You may not be immediately familiar with his name, but if you’ve ever browsed the gay shelves of a decent bookshop, you’ve almost certainly seen it, and his title “The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies“. At The Cutting Edge, Douglas Ireland has a tribute and review of a recent biography by Michael Schiavi,” Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo“.
I am not a particularly great enthusiast for classic movies, and have never been moved to buy the Russo’s book, but I was interested in the account of how he emerged from a working class, Italian Catholic background to a life as a prominent gay activist.
But Vito quickly developed “a defiant insouciance” about his sexuality and refused to stop having sex with men, and soon stopped honoring Catholic doctrine. “’I went to confession and told this priest that I was having sex with this guy,’ he later recalled, and the priest finally yelled, ‘Enough is enough! Next time I’m not giving you absolution.’ Who the hell cares if he doesn’t give me absolution? This is absurd!” He came to realize that if being queer “could be so natural to who I was, then it had to be okay. I also knew that my only real choice was whether to express it openly.” As Schiavi comments, “For a working-class, Italian-Catholic teenager, this was a stunning conclusion to reach a decade before Stonewall.”When his parents moved to the small suburban town of Lodi, New Jersey when he was 15, Vito — already an inveterate habitué of dark movie palaces — rushed to see any film with gay content, like “The Children’s Hour” (from Lillian Hellman’s lesbian play) or “Victim” (with Dirk Bogarde as a barrister faced with exposure by a blackmail threat aimed at a younger companion of his). He devoured approvingly Kenneth Marlowe’s memoir “Mr. Madam: Confessions of a Male Madam” (1962) and befriended “working class drag queens from Lodi and the nearby towns of Garfield, Bloomfield, Hackensack, and Paterson” who gave him life lessons: “how to take care of myself on the streets and be funny and get out of a raid and go through a window in a bathroom and all that shit you had to know in the ‘60s.”(Read the full article at The Cutting Edge)
Most children grow up with powerful social institutions, notably from peers and role models within the extended family, to learn how to cope with the puzzling experience of a dawning sexual awareness, and how to deal with sexual feelings and expression. Like many kids of his generation, Russo’s experience was of these same institutions working to deny his sexuality. Instead, he had to learn from a family of choice with other gay men and boys – and from the movies.
It is a little easier these days – but still a challenge, and homophobic bullying still exists. Most Catholics now understand that homoerotic sexuality is not a matter of morality, and support gay marriage and gay adoption, so that fewer young Catholics today will experience the hostility from within their own families that Russo did. There are still a minority of families though, that might be misled by the disordered teaching of the Churhes (Catholic and other) into similarly trying to beat the gay out of their offspring. Often, the only result will be to drive their children away from their families, and away from any practice of religion.
We must continue to counter homophobia wherever we find it – particularly within the churches – and develop sound public role models wherever we can, in life, in fiction, and on screen. Our young people deserve no less.