Remembering his own closeted experience in college, Michael Schiavi spoke with a group of four Elmhurst College students before speaking at the first William R. Johnson Guestship lecture on Wed, Oct. 12.
“Being gay meant being tortured in high school,” said Schiavi, author of Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, who kept his sexuality a secret during his youth.
It was also not easy being gay in his college years, when homosexuality was considered evil by the media.
“When I was 17 and in college, I was very closeted and very scared…I was in love with my roommate and didn’t want him to know, so I stayed out of the room as much as possible,” said Schiavi, who saw film and the library as an escape.
Schiavi would spend long hours at the library, reading as much as he could about the two subjects that interested him the most: film and homosexuality. It was here that Schiavi discovered his idol Vito Russo and his book The Celluloid Closet.
The book addressed the issues of homosexuality in movies and popular culture, and with the impact it made on society, it was the beginning of LGBT studies, according to Schiavi.
“Vito saw that in films, 50 percent of homosexuals committed suicide,” said Schiavi, pointing out that these already discouraging portrayals were not the worst examples.
Transvestites and homosexuals were also portrayed in movies as perverts, villains and insane people. According to Schiavi, many members of the LGBT community escape through film, which only made the negative portrayals that much more damaging.
“I found Vitto’s life so inspiring,” he said.
Schiavi hopes to help educate others about Russo through his book and through public speaking.
Russo used his involvement with the Gay Activists Alliance to establish “Firehouse Flicks,” a weekly meeting where gays could gather to watch movie portrayals of homosexuals.
Russo, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, co-founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to actively protest the Reagan administration and their denial of the epidemic. He died at age 44 in 1990.
As Schiavi said opening the lecture that afternoon, he hopes to “give [Russo] the renaissance he deserves.”
“That’s why I’m on Earth,” Schiavi said, “to do things like this.”