Michael Schiavi, Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times Of Vito Russo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011). 361 pp. Index, illustrations. $29.95 hardback.
It is June, otherwise known by Presidential proclamation as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, a time when major cities and resort towns around the country have parades and sell beer. What we are celebrating, other than the success of GLBT entrepeneurship, is the Stonewall Riots. An iconic event, it began on June 28 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York, following a raid on the Stonewall Inn, and continued on for days as roving groups of queers provoked, and resisted, the police. This, it is said, was the birth of gay liberation, which is technically true. Activists subsequently formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a group that made a definitive break with homophile politics. For those of you who don’t know this history, homophile groups were accomodationist in their strategies, trying to persuade straights and the state that gays and lesbians, except for their sexuality, were just like everyone else: unfortunately, in this day and age of gay marriage, gay babies and gay war, this is increasingly the case.
Homophile groups like Mattachine, ONE and Daughters of Bilitis were not, however, conservative, a charge made by the GLF at the time that scholars like Martin Meeker, Marcia Gallo and David Johnson have effectively refuted. They laid a critical foundation for community building and formal legal action that would produce a gay rights movement of the 1970s that would seek to extend basic civil rights to people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender status. GLF, on the other hand, adopted the confrontational stance that had become characteristic of the black power, anti-war and radical feminist groups with whom many of their members were, or had been, associated. GLF was to the homophiles as the Black Panthers were to the Urban League.
We are long overdue for more books that look at this historical moment at the level of the individual life, as Michael Schiavi, associate professor of English at New York Institute of Technology, does in Celluloid Activist. Vito Russo was one of the gay men who came to Greenwich Village as a young gay man to embed himself in its queer counterculture, and he quickly became involved in radical activism after Stonewall. But Russo is even more famous for his path-breaking book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, originally published in 1981 and re-published in a revised edition in 1987. Born in 1946, this founder of gay cultural criticism should be signing up at the social security office this year, but like many men of his generation he contracted AIDS and died in 1990.
Schiavi’s is an authorized biography, which may account for its emphasis on Russo’s achievements (which were many) and its less sure touch about the complexities of his personality. Schiavi has a keen sense of Russo’s place in the gay men’s culture that flourished in the 1970s, organized around uninhibited sexuality, and known colloquially as “the party.” Schiavi’s difficult task of situating Russo in his social world, and interpreting him through it is largely successful, and caused me to wonder whether, for certain figures, group biographies are almost necessary.
Russo had a network of deeply devoted friends, who were attracted to his evanescent personality and sharp intelligence, friends whose patience he often tried. Russo’s love life is a particular minefield: he seemed to be both a little bit of (what we used to call back in the day) a star f**cker, and he very much enjoyed being the object of star f**king. While relationships were not the strong suit of many queer folk in those years, in part because relationships were either not the point or they were wide open, Russo seemed to have a particular penchant for falling in love with beautiful, helpless, unemployed boys; pledging undying devotion to them; moving them into into his apartment; and then getting really, really sick of them and kicking them out. It didn’t make me not like him, but it did make me think that there was some deeper insight that Schiavi was avoiding here, perhaps out of tact and deference to the family.
Russo’s work on the Celluloid Closet (which was made into a documentary after his death) came from a public lecture he put together over the years, in which he demonstrated, through film clips and analysis, how unnamed but very obvious “gayness” in films produced, and shored up, the idea of “heterosexuality.” This is such a basic tenet of queer studies now that it is hard to recall what a stunning insight this was in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly since there were not so many gay or lesbian books. Russo came to this analysis from his formal academic training in film and a lifetime of fandom. Like many gay kids, Vito seem to have been born a movie queen and a fan of the great divas: Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis. He was one of those guys weeping in the front row as Judy Garland, in her late years, stumbled drunkenly over her lyrics mid-set. He developed an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood film making and acquired a rather large collection of movies (Schiavi suggests that some of these may have been stolen) prior to the days when such things were available on VCR, and delighted in showing them to friends.
Vito maintained a rather tenuous economic existence, even though he worked constantly as a journalist and operated on the edge of show business, a world he clearly adored (one of his great thrills after his AIDS diagnosis was an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor.) He was friends with Bette Midler during the Divine Miss M’s Continental Baths days, and then not so much when he insisted that she identify with queer activism after her mainstream success, something she clearly viewed as exploitation and he viewed as her selling out the people who had made her career in the first place. (I think they were both right, although it isn’t clear what Schiavi thinks.) Vito’s relationships with other celebrities endured, however, particularly his friendship with Lily Tomlin. One of the interesting parts of the book which should push another scholar to get going on her, is Tomlin’s development of comic characters that were clearly queer, her struggles over coming out, and her regret, voiced at the end of the book, that she did not do so earlier.
Vito Russo was in the first great wave of men to be diagnosed in the portion of the AIDS epidemic that swallowed communities of urban gay men in the 1980s. One of the triumphs of this book is that it articulates what it felt like to be at Ground Zero in downtown Ne
w York, as one’s friends died slowly of horrible diseases that could just barely be treated. I found these chapters enormously difficult to read, as the lists of men who had peopled the early chapters of the book were diagnosed and died. Schiavi also depicted, quite accurately in my view, how those years felt. I recall sick men taking care of sick men; the halls at NYU hospital where deathly ill people waited for a bed for days; parents unable to comprehend the cataclysmic, sudden death of a child; scattering ashes in favorite vacation spots. People behaved far better than you might ever have imagined they could, and they behaved indescribably badly. I recall watching an age peer wander around the room incontinent and unable to find the bathroom, the rest of us not knowing that his brain was being eaten by toxoplasmosis because his lover (who was also infected but didn’t want anyone to know) insisted that our friend had been tested (he hadn’t) and didn’t have AIDS. All of this is in the book, and Schiavi describes it with a sure narrative touch.
One reason to read, or to teach, this book, is that it links lots of different things in the life of one person: gay community, activism, the emergence of a gay intellectual sensibility, the party, and the party’s end. Because of this, when it comes out in paper, you could easily use it as a text for a post-1945 GLBT history course. But honestly? It’s also a good read — not always an easy one, but a good one — and you might want to have it on your bedside table when you are done with Gay Pride and ready to return to gay life.