Plaque Sponsor

Queer Film Society, Arthur L. Johnson and Jose A. Peña, Richard Knight Jr. and Jim Bailey, Michael Leppen, Tim Miller, Patrick Schaller and Clayton Ebert, and Tom Segal

1946 - 1990

"I don’t know what was different about the way I was raised or the way I reacted, but I never once, not for a second, believed that it was wrong to be gay, that it was a sin, that homosexuality was evil.”

– Vito Russo

Pioneering journalist, lecturer, and author Vito Russo’s activism began in the early years of gay liberation following the Stonewall riots. His ‘Movie Nights’ screenings of camp films were cultural touchstones for the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), a gay rights organization founded in late 1969. A charismatic speaker and film buff, from 1973 to1990 Russo traveled throughout the United States and to several European cities delivering lectures about The Celluloid Closet with accompanying film clips, at college campuses and at assorted venues. Russo’s presentations, as well as his 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, explored the history of gay and lesbian representation in film, explaining how such depictions in movies were surprisingly open before the advent of the Hays Hollywood Production Code in 1930 and viciously demonized thereafter. In 1983 Russo wrote, produced and co-hosted a WNYC-TV public television series focusing on the gay community called “Our Time”. In 1985, the same year he was diagnosed with HIV, the defamatory and sensationalized coverage of the AIDS epidemic by ‘The New York Post’ prompted Russo to co-establish the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The organization continues to monitor LGBT representation on television, in print, and in film and still presents an annual award in Russo’s honor. In 1987 Russo and activist/author Larry Kramer co-founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) – which focused the nations AIDS activism by forcing a brutally homophobic government to respond to the worst health crisis of modern times. In 1990 Russo appeared in the Oscar winning documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.” He died of AIDS-related complications on November 7, 1990 at the age of 44. His definitive biography – Celluloid Activist – was published in 2011; and the film documentary of his life – “VITO” – was released in 2012. Vito Russo’s enduring legacy – the 1996 HBO documentary of “The Celluloid Closet” (a film project funded almost entirely by small donations) was co-executive produced and narrated by his close friend, Lily Tomlin, just as she promised it would be.

Plaque Sponsor

Queer Film Society, Arthur L. Johnson and Jose A. Peña, Richard Knight Jr. and Jim Bailey, Michael Leppen, Tim Miller, Patrick Schaller and Clayton Ebert, and Tom Segal

Lesson Plan


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity Caucasian/White

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980)

Field(s) of Contribution

Advocacy & Activism

Art, Music, Literature & Theater




Media & Communications

Social Justice

Social Sciences


US History

Commemorations & Honors

Russo's Papers Held by the New York Public Library

Co-founded AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power ACT-UP With Larry Kramer (1987)

Appeared as a Storyteller in Academy Award Winning Documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)

UC Santa Cruz's Merrill College Established Vito Russo House to Promote LGBT Awareness (1990)

New York City's The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library Named After Them (1991)

GLAAD's Vito Russo Award Named in his Honor (1992)

Vito Russo Test Named by GLAAD to Analyze Representation of LGBT Characters in Films (2013)

National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument Inductee (2019)

San Francisco Rainbow Honor Walk Honoree (2019)


Original Biography Author
Victor Salvo
Biography Edited By
Owen Keehnen
Biography Vetted, Edited, and Certified By
Michael Schiavi
Associate Professor of English and ESL Cordinator at New York Institute of Technology
Image Rights Usage Granted By
Courtesy of Wilson Legacy Collection
Image Source for Bronze Casting
Courtesy of Wilson Legacy Collection
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell