Vito & Toward A Better World

vito russo

Certainly when a programming manager, like OutEast’s Jenna Dufton, is putting together a Queer Film Festival, the focus should be firmly rooted in appealing to a diverse variety of people within Halifax’s unique Queer community. Yet, while I was watching Jeffrey Schwartz’ documentary Vito, which was screened at Neptune’s Studio Theatre on Friday evening, I couldn’t help but think that this should be required viewing for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.

I am sheepish to admit that I did not know a lot about Vito Russo before watching Schwartz’s film, which I think is likely the typical experience for a 27 year old girl who grew up in Halifax and identifies as straight, but now I feel passionately that everyone should be as familiar with his story as those who looked up to him as a leader of the American Gay liberation and AIDS movements throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Schwartz honours Russo beautifully in this documentary as one of the first gay heroes and also chronicles the history of the liberation movement and the establishment of such activist organizations as GAA, GLAAD and ACT UP in the mid and late 20th Century.

I think, perhaps, here in Canada many of us take a lot of gay rights for granted and even in the United States, where marriage equality is still a pivotal issue, the reality that only sixty years ago there was essentially no such thing as being “openly gay” even in such places as Greenwich Village, may take younger generations by surprise. In fact, this time in history, when gay people were so oppressed that finding allies to even give voice to their emotions and their experience was difficult and often led to young people taking their own lives is tragically relevant today in much of the United States and also in Canada as well.

The turning point for Russo were the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the first time that a group of gay people fought back against their persecution by the authorities, as they violently resisted arrest during a typical raid by police of the Stonewall Inn, a gay-friendly bar at the time. Remembering that just over forty years ago people could be arrested for being gay and that it was because of people like Vito Russo, who had the courage and the tenacity and determination to take on an entire slew of dangerously oppressive Goliaths in the crusade for a better world, is both sobering and inspiring. It is incredible that so much positive change in the gay liberation movement has come so quickly, especially here in Canada, but Russo’s story also reminded me not only that his work is not yet finished but also that we have a responsibility to the people who fought so valiantly before us to never become complacent.

Russo is most famous for his book The Celluloid Closet, a history of homosexual representation in Hollywood, which, from the snippets that were presented in the documentary, sounds absolutely fascinating. Schwartz also takes us to a 1973 Gay Pride rally which divided the community, as gay men, drag queens, transgendered individuals and lesbians began to turn on one another fighting over who was more oppressed and blaming other groups within the Queer community for victimizing them. These are moments that are not written about in mainstream history books, although they should be, and they need to be part of society’s collective consciousness. Russo encouraged people to look at the world differently. He encouraged people to look at film critically, not only to prove that there have been gay people depicted on screen since the beginning of film, but also to understand how Hollywood used the Censorship Act from 1933-1961 to further marginalize homosexuals and then to villainize them to keep “mainstream America” (or North America) from accepting these people as human, as normal and as worthy and deserving of the same rights, freedoms and equality as everybody else.

The media still plays an essential role in shaping people’s perceptions of everything from politics to shampoo and throughout Canada and the United States it still indoctrinates people with homophobia in both extremely subtle and horrifically blatant ways, depending on the outlet and where it is based. As people take to the streets in Occupy Movements, as people continue to fight for Marriage Equality, as we seek to develop new ways to change the world, it is integral that we learn from the past, from brilliant and creative minds like Vito Russo, so that we can appropriate some of his effective tactics into our own brave fights and also build on the same momentum that has brought us so much progress. I speak for myself when I admit that the young often forget that they are part of a history much larger than themselves and often dismiss the past as being repressive or backward, forgetting that some of the most radical and forward thinking individuals forged out the world before us that allows us to think this way. Sadly, in the Gay Rights Movement, many of these leaders are no longer with us because they perished in the AIDS epidemic that swiftly followed in the 1980s.

This means that it is up to people like Jeffrey Schwartz to bring Vito’s much needed voice into the 21st Century. The stakes were astronomical throughout the Civil Rights Movement and then during the AIDS crisis, but throughout the two decades that followed we lost so much momentum for social justice. Racism, Sexism and Homophobia have crept into our societies through complacence, apathy and laziness and now is the time for us to take inspiration from heroes like Vito and to stand up loudly and proudly in our various communities around the world and demand change, to believe that such a thing is possible and to really believe in the power and the persuasion of the people en masse. There is still no cure for AIDS, gay children are still taking their own lives, being beaten and tormented in school, the Church still has free reign to preach its hate speech if that is what the preachers believe, people are still being brainwashed into ignorance and hatred and in most of the United States it is easier to marry your first cousin than someone you love of the same gender. There is no reason for complacence.

Vito is an important film, a fascinating one, and one that should be mandatory for people who live in societies to see. It is difficult to dismiss people and hate them on ignorant principle when you listen to them, when you learn about their history and when they are as human and compassionate and charismatic and beautifully idealistically lovely and passionate as Vito Russo was. This film is a powerful and important one.

Let’s keep changing the world.

The OutEast Film Festival continues tonight with Work In Progress, a Matinee Presentation with OutEast’s Emerging Filmmaker in Residence Morgan Strug at 3:00pm and then closes with Travis Matthew’s I Want Your Love at 9:00pm. For more information and the complete program guide please visit this website.

If you like Queer Film, you might also be interested in the Queer Acts Theatre Festival coming up in July. Please click here for more information on these exciting upcoming productions!!