Revisiting the Archive — Episode 5 — Vito Russo
Vito Russo’s legacy—as a film historian, activist, and co-founder of GLAAD and ACT UP—is hard to overstate. In this 1988 interview, legacy was also very much on Vito’s mind: it was the height of the AIDS epidemic, which had claimed Vito’s boyfriend, and now Vito was sick, too. As we remember the people lost to the current pandemic, listen to Vito reflect on what it means to leave something behind.
Visit our Season One episode webpage for background information, archival photos, and other resources.
Eric Marcus: Okay, I’ve just pressed “record.”
Sara Burningham: Okay, so I’ll put myself on mute and then we’ll get started?
EM: Yep, I’ll just close the closet door.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History.
I’m recording this fifth episode in our Revisiting the Archive season on Thursday, April 16, five weeks to the day since my partner Barney and I started sheltering in place. Our governor says we’ve reached the peak of the epidemic here in New York. But it’s hard to take comfort in that hopeful sign when hundreds of people are dying in the city every day.
This week the hundreds included Robby Browne, a proudly out gay man who was famous for his philanthropy and his brilliance at connecting people. Robby was 73. He was responsible for some of the best things that have happened in my life. He introduced me to Greg Louganis, the Olympic diving champion who made history when he came out as gay and soon after disclosed that he had AIDS. Together Greg and I wrote Greg’s #1 bestselling autobiography, Breaking the Surface. And Greg led me to Barney, the absolute best thing that happened in my life. We’ve been together for 26 years.
And then more sad news—my friend Julie’s mom died. She was an incredibly vibrant 88 years old, although I don’t think she’d be so happy with me for revealing her age. Natalie Appel—or Nat, to those who loved her—was the elegant matriarch of her family. She set an example for what it means to be a parent, a grandmother, a friend, a New Yorker, and—in her own ways—a champion for social justice.
Barney and I attended Natalie’s memorial shiva service via Zoom a couple of days ago. Nat’s grandson, Josh, moved me to tears as he described his grandmother’s legacy—a legacy of love, generosity, appreciation for art, and great personal style.
So in addition to swimming in anger and sadness, I’ve been thinking about legacy and what we leave behind. So this week I want to reach back into Making Gay History’s archive to bring you a conversation with Vito Russo. Today, almost 30 years since Vito’s death, there are many people who still miss him—terribly. He was a fierce, self-confident, and beloved New Jersey native. Vito was one of the first people I interviewed for the Making Gay History book back in 1988. He was one of the first because I knew he was sick and I was afraid we’d lose him before I could record his story. The AIDS epidemic was raging. It was a time of weekly—sometimes daily—funerals. By then nearly 62,000 lives had been lost nationwide to complications from AIDS, among them Vito’s boyfriend. Fourteen thousand people had died in New York City alone.
And so legacy was very much on Vito’s mind when I spoke with him. His legacy is impossible to overstate. Vito was a co-founder of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and GLAAD, which was originally known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He was also the author of The Celluloid Closet, a landmark 1981 book about how Hollywood had shaped perceptions of gay people over the decades. Ask any LGBTQ person of a certain age—like my age—about the effect that book had on them… It was groundbreaking.
Here’s the scene. It was the first day of winter in 1988. We were in Vito’s incredibly narrow home office in an early 20th century tenement building just a few blocks north of where I live now. Film canisters and books lined the exposed brick walls right up to the high ceiling. Vito was gaunt. And even if I hadn’t known, I would have been able to tell he was sick and that he’d been sick for a long time. But there was determination in his voice—to tell his story and to live.
I clipped the microphone to Vito’s pressed shirt. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. He exhaled slowly, blowing the smoke over our heads. I held my breath for a moment and pressed record.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Vito Russo. Wednesday, December 21, 1988. Location is Vito Russo’s home in New York City. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Do you remember the first time you saw a film in which gay characters were portrayed?
Vito Russo: Yeah. Advise and Consent in 1962. I was in high school. I was horrified. Don Murray had to slit his throat. He commits suicide at the end only because he’s accused of being gay. He’s not even gay. He had one homosexual experience in the Army and was being blackmailed. But now he had a wife and a kid. I remember being tremendously impressed and warned by this movie, that these kind of people kill themselves.
