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Vito Russo (July 11, 1946 – November 7, 1990) was an American LGBT activist, film historian and author who is best remembered as the author of the book The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised edition 1987).
Russo developed his material following screenings of camp films shown as fundraisers for the early gay rights organization Gay Activists Alliance. He traveled throughout the country from 1972 to 1982, delivering The Celluloid Closet as a live lecture presentation with film clips at colleges, universities, and small cinemas such as the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco and the Hirschfeld Biograph in Dublin. In both the book and in the lecture/film clip presentation, he related the history of gay and lesbian moments – and the treatment of gay and lesbian characters – in American and foreign films of the past.
In 1983, Russo wrote, produced, and co-hosted a series focusing on the gay community called Our Time for WNYC-TV public television. This series featured the nation's first GLBT hard news and documentary video segment produced and directed by social behaviorist D. S. Vanderbilt.
Russo's concern over how LGBT people were presented in the popular media led him to co-found the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a watchdog group that monitors LGBT representation in the mainstream media and presents the annual GLAAD Media Awards. The Vito Russo Award is named in his memory and is presented to an openly gay or lesbian member of the media community for their outstanding contribution in combating homophobia. Russo was also actively involved in the AIDS direct action group ACT UP.
Russo appeared in the 1989 Academy Award-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt as a "storyteller," relating the life and death of his lover Jeffrey Sevcik.
In 1990 Vito Russo spent a year in California at the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching a class, also entitled "The Celluloid Closet". He enjoyed being a professor, spending lecture breaks smoking and joking with his students.
Also in 1990, Merrill College at UC Santa Cruz established Vito Russo House to promote Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender awareness and provide a safe and comfortable living environment for queer, straight-supportive and all students who value and appreciate diversity. The house tailors its programming to meet the needs of LGBT students and offers all an opportunity to build understanding and tolerance.
Russo was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1990. His work was posthumously brought to television in the 1996 HBO documentary film The Celluloid Closet, co-executive produced and narrated by Lily Tomlin.
After his death there was a memorial in Santa Cruz put on by students and colleagues. There were testimonials about how inspirational he had been and en masse, the group sang "Over the Rainbow" in his memory.
Russo's papers are held by the New York Public Library.
A family-approved biography of Russo's life, written by NYIT professor Michael Schiavi, titled Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in April 2011. A two-volume Vito Russo reader was published in July 2012 by White Crane Books titled "Out Spoken: The Vito Russo Reader - Reel One" and "Out Spoken: The Vito Russo Reader - Reel Two." Reel One presents his film writings; Reel Two collects his political/social commentaries.
A documentary film on the life of Russo, Vito, had its festival premiere within the 2011 New York Film Festival, went on to screen within such festivals as Maryland Film Festival, and had its television premiere on HBO June 23, 2012. It is directed by Jeffrey Schwarz of the Los Angeles production company Automat Pictures.
In 2013, GLAAD named the "Vito Russo test" after him, a set of criteria intended to analyze the representation of LGBT characters in films.
In 2016, Russo was inducted into the Legacy Walk.
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