Photo credit: Robert Giard / NYPL
It is June 28, the actual anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall Rebellion, and we are (thank the goddess) nearing the end of Pride Month. June is a pseudo-sacred time of year for queers and those who make money from us. Major cities and resort towns worldwide have been mounting parades, hanging colorful flags, and selling merch for weeks.
Now, of course, we know that Stonewall was not the beginning of LGBT liberation. There were at least two other moments, in other cities, before 1969, when our trans vanguard fought police harassment and demanded civil rights for all sexual minorities. However, what Stonewall did was persuade queers that New Left tactics (which many had learned in the civil rights and anti-war movements) could be the basis of their own liberation. Moreover, this vigorous campaign against homophobia and transphobia coincided with the new radical feminist activism that was blossoming by 1969.
It’s easy to think of the Stonewall generation and the AIDS generation as separate even though, incredibly, AIDS was first diagnosed only 12 years after Stonewall. Certainly, there were younger LGBT folks who could come out in the 1980s and 1990s in part because they could take the freedoms won by an earlier generation for granted.
But they weren’t. For many, AIDS activism was simply a continuation of the struggle for bodily autonomy launched in the late 1960s. New York journalist and film scholar Vito Russo, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and died in 1990, was one of those pioneering activists. If you don’t know about him, you might want to cap off your Pride Month by ordering Michael Schiavi’s Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times Of Vito Russo (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).
Born in East Harlem in 1946, Russo returned to New York City after college to embed himself in the city’s queer counterculture. The Stonewall rebellion inspired him to join the Gay Activist Alliance, linking his love for sex to his political and intellectual lives. An independent film scholar, Russo became well-known in 1981 for a path-breaking volume, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, a book that, long before the emergence of queer studies as a field, trained my generation to understand how media depictions of LGBT people shaped American culture, even when those figures were not explicitly identified as queer.
Like other gay male radical intellectuals—Jonathan Ned Katz, Alan Bérubé, Samuel Delaney—Russo’s sensibility was inextricable from the uninhibited sexual revolution that flourished in the bars, trucks, tearooms, parks, and parties of 1970s New York. This is important information: monogamous relationships and having children were not the default setting for queer folk then as they are now: in fact, they were to be avoided. Moreover, radical activists like Russo believed that the point of a sexual revolution was not to become like straight people but to correct their mistakes: erotic freedom paved the way for artistic, social, and political freedom.
The Celluloid Closet (made into a documentary in 1995) was similarly revolutionary in its conception and execution. The book originated as a public lecture illustrated from Russo’s voluminous film collection: among other things, in these talks, he demonstrated how unnamed but very obvious “gayness” in films produced and shored up that thing called “heterosexuality.”
This analysis emerged not only from Russo’s formal academic training in film studies but also from a lifetime of fandom. Like many gay kids, Vito seems to have been born a movie queen drawn to the great divas: Garbo, Stanwyck, Hepburn, Crawford, and Davis. Over a lifetime, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood filmmaking. He acquired a rather large collection of movies (Schiavi suggests that some reels may have been stolen) long before the days when films were available on VCR.
Russo adored show business. He was friends with Bette Midler during the Divine Miss M’s Continental Baths days, and one of his great thrills after his diagnosis was an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor, who threw her prestige behind AIDS fundraising when others in Hollywood were trying to pretend that no one they knew had the disease. After Midler became a mainstream success, he broke with her because she (in his view) abandoned her gay male fan base. But Russo’s relationships with other celebrities endured, particularly his friendship with comedian Lily Tomlin. Although Tomlin took decades to come out formally, something she later regretted, the two clearly shared a sensibility: many of the comic characters Tomlin developed for television, such as Ernestine the spinster telephone operator and the demented toddler Edith Ann, were queer personae hiding in plain sight on network television.
Russo was among the first great wave of diagnosed AIDS patients for whom there were only a few treatments, some life-prolonging, others poisonous, and none that actually treated the virus itself. One of the triumphs of Schiavi’s book is its gritty, terrifying perspective on what it felt like to be at Ground Zero in downtown New York as one’s friends died slowly of a horrible, wasting disease that aged their bodies decades in a matter of months.
Russo’s life is not always an easy one to read about. Still, it is important to know if you want to know what was it was like to be queer—the joys and the terrors—before Citibank and the Human Rights Campaign arrived to foreclose the radical future that his generation imagined LGBT people could have.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).