A few months later I saw a film called Victim, which had been released in England in 1961 and it starred Dirk Bogarde. It’s exactly the opposite, where the guy didn’t slit his throat. Instead, he tracked down the blackmailers and cooperated with the police and put them in jail, all to challenge the existing laws against homosexual behavior. Which is a tremendous thing for a movie to say in 1961.
EM: What was going on in your own life in 1961, do you recall?
VR: I was in high school.
EM: Did you know when you saw that movie that it was wrong, what they were saying was wrong?
VR: Yes. You know, that’s interesting that you would ask that question because this has always surprised me, too. I went to Catholic schools. I went to Catholic grammar school and Catholic high. With all my Catholic religious education and with all the stuff, you know, in the movies telling you it was wrong, for some reason I knew they were full of shit, that this was not wrong, and that if something so natural to who I was could be, that it had to be okay. And that I was right and that they were wrong, but that they were gonna beat me up for it so I had to keep my mouth shut.
It wasn’t like in high school I didn’t know any gay kids. There were drag queens in town who used to have parties. And we would sneak off and go to their parties. And they picked me up one night to go to the beach. We were gonna go to Seaside Heights and stay over. I must have been a junior or a senior in high school. Sixteen? Seventeen?
EM: Sixteen, seventeen, yeah.
VR: And I remember we got on the Long Island Expressway and I said, “We’re not going to Jersey.” And he said, “No, Mary, we’re going to Fire Island.” And I had never heard of Fire Island and it was like a total revelation to me that there was like this gay community out there.
EM: Do you remember anything about the movement at that time. Was there anything publicly that you knew…?
VR: The only thing I knew was I picked up magazines like ONE and I got the sense that there were people out there who were making a case for gay people, saying that they shouldn’t be persecuted. And I always thought it was sort of odd and fanciful and I never really related it to my life or my needs. But I didn’t act upon anything political in my life until after Stonewall.
EM: Do you recall Stonewall? Do you recall reading about it?
VR: I was there, but I wasn’t inside. I was outside. By the time I got there it was basically over. I went across the street to the park. There’s that little triangular park, and I sat in a tree.
EM: You were primarily an observer?
VR: Yes. I had no connection or knowledge that there was, in fact, the beginnings of an activist movement going on right around that issue. It wasn’t until maybe a few months later. Maybe it was just July. And there was a bar on Tenth Street in a basement called the Snake Pit. They raided the Snake Pit.
Among the customers arrested was an Argentinean national. And Diego Vinales was here on a visa. And he was afraid that if it came out that he was gay he would be deported. And he jumped from the second floor of the police station window on Tenth Street to try to escape and landed on a spike fence. And they had to bring acetylene torches to cut him off and he was brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital in critical condition, at the edge of death for like three days. He eventually lived, by the way, and went back to Argentina.
I was on my way home from work and I passed St. Vincent’s. There was a candlelight vigil and I remember being handed a leaflet. And the leaflet said, “No matter how you look at it Diego Vinales was pushed.” And that’s when I put two and two together, when I realized the political impact of a social event. That in fact he was pushed from that window. He was pushed by society. That if he didn’t have to be so scared of being deported, he wouldn’t have jumped. And so for the first time the organized response reached me on a gut level. And that was the following Thursday when I went to my first Gay Activists Alliance meeting.
EM: So then you were involved in activist activities through the early ’70s.
VR: What was happening by 1971, ’72, ’73 was that I was in graduate school in cinema, getting a masters in film. At the same time I was working days at the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. And I was heavily involved with the Gay Activists Alliance. So those three facts sort of conspired to make me realize that I wanted to write a readable, accessible book about the history of the ways in which lesbians and gay men had been portrayed on the screen, especially in mainstream movies, which reach most people, because I felt that our image was at the root of homophobia. That people were being taught things about us as gay people that simply weren’t true. And they were being taught this by the mass media, by movies, by whatever. And that if I could address that, that that would be what I could do to help.
EM: What was the reaction when the book was published?
VR: I heard comments from people in Hollywood who said, “You know, this is a very important book because what you’ve done here is you’ve illuminated the ways in which we have not dealt with this subject or dealt with it,” whatever. And I wonder often, I mean, I have no way of perceiving whether or not the book did any good in terms of its actual impact on movies because I still see most mainstream Hollywood films as virulently homophobic.
