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Vito Russo

Born and raised in East Harlem, New York in a close-knit Italian-American family, Russo early on developed a passion for movies. After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he moved to Manhattan and waited tables while getting a master’s degree in cinema from NYU. He also became involved in the gay liberation movement, joining the militant Gay Activists Alliance in 1970. Soon, Russo was combining his love of film with his activism by researching how Hollywood had portrayed gays and lesbians from the silent era into the 1970s. Putting together a lecture with photos and film clips, Russo toured the US as well as Europe and Australia in the 1970s and 1980s with “The Celluloid Closet,” which was also the title of his groundbreaking book, published in 1981. He wrote about film and Hollywood for The Advocate, Gaysweek, and other publications, and developed close relationships with many celebrities, including Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. In the 1980s, Russo’s activism shifted to the fight against AIDS, and he participated in many of ACT-UP’s major demonstrations in the late 1980s. He was also a founder, in 1985, of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a group that exposed homophobia in the media. Russo was one of the featured interviewees in Common Threads, an Oscar-winning documentary about AIDS and the Names Project memorial quilt. He passed away from complications related to AIDS on November 7, 1990.