Released in 1995 it was nominated for four Emmy awards, won one for directing, as well a Peabody Award and the Freedom of Expression award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Vito’s book and our documentary were based on lectures and clip presentations that Vito would give at universities and theaters around the world for about ten years before the book was published. At these events, several of which I attended, Vito would captivate audiences with his wit and his joyful, ferocious personality. These were community gatherings, like an LGBTQ church, at a time when we had few opportunities to gather collectively. Not only was Vito opening our minds, educating us, entertaining us, and motivating us to act, he was building our community.
As a friend, there was no one more loyal, more caring, or more generous. When I was struggling to get my film project about Harvey Milk launched back in the early 1980s, Vito hosted a fundraiser at community hall in New York City. He filled the room, hundreds us sitting on the floor, as he showed clips from his bootleg Judy Garland collection, regaling us with stories. This was the very first fundraiser for what became the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk.
Vito wrote some of his book at my flat in San Francisco, escaping New York winters. With each visit we looked forward to the night Vito made his famous lasagna dinner; he was Italian after all, from New Jersey. He had a laugh always at the ready, smoked Marlboroughs, never shaved his moustache, and was everyone’s best friend.
In 1985, in response to the New York Post’s homophobic and sensational reporting about AIDS, Vito and others founded the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, known as GLAAD. GLAAD organized protests, campaigns, and showdowns with media executives. In 1994 it became a national organization.
Gradually, newspapers, magazines, movie studios and TV networks paid attention. Coverage of LGBT-related news changed, and LGBT stories emerged from the margins of our culture and into the mainstream. The annual GLAAD Media Awards honors the films, TV shows and other productions that portray LGBT people in a fair, balanced, and diverse way.
Vito was also won of the founders of ACT UP, the activist group that changed the course of HIV/AIDS history by demanding the government and medical establishment pay attention.
Vito died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 40. At Vito’s request, by his bedside in his hospital room was the Oscar for our film Common Threads: Stories from Quilt, in which he was featured.
In 2019, Vito was one of 50 listed on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Museum in New York City at the Stonewall Inn. In his honor, GLAAD bestows the annual Vito Russo Award to an LGBT person who works to fight against homophobia in the media.
Vito Russo: a true pioneer, a hero, and a dear friend.