History has brought us to a point where AIDS suddenly intervened and AIDS has thrown a monkey wrench into any progress that Hollywood was making in the ’70s. And now people are just “A,” scared to deal with this subject at all, or “B,” homophobic in the extreme. You just can’t go to a movie in which they don’t slip in some fag joke.
I mean, a great film could be made about the tragedy, and the drama, and the courage of this community in the face of a fatal disease. In my life I’ve never seen such courage, the way people are bearing up, losing their friends. There’s a story there. There’s a movie there.
EM: There are many movies.
VR: There are many movies there. They don’t want to make them, you know, because it’s yet not happening to the real people, the general public, the heterosexuals.
EM: When did you become aware of the issue of AIDS? And then I’d like to talk about you personally. It’s affected you quite dramatically.
EM: If I steer into territory that you don’t want to talk about, tell me.
VR: No there’s no problem with this.
In retrospect, now that we all look back on it, because of probably geography and politics, I was, and my friends, probably knew about AIDS before most people in the country because of where we are placed. There were a group of people who knew each other from Fire Island. I had met a guy named Nick Rock. We played cards occasionally and like myself was a collector of films.
Nick was probably the first person I knew who died of AIDS, but we didn’t know that that’s what the disease was at the time. It was only 1979. We were told that Nick died of cat scratch fever, which does not kill you. You know, it was just not possible. But the fact of the matter was that he had no immune system so he did die of cat scratch fever.
It was about ’82 or ’83 when I really… the bulk of the bad news came to us. And then my boyfriend got sick. And that was sort of the beginning of an even more intimate involvement for me because…
EM: That was ’84.
VR: It was ’84, ’85, I guess. Jeffrey got sick and wanted very much to be in San Francisco. Jeffrey, uh, Jeffrey grew up in Pittsburgh, went to San Francisco State and loved San Francisco and didn’t want to leave there. And our relationship, we lived together for five years, we moved back and forth.
When Jeffrey got sick, he wanted to choose to be sick in San Francisco. And so I got a job at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. And I lived in San Francisco with Jeff. Jeffery was sick for a long time. A year and a half. I didn’t know what to do to save him. You know, when you love somebody you always feel like they’re not gonna die as long as you’re with them, you know?
EM: It’s true.
VR: I mean, if you stay with them and you take care of them, that they won’t die. And I really felt like, you know, against all rational truth, I could save him.
Jeffrey became, at the end, very unmanageable emotionally and psychologically. He was very difficult to live with. And I was sick myself. And so it became a constant battle of how much stress I could put myself under taking care of him.
EM: Because you were ill.
VR: Because I was ill. And eventually I had to go to Australia. I was booked to do a lecture at a gay film festival. I was on my way home. They couldn’t reach me. I was en route from Melbourne to Honolulu. They didn’t know where to reach me. He was dying. He was in San Francisco General. And I couldn’t get a flight out of Honolulu for 24 hours. There was no space. And when I arrived in San Francisco he had died the night before. The last time I saw Jeff, he was in a drawer at the morgue and they opened it up and they showed me him and I spent a few minutes with him and I held his hand and said goodbye to him.
You know, I was devastated by the fact, “A,” that I wasn’t with him, you know, and couldn’t reach him, and didn’t see him before he died. And also, and I miss him terribly. I mean, just terribly. He’s been gone almost three years now and I’m still sick and I’m very lonely. You know, it’s hard to live alone and be sick alone. And as many of your friends as you have—and I have good loving friends and a great support system—people cannot be sick for you and they can’t suffer for you and they can’t be with you all the time.
EM: Jeff had you during the time he was ill. And he did have someone full-time.
VR: Yeah. I took him to the hospital and I took him to the doctor and I fed him and I cooked. I mean, I did what I wanted to do, but then Jeffrey was gone and I was alone.
EM: And then you get in the cab by yourself…
VR: And there was nobody to take care of me. Who the hell is going to get into a relationship with somebody who is probably gonna die soon? You know, they don’t want to put themselves through that. Most of the people who were my friends are dead. Most of my friends are dead. And at this age that shouldn’t be.
EM: You’re only 42.
VR: Yeah, it’s not natural, by any definition of the word natural. It’s not natural at this age for me to have lost most of the people I love.
