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3 Introduction In May 2009, author and activist Jay Blotcher asked to interview me about this book. Along with Jeffrey Schwarz’s forthcoming documentary, The Times of Vito Russo, Celluloid Activist seemed to indicate a resurgence of interest in Vito’s life and legacy. When Jay’s article appeared in Pride ’09, I was jolted to see “Who in the World Is Vito Russo?” plastered across the first page. The next time I spoke to Jay, he was furious. The title, he told me, had been imposed by Pride’s editor, who didn’t think that Vito’s name would be familiar to current readers. I conceded the point and went back to my manuscript, more determined than ever to fill that gap in history. Vito Russo (1946–90) is the pioneering activist whose book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981; rev. ed. 1987), almost single-handedly invented the field of gay and lesbian media studies. By documenting the hundreds of homicides, suicides, and stereotypes that typified filmed representation of homosexuals throughout the twentieth century, The Celluloid Closet taught gay readers that the bigotry they suffered offscreen correlated directly to the lies perpetuated about them onscreen. Never before had watching movies, the unofficial gay pastime, entailed such political urgency. Both before and after Closet’s publication, Russo toured widely with a lecture presentation of his work, which introduced the notion of gay imaging to audiences in over two hundred colleges, universities, museums, and community centers throughout the United States as well as Canada, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, and Australia. During the 1970s and 1980s, Russo’s writing regularly reached thousands of readers in Esquire, Rolling Stone, New York, the Nation, Film Comment, Village Voice, Moviegoer, After Dark, the Advocate, New York Native, Soho Weekly News, GAY, and London’s Gay News. But Russo’s influence stretched well beyond his lecturing and journalism on film. He was a principal shaper of post-Stonewall gay politics and AIDS activism . A New York City native, he witnessed the Stonewall riots in 1969 and was an early, prominent member of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), the first organization to lobby city and state government for gay and lesbian rights. As chair of the GAA Arts Committee, Russo introduced the organization’s membership to the pleasures of film spectatorship far from the heckling they found in mainstream theaters. Many gays and lesbians who lacked the courage to claim their rights in public attended Russo’s phenomenally popular “Firehouse Flicks” and subsequently joined the gay liberation movement. Russo’s political innovations continued into the 1980s, when he cofounded both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). In late 1985, as AIDS hysteria and gay-bashing swept America, GLAAD became the first group exclusively committed to securing a balanced portrayal of gays and lesbians in the media. A little over a year later, Russo helped to channel ACT UP’s theatrical rage against a government that was criminally serene about the deaths of thousands of gay men, drug addicts, racial minorities, and women. As a person with AIDS and an ACT UP warrior, Russo delivered some of the epidemic’s angriest, most eloquent speeches against institutionalized neglect. Writer and publisher Felice Picano proclaimed Russo “one of the epicenters of communication in the gay world.” By his early thirties, Russo had become an undisputed hero within the community. Friends who experienced the hagiography of Vito Russo up close depict his public persona as half matinee idol, half guru. Fellow AIDS activist Larry Kramer notes that “people worshiped [Russo]. To walk down the street with him was like being with a star. His fans rushed to him.” Arnie Kantrowitz, Russo’s best friend, remembers, “If you went out with Vito, you had to be prepared to stand on the sidelines while he greeted five hundred friends and acquaintances. . . . I felt like an adoring . . . First Lady [in his presence].” Kantrowitz also deems Russo a gay “Martin Luther King” during an era when gay people were starved for “stars” and role models. Kantrowitz’s partner, Dr. Larry Mass, ascribes to the public Russo “a magnetism that simply transformed people. . . . He had an inner light of personality that you just wanted to reflect on you and be a part of. When Vito gave one of his talks, there was so much love and affirmation exchanged between him and the audience. There are [such] moments when it’s just...


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