‘Celluloid Activist’ by Michael Schiavi

Douglas Crimp’s seminal essay “Right on Girlfriend” begins with a memory of Vito Russo’s memorial.  Arnie Kantrowitz’ Under the Rainbow, his memoir of his Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) years, offers some of its most poignant lines to his two decade friendship with Russo.

“We Love You Vito!” members of ACT UP cheered on Gay Pride Day 1990 under the balcony of Larry Kramer’s apartment where the iconic queer activist sat that day, five months before he succumbed to the virus.

“[H]omosexuality, politics and friendship were vitally entwined” in the life and activism of Vito Russo explains his biographer Michael Schiavi in the long overdue full biography of a queer icon.

Spanning two vital cohorts of queer activism, from the post Stonewall GAA years through the early peak years of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo’s life, art and activism helped contribute to our understanding of queer world-making.  He defined activism as “’the commitment to bring about change in the present, rather than theorize about change in the distant future.'”

Yet, the process took shape through filtered images, mediated discourse, as well as cultural understanding.  “I always said that [liberation] would happen in social ways,” explained Russo.  “That I didn’t give a shit about changing the laws, although I knew it had to be done, but that you don’t change people by changing laws, and that the way you reach people was through media.”

Over the next two decades, Russo would build on this recognition of the power of culture to help shape social mores and create change.  Year by year, movie by movie, review by review, fight by fight, Schiavi takes us on a journey from the wondrous and scary 1970’s through Russo’s ascent as a cultural icon himself.

Building on oral histories, the author’s writings, and interviews with his colleagues, the author builds a fast paced, highly readable biography of an activist whose story is well worth the book length treatment.  Most of the time, Schiavi gets it right.

Yet, there are moments, such as his suggestion that Sylvia Rivera “tore” the “throats” of “two marshals” during the 1973 Gay Pride Gala in 1973, that the author is prone to exaggerate. Rivera was no angel. And certainly other accounts of the day mention a fight.  None suggest Rivera “tore” anyone’s throats. Yet, everyone agrees that Bette Middler helped save the day by singing “You got to have friends.”

Embellishment aside, Schiavi lets the story tell itself without creating a hagiography.  Russo was a full person, whose life and activism were fueled by friendships, fights, and multiple passions — just like a good opera should be.

Schiavi takes us through the decades of connections — to his GAA colleagues Arnie Kantrowitz and Arthur Bell — and lost connections with Bette, over the years as they lost touch and differed over politics.  These friendships helped fuel his way of worldmaking.

Sarah Schulman once said to me that perhaps the cruelest thing about the AIDS crisis was the way it robbed us of the greatest creative minds first.  And certainly, this appears to be the case with Russo.  He was loved sexuality and reveled in public sexual culture.

For him, public sexuality was “a kind of promiscuous giving… loving all of humanity.” It opened spaces for Whitmanesque comradery.  But it also drew something from him, leaving him sometimes depleted.  Still, Russo was quick to condemn anti-homophobic discourses, even if they tore at friendships, calling out the early “self appointed sex police” queer or straight when the AIDS epidemic hit.

Schiavi takes us through the horror of the early AIDS years, when friends begin to shuffle off this mortal coil.  Russo was often invited to speak at funerals.  “He taught me that following the rules doesn’t really guarantee you respect,” Russo eulogized for Arthur Bell.  “And he taught me it is not tasteless to stand up and be who you are.”

Through the endless death, Russo wondered if he wasn’t going to lose his mind. Yet, those around him recognized that Russo was developing a prophetic voice of resistance. He helped form GLAAD, yet simultaneously condemned the martyr complex which seemed to overwhelm those who participated in movement organizations.  “The fatal flaw of every group since the movement began… starve to death for the cause.”

He joined ACT UP, supporting the Media Committee, and reveled in the campy anti-heroics, which fueled the group’s work and play, pleasure and direct action. He helped deliver what is still the most powerful statement about the AIDS crisis, “Why Why We Fight” a speech in which he set his sights on a culture and society which supports war, misogyny, racism and homophobia.

“After we kick the shit out of this disease, I intend to be alive to kick the shit out of this system so that it will never happen again.”

By the end, it is hard to put the book down. But, read on and learn. Schiavi has done the world and history a great service by excavating the memories and lessons of one of the great activists of our time.
Celluloid Activist
The Life and Times of Vito Russo
by Michael Schiavi
University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299282301, 320pp.
May 2011