remembering vito
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remembering vito

 

by Gabriel Rotello - OutWeek Magazine – Nov. 21, 1990

 Activist, film critic and one of ACT UP’s and GLAAD's founders, Vito Russo died of AIDS this week, and for a moment the private struggles and personal tragedies we wrestle with every day were blended into a more communal kind of loss. For Vito belonged not to any one of us, but to us all. He helped invent the gay world, taught us how to go to the movies and opened our eyes to oppressions we were too oppressed to see. His life inspired thousands to activism; his death diminishes us all.

 When, as a child, Vito embarked on his epic love affair with the movies, he brought along a queer and penetrating eye. His unique ability to see through to the social biases of films, in particular how they reflect and reinforce homophobia, allowed him to use screenplays as metaphors for the predicaments of lesbian and gay life. He saw truth in film: Reversing Plato's fable, he crawled into the darkened cave, watched the shadows dance, then walked out into the sun and enlightened the rest of us.

 Great thinkers often ride unlikely vehicles to intellectual heights. Vito used film criticism. In his book, The Celluloid Closet, in his Advocate movie column and in his countless essays and lectures, he used film as a vehicle to talk about lesbian and gay life, to teach, raise consciousness and radicalize. In writing about the movies, Vito enunciated an entire theory of human liberation and did it in a form often more engaging and accessible than the dry polemics of lesbian and gay politicians. His writing, which remains with us, is an education.

 Then there was the man. A paradox of good nature and impatient, angry activism, Vito could propound the most militant opinions as if they were gentle commonsense. In doing so, he politicized—even radicalized—many who were otherwise turned off by the shrillness of zealots. Vito's ability to see both sides of an argument may have softened his nature, but he remained to the end a fiery proponent of gay and lesbian liberation, AIDS activism and the rigorous examination of self-hatred. One of his last acts, days before his death, was to stir from semiconsciousness long enough to deliver a lecture on political integrity to Mayor Dinkins, who had come to his bedside.

 Vito's was an enraged and passionate voice that defined and sharpened our times. Yet no other leader was as gentle as he. All of us are richer for his having been here. He couldn’t have left us at a worse time.

     

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