Interview with Jeffrey Schwarz
What made you want to tell the story of Vito Russo?
When I was coming out, one of the first things I did was read as much as I could get my hands on about gay and lesbian history, and being in film school at the time, one of the books that jumped out at me was Russo's The Celluloid Closet. That turned me on to a slew of movies I hadn't heard of before, and helped me look at movies I'd already seen in a new light. Vito's personality jumped off those pages and I found him to be hilarious and incisive and it empowered me. He died in 1990 and a couple years after that, I read that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman would be making a documentary based on the book. Epstein's 'The Times of Harvey Milk' is my favorite documentary?so I called him up to see if I could come out to San Francisco to work on it, and he said yes. HBO then came on board and I got my first job in the movie business as an apprentice editor.
How long ago was this?
This was in the mid-90s. This story has been brewing for a really long time. Working on the film version of 'The Celluloid Closet' was when I really got to know Vito, as both the activist and the man. Even though he'd passed away a few years earlier, his spirit informed the making of that movie. I had access to all of his research materials and the interviews he did. Most importantly, we had all these interviews that Rob and Jeffrey did with Vito himself, shedding light on his entire life?growing up before Stonewall, his involvement in the gay rights movement, the 10-year journey of writing the Celluloid Closet and ultimately how the AIDS crisis touched his own life personally. Vito's always been a beacon for me, and five or six years ago, I was worried that his legacy might be forgotten. I decided I wanted to tell his story and the story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.
Vito says in the film that he never felt any guilt about who he was, even growing up?"I always knew they were full of sh*t and that I was right." Where did he get that preternatural confidence?
He was growing up in the late '50s and '60s and that was a time in our history when gay people were being persecuted, shamed and driven out of their families, even thrown in jail. If you weren't Truman Capote, it was impossible to be openly gay. Vito didn't internalize that message, even though it was being reinforced in every part of the culture. He rose above it and knew there was nothing wrong with him. Part of it is that he had a family that supported him and parents that loved him no matter what. He was also really tough. He grew up on the mean streets of Harlem before moving to Jersey, so he had to be tough, and he learned to defend himself with words.
Vito held a gay engagement ceremony back in 1971; what would he have made of the progress of gay marriage in this country?
I don't want to speak for him, but I'm sure he'd be supportive of the marriage movement, though I don't know how he'd feel about the military. We've lost a lot of our outsider status, which is certainly a good thing. But I know that he'd want to hold on to some of the traditions that might be going by the wayside. We had to develop a whole secret language with which to recognize each other in the days before Stonewall. Those codes and symbols had a unifying effect on the community. There was a sense that we had to count on ourselves and build a strong community; the institutions that Vito helped to build in the early days were lifesavers when the AIDS epidemic came along. They had already built a network of support for one another to rely on when we couldn't count on the government or the medical community or sometimes even our own families?we were there for each other.
When programming movie nights in the Village, he'd select Judy Garland and women's prison films? noticing that the audience would laugh at the same moments and pick up on certain cues.
Vito recognized that the way we experienced a film together was different than we would if we were isolated. He tapped into 'the gay sensibility' which has been studied and argued and sometimes denied over many years. I've experienced it firsthand ? seeing 'The Wizard of Oz' at the Castro Theater in San Francisco is different than watching it at a kiddie matinee somewhere else. We just screened 'Vito' at Outfest in Los Angeles and when Vito is on screen talking about how seeing a movie with a gay audience is different than seeing it with a straight audience, it was a very meta-moment. He used movies as a way to build community and to engage people politically who might not have a political bone in their body. He united us physically by gathering at his screenings, but also by showing how the larger culture defines us, and not always in a rosy picture.
What was so revolutionary about The Celluloid Closet?
He was the first one to connect the dots in the culture. He was the first to say that even though there are those who'd like to deny our very existence, we've always been on screen. Even when the production code was imposed, trying to prevent any images of outsider sexuality from being presented, filmmakers still found a way to get it in there. He taught us all to read between the lines and look under the surface. That's something that gay people have always done?using "gaydar" in our daily lives, looking for who's gay or who's lesbian.
With the success of his TV show 'Our Time,' Vito was regard by some as "the first gay celebrity." Was his celebrity limited to the gay world? How was he regarded by the rest of the culture?
He was known and beloved by the average gay person on the street?because of his book, his journalism, his TV show?he'd even endorse candidates for office. I'm not sure how known he was in the larger culture. He did appear on television whenever someone needed a comment on gays on film. During the AIDS epidemic, he was someone who was always able to talk to straight people and make it very clear what the issue was. He was also a journalist who wrote about non-gay subjects, and it was sometimes a frustration for him to be thought of in only one light.
He brought the same pride to his AIDS activism as he did to gay rights. How did he help the community get over the shamefulness of the subject?
In the early days, it was about being out and open about being gay. He was a great example of how you can live your life in the open and that was okay. When it came to the AIDS epidemic, he wanted to show the world what a person with AIDS looked like. There was so much fear and distrust and discrimination and hatred of people with AIDS?it was an avant-garde thing for him to be open about his HIV status. There was danger in being open about your status and he wanted to do away with that. If there's a villain in the film, it's homophobia, and Vito fought every step of the way against invisibility and homophobia and later AIDS-phobia.
What is Vito Russo's legacy?
The fact that gay kids can wake up in the morning and just be who they are. We're living his vision of an out world. Gay kids are still being taught to hate themselves and there's still a lot to be angry about. But he and his generation envisioned a world where living a gay life is possible and now it is. The message is stand up and be counted, and his life shows that one person can make a difference.