Remembering Vito Russo

  • by David Lamble
  • Wednesday June 29, 2016
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I keep my copy of Vito, HBO's comprehensive, moving biography of the late film historian/AIDS activist Vito Russo, tucked inside the jacket of The Celluloid Closet, the New Jersey-born scholar's pioneering study of how the American film industry spent the better part of a century trying to convince the world that homosexuality didn't exist �" or if it did, it wasn't a legitimate part of the vast human sexual continuum as plotted by such pioneering sexual behaviorists as Kinsey and Pomeroy.

This retrospective review of Vito comes five years after its 2011 broadcast and a quarter-century after Russo's 1990 AIDS death. Interspersed throughout are several public statements by Russo on the fear and loathing of homosexuality by American medical, scientific and conservative religious establishments.

"The root of heterosexual fear of male homosexuality is in the fact that anyone might be gay. Straight men aren't threatened by a flamboyant faggot because they know they aren't like that; they're threatened by a guy who's just like they are who turns out to be queer."

"No one ever asks what causes heterosexuality, because no one is interested in stopping it."

"It is an old stereotype, that homosexuality has to do only with sex, while heterosexuality is multifaceted and embraces love."

The 93-minute portrait of Russo is filled with perceptive and loving insights from an unusual array of family, friends and Vito's second family, the growing network of ACT-UP-style activists. The young Russo, with youthful impetuosity, set off on a mission just after the Stonewall rebellion to watch every Western-produced film with queer content.

Like many early AIDS activists, Russo was infuriated by the glacial pace of AIDS treatments by the corporate drug industry. "If I'm dying from anything, it's from indifference and red tape."

"Any story dealing, however seriously, with homosexual love is taken to be a story about homosexuality, while stories dealing with heterosexual love are seen as stories about the individual people they portray. This is a problem for American filmmakers who cannot conceive of the presence of gay characters in a film unless the specific subject of the film is homosexuality. Lesbians and gay men are thereby classified as purely sexual creatures, defined solely by their sexual urges."

One of the perplexing chapters in Russo's activist career occurred in 1973, when NYC's Stonewall march and rally was torn by decisions between newly emancipated gay men and the small army of transgender and lesbian activists angrily demanding their share of the spotlight. One's heart goes out to Russo as he tries to referee the verbal fisticuffs between factions of the LGBTQ community.