As a colorful new biography reveals, pioneering activist-writer Vito Russo was more than a cultural Zelig. He not only witnessed pivotal events in modern LGBT history, he affected them as well. After organizing the Gay Activists Alliance cabarets and dances — which offered New York’s gays and lesbians a social alternative to Mafia-owned bars like the Stonewall — Russo cofounded the militant activist group ACT UP as well as helped launch GLAAD, which named an annual award after him. His 1988 speech titled “Why We Fight” is the stuff of legend, a rousing call to arms that galvanized a community ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. He also wrote The Celluloid Closet, which remains an indispensable compendium of LGBT characters and images in cinema. Russo accomplished all of this before his death from AIDS-related causes in 1990 at age of 44.
Now, more than two decades later, Russo’s legacy finds a return engagement in the spotlight. In a vivid new book, Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95), writer Michael Schiavi draws on archival materials, unpublished letters and journals, and hundreds of new interviews with subjects including Larry Kramer and Lily Tomlin to paint an uncompromising, authoritative portrait of the man who, besides being an accomplished journalist, for many defined LGBT rights and AIDS activism. Fittingly for the film buff who chronicled cinema so lovingly and painstakingly, he is also the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz that’s currently in production titled Activist: The Times of Vito Russo.