And so you throw yourself into politics.
EM: The images I’ve seen of you in the last couple of years—well, I’ve seen you on television. I’ve seen you in a very, very activist role.
EM: So, has it been AIDS then that propelled you?
VR: Yeah, it has. I was one of the people, who along with Larry Kramer and Vivian Shapiro and Tim Sweeney and a couple of other people, who founded ACT UP, which became a whole new phase of activism, not only for me, but for the community in general. And it’s a new kind of activism, because it’s created a coalition, which we were never able to achieve in the ’70s.
ACT UP is composed of gay people and straight people, women and men, black and white. You know, and effectively. ACT UP has been a very interesting experience because all these people have one thing in common and that’s they want to put an end to the AIDS crisis by any means possible.
EM: How do you see your role in ACT UP in the future?
VR: It’s difficult to say because at this point my priority is my survival and my health. And very often I have to take long hiatuses from ACT UP because it’s emotionally and physically exhausting for a person with AIDS to go out there in the streets at 7 a.m. in the freezing cold and block traffic. It’s really just, you get sick from it.
I feel like my function and my role right now is, “A,” to survive physically, to survive this disease, to be one of the people who survives this disease. I would like that very much obviously. Nobody wants to die. But also I want to be around to kick their asses after it’s over. To say I lived through it, you know? To be alive to witness what happened. To tell the world what happened so that people will realize what we all went through. Because I think our lives have been devalued. These are brave, courageous, beautiful people who are dying.
EM: Vito, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to comment on, any event, thought, place, time, people?
VR: I find it interesting from what I know about the history of the gay movement, that there always have been and there will always be people who are willing to put their lives on the line for these ideas. Starting from Germany in the turn of the century, in 1895, and then into the early teens and twenties, there were a group of people in Germany, headed by Magnus Hirschfeld, who were willing to put their lives on the line. They were willing to make a movie called Different from the Others, which the Nazis seized and burned. That in the 1940s and the 1950s there were the Harry Hays and the Barbara Gittings and the Mattachine Society and then in the ’60s, gay liberation. It’s the more radical issues that I think are still gonna be fought over, whether gay people have the right to adopt children…
EM: Get married.
VR: Get married, teach in the public schools, which they do now, you know, but be open about it. And those battles are battles that are gonna be fought long after you and I are gone. But you have to make a contribution while you’re here. I mean, that’s been my whole life is, to leave my book behind. That I know after I’m dead that book is gonna be on a shelf someplace. And what I have to say will reach people. And the things I’ve written.
You know, because, it’s like, who was the person who said that? Pedro Almodóvar. He said, the thing is is you can’t regret your life, otherwise why did you live? What was the point of having a life if you didn’t say something or do something that was gonna survive after you’re gone. And that’s the way I feel about it. I mean, I really feel the reason why I’m here is so that I could leave this book and these articles so that some 16-year-old kid who’s gonna be a gay activist in the next ten or 15 years is gonna read them and carry the ball from there. And that’ll happen. Happened with me. Harry Hay passed the ball to the Mattachine and they passed the ball to us.
EM: And you’ll pass it on.
EM Narration: Vito Russo died on November 7, 1990. He was 44 years old. He outlived his boyfriend, Jeffrey Sevick, by four years. I’d like to think that by sharing Vito’s story, in his own words, we’re helping to make sure that his legacy lives on.
Thank you to our listeners who have recently made donations to support Making Gay History, so we can continue sharing these stories that have the power to inspire. I know that many people are struggling financially, so I’m especially grateful to donors like Robert McDowell. Robert wrote: “It is because of the pioneers in the interviews you share with each episode that as a 50-year-old male I can say I am out at work and have raised two wonderful sons through adoption. Thank you for telling their stories as in some ways it is my story. I cry not because I am sad but because I recognize how blessed I am and how much I owe to those before me. Listening to your show from a few weeks back where you mentioned trying to produce the podcast from under the comforter in your home made me realize I had to continue supporting Making Gay History.” Thanks, Robert.
Many thanks to all my colleagues who produce this podcast. A special thanks to Sara Burningham, our founding editor and producer, for producing this episode, and Inge De Taeye, Making Gay History’s deputy director for handling all the post-production work to get our episodes out to you.
So long. Stay safe. Until next time.